Cycling Opinion

The seven best foreign Tour de France Grand Départs

This week, the Tour de France released further details about the Grand Départ of the 2021 Tour de France which will start in Copenhagen, Denmark. The details released show that the 2021 edition of La Grande Boucle will have all the hallmarks of a classic Tour de France Grand Départ: an opening time trial followed by two flat road stages. As a city where you can’t move for bicycles, Copenhagen is an obvious destination for the world’s biggest race. The news got us thinking about the other Grand Départs that have been held outside of France and what sort of legacy is enjoyed by these foreign starts?

1954 – Amsterdam

The one that started it all, the 1954 Tour de France. Before the mid ’50s, you would have been laughed out of town for suggesting that France’s biggest annual sporting event should in fact start outside the country, but for 1954 the organising committee took the bold step to present the Grand Départ in the Netherlands. Starting in Amsterdam, they were paid back almost immediately when Dutch native Wout Wagtmans won stage one to Brasschaat, a win that delighted the home crowd and showed the Tour the benefits of a foreign start. Since then, they haven’t looked back, with 23 Tours having got underway outside France. What’s more, the 1954 Tour was indeed a year of firsts, three days after the start in Amsterdam, the riders of the Tour took on the first ever team time trial.

1987 – West Berlin

The 1987 Tour de France started as one of the most open Grand Tours to date. With five-time winner Bernard Hinault having hung up his wheels and defending champion Greg LeMond suffering a freak gunshot injury at the hands of his brother-in-law during a turkey shoot, the Tour was left with no clear favourite. It was also a seminal year for the Grand Départ, starting in West Berlin, a city celebrating its 750th year. Of course, in 1987, the Iron Curtain had not yet fallen, and the city was still divided by the iconic Berlin wall. The images of cyclists posing by the wall and peering over its top are some of the more rare and unique moments of Tour de France history. The riders knew of the burgeoning talent that was training behind that wall thanks to the Olympic Games, but it would be another three years before those riders would spring on to the scene and change the world of professional bike racing.

1998 – Dublin

The 1998 Tour is remembered for two things: Pantani dancing up the Alpine climbs and the infamous Festina Affair. But, had the Tour not started outside of France we may not have seen these two incredible moments. The opening stages saw the riders battle incredible crosswinds and the eventual winner Pantani getting caught out in almost every single one of them having placed himself at the back of the peloton. Having lost time, he was forced to race particularly aggressively in the mountains. The Tour then faced a challenge far greater than any Irish cross wind: customs. On the other side of France one of the most cloak and dagger moments in cycling was in full swing. Festina soigneur Willy Voet was stopped by customs officers and they found several hundred grams of various performance enhancing drugs in his car. The rest, as they say, is history.

2007 – London

Before the rip-roaring success of the Tour’s excursion into the Yorkshire Dales in 2014, the biggest bike race in the world touched down for the UK’s first Grand Départ in 2007. A prologue in London followed by a road stage to Canterbury was the order of the weekend, and the first time the British public got to experience a Grand Départ on UK soil. The 2007 Tour was also the first introduction of a certain Mark Cavendish. At the time it felt like it could never get better than that for the cycling in the UK…

2012 – Liège

If the 2007 edition introduced us to the Tour legend that is Mark Cavendish, then the 2012 Grand Départ will be remembered as the year Peter Sagan exploded on to the Tour scene. The Slovak champ showcased all his credentials with bunch sprint wins in Seraing and Metz and an uphill sprint win in Boulogne. Better still were his celebrations, a chicken dance, a running man and a Hulk flex in the green jersey of points classification leader – it was clear for all to see that this guy was something special. Again, the rest is history.

2014 – Yorkshire

Seven years later and the Tour was back on UK shores. If 2007 felt like an event where you had to be in the know to appreciate it, the Yorkshire Grand Départ was something else – the best Grand Départ ever (but we would say that). Coming off the back of ten years of British Cycling success at the Olympics and Tour de France, Yorkshire put on an amazing festival to welcome the peloton of the biggest bike race there is. The images of the crowd-laden Dales will be remembered for years to come as one of those special “I was there” moments. Southerners got in on the action too with stage three set out from the historic university town of Cambridge and finished in the capital. The racing was a little bittersweet though, with Mark Cavendish crashing out in Harrogate on stage one and defending champion Chris Froome never making it to the mountains. In all, an estimated 4.8 million people lined the streets of the 2014 Grand Départ, truly an unforgettable long weekend.

2019 – Brussels

It was only last year but the 2019 Grand Départ was definitely one for the ages. It was a Tour that celebrated 100 years of arguably the most iconic item of clothing in sport, the maillot jaune, as well as cycling’s most prolific champion, the great Eddy Merckx. And it did so in Brussels, the spiritual home of Eddy Merckx Cycles. What better location to honour the most famous of champions – it was a heart-warming scene.

The racing over the first two days wasn’t half bad either. A surprise winner in the form of lead-out man, Mike Teunissen, on stage one rocked the boat, and was backed up by a stunning team time trial with his Jumbo-Visma team the following day, showing that they are a force to be reckoned with.

So, there’s our review of the very best Tour de France Grand Départs which have started outside of the country. What are your standout memories from Grand Départs of years gone by? And do you think Tours are better or worse when they start outside of France?