Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chef Prudhomme Tweaks the Recipe

Drum-roll please.

Today in Paris was the day. According to papa ASO's own website, "On Tuesday 19 October precisely, more than 4 000 persons and 500 medias from all over the world will descend on the Palais des Congrès in Paris to discover the detail of the stages of the 2011 Tour, which will take place from 2 to 24 July that year along the roads of France and …"

That was if those 4,000 persons could fight their way to their seats. In the streets outside the Palais it was getting worst than the chaos of a million rabid inebriated cyclo-fans blocking a TT up l'Alpe d'Huez. The French are engaged in that most French of all annual events - strikes! While the French streets were alive with honking horns and protesters across the country - heck, even the school kids were blocking schools (maybe part of their education to learn how to strike in the future--sort of a French rite of passage)--things are getting seriously out of control!

The one pocket of serenity? The Tour route announcement ceremony.

While socially the country is popping at the seams - petrol stations are running out of gas, students running amuck and President Sarkozy realizing de Gaulle was right, "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?" - how can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese? The 2011 Tour route that was revealed promises a taste of something old and new:

2011 Tour de France route announced

If the legendary Henri Desgrange was ever going to have a reincarnation could it be Christian Prudhomme? It appears he is dedicated, as was Desgrange, to tweak and tweak the recipe until his Tour finds its perfection.

Generally the recipe get's most of its tweaking in the route, this year Chef Prudhomme went right to the heart of the ingredients - the jerseys:

Green Jersey - PMU. It is worn by the leader of the points classification. New in 2011: the flat stages will only include one intermediary sprint with points awarded to the first 15 riders. The aim is to systematically involve the sprinters in the pack, even after the passage of a breakaway.

Polka Dot Jersey - Carrefour. It is worn by the leader of the best climber classification. New for 2011: the points system and number of riders awarded points on each climb has been revised in order to reduce the gaps between the competitors. For example, points will only be doubled for a finishing line at the summit of 2nd, 1st and highest level climbs.

Chef Prudhomme has more in connection with the Tour's originator than just being French. Both men rose from careers in the media, albeit a century apart. Selling to the public is at its core the same whether newspapers and bicycle ads or radio and television and global corporate sponsorship. Prudhomme and Desgrange are in that sense cut from exactly the same marketing cloth.

Their respective early paths guiding the Tour share some similarities as well. While Desgrange got his inaugural 1903 Grand Boucle off successfully, his 1904 Tour became a near disaster and ended with the first victor, the 1903 winner Maurice Garin, being stripped of the title for cheating, along with the next three riders, resulting in the still youngest ever winner 19 year old Henri Cornet being elevated from fifth to first. Afterwards Desgrange struggled with the idea of even continuing the race sighting "blind emotions" driving the cheating. (Hmmm... blind emotions and the doping of today - some things never change?)

In 2006 Prudhomme's Directorial debut was christened with a similar disaster as the first GC winner since that 1904 Tour, American Floyd Landis, was stripped for cheating. In each case the pundits spoke of the death or degradation of the Tour. In each case the chefs knew they had to wrest control of their race or risk losing it. Desgrange tightened the recipe over the next few years until its outcome was organizationally crystal clear.

Similarly Prudhomme spent 2008 - 2010 testing a pinch of this and dash of that until he felt he had control. Then, interestingly, like his mentor, about half a decade into their careers each attempts to change the recipe so dramatically that all the patrons have to sit up and take notice. For Desgrange it was the bold introduction of the high summits of the Pyrenees in 1910 followed in 1911* by the monsters of the Alps including the mammoth Galibier. The Tour soared! For Prudhomme the centennial anniversary of the crossing of the Pyrenees sparked drama in 2010 race and he has returned with a mountainous Tour route for 2011 that echos that original Alpian debut one hundred years ago as it takes the battle for the malliot jaune up the most summit finishes since 2002 and in so doing produces what he calls, "suspense to remain until the very end but also have the possibility of a big battle well before that.”

(summit finishes for 2011 include the Pyrenean finishes at Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille as well as the Alpine giant Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.)

Chef Prudhomme said at the presentation, "We are going towards simplification,” continuing,“The goal is to give these competitions more strength, and more suspense." Those were the aspirations of his mentor Master Chef Henri Desgrange 108 years ago when he cooked up this recipe. For cycling fans it means next July - Bon Appetite!!

*just a note - in 1911 Desgrange introduced the Alps as well as an iconic term and role to the Tour - le domestique. Although it should be noted that it was out of frustration and contempt that he did so in an editorial in his newspaper L'Auto - deriding the rider Maurice Brocco for assisting another cyclist.

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