This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Saturday, July 02, 1994
7.2 km/4.5 mi flat
Chris Boardman was, and remains, unique. In the history of the Tour de France, at least since the prologue time trial was introduced in 1967, he is the only rider ever to go there specifically, and exclusively, targeting the hors d’oeuvre to the race, the prologue.
Like some other hors d’oeuvre, the prologue time trial is an acquired taste. “As pageantry goes in so beautiful a sport, ho hum,” was the verdict of the American journalist Samuel Abt. “No long lines of riders flashing by, no desperate early breakaways, no sprinters tearing for the finish line, no climbers struggling to drop one another as the road rises.”
It isn’t even a proper stage—that is the whole point. The prologue was conceived as a way of adding an extra day to the Tour without falling foul of the regulations governing how many days the riders were allowed to race. And the motivation for its inclusion was financial. Don’t hold that against it, however, because in this it is no different from the race itself, set up to market the newspaper L’Auto. The Tour has always been nakedly commercial. But the commercial imperative intensified after 1962, when Félix Lévitan was appointed codirector, alongside Jacques Goddet. Goddet and Lévitan, both journalists, remained in charge until 1987, with Goddet looking after the sporting side, Lévitan responsible for the money. After Goddet and Lévitan, there were two short-term replacements, Jean-François Naquet-Radiguet, a cognac salesman, and Jean-Pierre Courcol, a former professional tennis player. Each lasted only one Tour before, in 1989, it passed once more into the safe hands of another journalist (and former professional rider), Jean-Marie Leblanc, who in turn handed it on to another ex-journalist, Christian Prudhomme, in 2005. In 110 years, the Tour de France has had only seven directors. And five of them have been journalists by profession.
The latest incumbent, Prudhomme, is no great fan of the prologue. For the first time since 1967, he opted not to include one in 2008—then did the same in 2011, 2013, and 2014. It isn’t just a question of taste: The impetus is also commercial. Prudhomme (formerly a television journalist) points to statistics that show the television audience is at its lowest when the Tour opens with a prologue time trial. It might be better for those who are there to watch—with the action spread over many hours, and the chance to see the riders individually and up close—but there is another and increasingly important audience to think of: TV. Like Sam Abt, and arguably most others, viewers at home prefer the spectacle of a road race.
THERE ARE FANS OF THE prologue, too. Thierry Marie in the 1980s, Boardman in the ’90s, Fabian Cancellara in the 2000s. Its appeal lies in its simplicity: It’s as pure a test of speed as you can get in professional cycling. The prologue to the 1994 Tour de France was a classic. Held in the cen- ter of Lille over a pan-flat 7.2-km course—4.5 miles—with wide boulevards and only a few sweeping bends, it was the perfect test. It was perfect in other ways, too, since it served up a tantalizing confrontation between two masters in quite different fields.
It pitched the three-time Tour winner, Miguel Indurain, against a novice, Chris Boardman, whose only experience of the Tour had been as a spectator 12 months earlier. In terms of their background, they couldn’t have been more different. Indurain was steeped in the traditions of road racing on the Continent, slowly ascending the hierarchy of his team until emerging as leader in 1991, the year of his first Tour victory. The 25-year- old Boardman had arrived on the Continent fully formed, as the finished article—but a complete contrast to Indurain, given that he came from a very different tradition. His apprenticeship was served in the obscure back- water of British time trialing. Boardman felt like a fraud. “I felt like I cheated my way into this game,” he says.
The British scene had never produced a champion able to convert his talent to Continental road racing. But by 1994 Boardman had showcased his talent in venues more glamorous than two-lane highways in Britain, first at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where he won the pursuit, and then a year later at the Bordeaux Velodrome, where he went for the ultimate time trial, the world hour record (arguably the only one that resonated on the Continent).
Boardman had gone as far as he could in Britain. The only place for him to go now was the Continent’s professional scene. Yet it was a step he was reluctant to take. “I was an outsider,” he says. “I was a time trialist from Britain.”
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