The tyranny of distance: How far is too far to travel for a Grand Tour?
Sophie Smith speaks to those in the know about the stress, strains, and motivations behind Grand Tour transfers
Deep into this year’s sweltering Vuelta a España, Ben O’Connor surmised the transfer distances between stages that had become a talking point throughout the race in four words.
“They’ve been f***** up,” he said.
“It’s been stupid. It’s probably one of the worst organised plans for races or between stages I’ve ever seen.”
His voice added to a chorus, with journalists using social media to share screenshots of their Google Maps entries, featuring long lines and grim estimated journey times.
It was the final rest day of the final Grand Tour of the season that was nearing its end and had seen cycling’s key stakeholders opt to begin their respective three-week events outside of their title borders.
The Giro d’Italia commenced in Hungary, the Tour de France, which finished 26 days before the start of the Vuelta, left from Denmark, and the Vuelta from the Netherlands.
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O’Connor had abandoned the Tour in July due to injury and started the Vuelta with adjusted goals, focusing on the general classification over stage wins.
At the time of his frank summation, the Australian, and the rest of the peloton, had cycled 2324.1 kilometres out of a total 3280.5km, with six stages remaining. The explosive journey started from Utrecht and saw riders traverse sun-scorched land all the way to Madrid. But it was the undocumented kilometres by plane, bus and car that were perhaps the most tiresome.
“It’s just a joke how much time we’ve spent in the bus every day,” O’Connor continued. “It would be interesting to see the average. I could do the math and figure it out, but I say it would be at least two to three hours on the bus every day. Minimum.”
In addition to the transfer from the Netherlands to Spain, there was also, before the second rest day, a cross-country journey with an estimated drive time of eight hours and 42 minutes from the stage nine finish in the Asturias region in north-west Spain, to Alicante in the south-east. Riders often have chartered flights organised for such slogs, which they did at the Vuelta, twice, but team staff and the media generally heavily contribute to the odometer count of their fleet or rented vehicles.
Kiko García is the technical director of the Vuelta and when asked to comment on this year’s course emphasised that all transfers were within UCI limits.
“The transfers are regulated so we cannot exceed the limits. The regulations establish that when a transfer is longer than two hours, it can be only done before a rest day. If it happens more than twice, we have to add an extra day, as we did after the start in the Netherlands,” García said.
“We try to compensate the transfers with short stages. Out of the three Grand Tours, we have been for years the shortest one. That means more rest for the cyclists.
“We think it is better to comfortably travel an extra half-an-hour by bus than making cyclists pedal for longer distances. This benefits the rest and recovery of the cyclists.”
Indeed, the Vuelta, Tour and Giro this year all included three rest days as opposed to the traditional two. Each also required transfers by plane, bus and car.
Race organisers of the Vuelta and Tour (RCS, which runs the Giro, did not respond to an interview request), say they are mindful of transfer distances when embarking on the involved process of designing three-week race routes for which they must confer with multiple parties, from internal departments through to representatives from the places that host stage starts and finishes.
“It's clear that there were times when we talked about leaving New York, Guadeloupe and there was always a strong barrier because of the transfer,” said the Tour’s chief course designer Thierry Gouvenou.
“We've always had a fairly limited radius from which to leave, even if the radius has increased with Denmark. For the moment we've always had a limit, we've always set a limit and I think that's important.
“When we left from further away, we asked for a derogation to have an extra day and to have a rest day, so we try to compensate for this transfer by a rest day,” Gouvenou continued. “And it's important to note this, so that the riders can enjoy themselves, rest and not be in a permanent rush.”
Equally though, the organisers are proponents for extending the reach of their Grand Tours, starting in places like Budapest, Copenhagen and Utrecht, despite the potential for longer transfers and a larger carbon footprint.
“The start in Utrecht was a great success,” García said. “First, the public response was great, with a big number of people next to the roads. People watching the race on the TV was also hooked by the race from the start. So, the benefit was not only economic but global for us.”
In terms of environmental impact, García recognised transfers to and from places further afield can be “counter-productive” to reducing cycling’s carbon footprint, but he believes the industry is adopting measures to combat the issue it has been called on.
There was more than one protest group that lined the roadside at the Tour this year, attempting to exploit its global reach to publicise their political agenda. Most went unnoticed, but a handful of climate change activists were successful in promoting their message when they momentarily disrupted stage 10.
"We try to counteract it with different actions which objective is to reduce the carbon footprint. We are doing some actions like reducing the use of plastic, waste collection, fleet of hybrid vehicles,” García said.
“Little by little, cycling is increasing its sustainability. For example, [fleet] vehicles will be 100 per cent electric soon.”
Covering more ground also has economic benefits that - in a sport with a fickle business model and still largely dependent on sponsorship, reducing the ability to say no on principle or practicality - cannot be discounted.
García admits logistics are not easy, especially with multiple stakeholders to satisfy and bottom lines to be made.
“We have to go to those places the governments want us to visit, and it sometimes make us cover long distances. So, we have to find the balance among all the stakeholders,” he said.
“Cyclists have to understand that if Grand Tours start to have troubles to find places that want the race to visit it, maybe the number of races can be reduced, and they will not be able to race as much as they do now.”
Gouvenou believes it is essential to extend the reach of the Tour, even when it already is the pinnacle of the sport and ASO one of the biggest stakeholders in the game.
“Abroad we are awaited. It's often the opportunity for the country that welcomes us to have an event that will remain exceptional and unique because it's not repetitive,” Gouvenou said.
“When we arrive in Denmark for the first time, it is amazing, there is a real expectation and at this level it is very important to go to a place where we are expected with fervour, impatience and to go to countries that really know cycling, it is strong.
“We have already had major departures, which had a great impact in terms of spin-offs,” he continued.
“It is also important for the French to show them how much the Tour de France is loved, followed and not only a French product; it interests many people abroad.
“When you arrive in a country and the crowd cheers you on for miles and miles, for the French, I think it's a way to become aware of the greatness of the Tour de France.
“We are often criticised when we go there, but I think we should continue to go.”
It is the transfers at Grand Tours that can wear you down more so than the actual work you do. They’re an exercise in patience that make for longer days in which you travel in very close quarters with colleagues, learning their personal nuances and having to be mindful and respectful of that, and your own.
However, riding shotgun through countries, seeing places you might not have dreamed or otherwise gone to is part of the privileged magic of the Giro, Tour, Vuelta and cycling in general.
Govenou has never had the impression that riders have objected to transfer distances, at least formally to the ASO.
“What is also important, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed, is that we respect the times we announce,” he said. “If we tell the teams, ‘Yes, it may be long, but you'll be at the hotel at 10.00pm - 10.30pm,’ we've always respected this timing, we've never had any total drift or things going wrong and the teams arriving three or four hours later than planned.
“If it's anticipated, well organised and not too repetitive, I think we can do it [transfers].”
O’Connor on the third rest day of the Vuelta this year recalled arriving at his hotel at 11pm the night before, following stage 15 in the mountains.
“Plus, you already had the transfer day from Holland, which was a plane, and then the other transfer day, which is also a plane from Asturias down to Alicante. They haven’t covered themselves in glory at all,” he said.
“It’s also really expensive, it’s not just for the riders, for us it’s real average, no one likes taking a plane, especially two planes, for the first two rest days of the Grand Tour.
“They wouldn’t have known fuel prices were going to be ridiculous but still it’s a lot of driving and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Logistically it’s a pain in the arse.”
Following the stage to Sierra Nevada, O’Connor and his team had dinner on the bus. Those who needed post-race massages were treated where possible in the moving locker room as opposed to on a table in a private hotel space.
“The other days are still real rough, after the plane trips, still getting in, having dinner at 10.45pm but we’ve done a stage that day, that’s the thing,” he said.
For Govenou, the first consideration when designing a Tour route is that it represents something the riders can be imaginative on and turn into a good race.
“We also aim not to repeat ourselves,” he said. “We try to alternate the types of stages so that the show changes regularly. We won't put four sprints in one go or four mountain stages, even if that happens,” he laughed.
“There are small trends. For example, in 2022 we were going to favour the puncheurs, in 2023 it will really be a climbers' Tour. We base ourselves on this kind of thing, but it depends on the regions where we are, then we lean more or less on a specific quality.” On paper the 2023 men’s Tour, announced last month, appears quite different to previous years. It is less La Grande Boucle and more of an upwards line from Pays Basque, through the guts of France to the east coast. An approximate five-and-half hour drive from the finish of the penultimate stage to Paris appears at first glance to be the biggest jaunt, depending, of course, on the locations you stay throughout.
The course for the 2023 Vuelta is set to be revealed in January.
Asked if objecting to transfer distances was fair, or if they were simply part and parcel of Grand Tours, Govenou laughed.
“People like to criticise, there are always people to criticise and very few to do,” he said.
As a pro cyclist, the longest transfer he underwent was from Liège to Grand-Bornand in 1995. According to Google that’s about a seven hour and 40-minute journey by car.
“At that time, we did the ride in the morning of the rest day, so we would arrive at about 1pm-2pm, time to do a bike ride and the rest day was burnt out. I think that now the fact that we arrive the day before a stage with a full rest day to be able to ride and enjoy our rest day is a lot more pleasant,” he said.
ASO in recent years has endeavoured to shorten the distances between two cities by utilising as much of the roads around them as possible, when a stage doesn’t run from point to point in a straight line.
“We cover less regions and from time to time we need a transfer to make the jump again,” Govenou said.
“But afterwards in the final of the Tour de France it is good to have the mountain very close to the finish and to make the last jump at the last moment. We are not ready I think to finish the mountain on Wednesday or Tuesday and to go through the whole of France to go to Paris, we are not ready to accept it, neither are the media.
“We have to deal with the pros and cons, but we have to make transfers.”