94th Tour de France - ProT
France, July 7-30, 2007
Fuelled with the excitement of soon seeing the world's biggest race visiting his country for the first time in thirteen years, Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins jumped on a bike to discover what awaits the world's finest peloton in 2007. How will the prologue course ride? And, more to the point, what would the competitors see if they took a second to lift their heads from the tri-bars and look around? Atkins finds out
With the possible exception of the 2003 Centenary Prologue in Paris, the Tour de France has never seen a Grand Depart filled with so much history, prestige and - above all - tourist attractions! On July 7th next year (07/07/07!) the Tour Prologue will get underway in the heart of London, taking in the political districts, the Royal Parks before finishing within sight of the Queen's residence in London - Buckingham Palace.
My journey begins at Trafalgar Square, dominated as it is by Nelson's Column - the 52 metre high memorial to the Royal Navy's greatest Admiral. Hopefully the fact that he died from a sniper's musket ball while leading the destruction of the French and Spanish Navies will not be emphasised so much as the fact that it happened over 200 years ago!
The team presentation on Friday July 6th will take place in front of the National Gallery, at the top of Trafalgar Square. The Gallery is home to one of the greatest collections of paintings in the world, and holds many special exhibitions every year - but none more special than the 200 elite cyclists!
In front of the Gallery, riders may notice one of London's newest art installations. Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth had been without a statue for years - the other three corners being occupied by various royals and generals - until recently, when it was decided that it would host a series of temporary exhibits. The Plinth is currently home to "Alison Lapper Pregnant" - Marc Quinn's sculpture of the Brighton based artist, who was born without arms and shortened legs, while she was pregnant with her first child.
Moving South onto Whitehall - where the race will start - we fall into the first of the course's tourist traps; Horseguards Parade. Riders who are less than completely focused might find themselves missing their start as they pose for pictures next to members of the Household Cavalry. I was a bit early for the mounted guards, but there were still a few soldiers on foot to amuse the few tourists who had gone early to avoid the rush.
Whitehall is full of statues and memorials dedicated to when Britannia ruled the waves. Various Kings and Generals jostle with each other for attention both on the side and the middle of the road. The major structures in the middle are a new memorial to the role played by Women in World War II, depicting their various uniforms hanging from pegs around the outside. The largest of them all is the sombre and minimalist Cenotaph, built to remember those who fell in World War I, but now also used to commemorate all those who have fallen since.
Of course, one of the biggest attractions on the way down Whitehall is Downing Street. Official home to Britain's Prime Minister - with the Chancellor of the Exchequer next door - since Walpole's time. Sadly it's not possible to go down the street and try and look through Tony Blair's curtains, as the end of the street is closed off by barred gates. Erected during the Thatcher years, it's never been clear to me whether they were put up to keep us out, or her in...
Back on course, Whitehall slopes gently towards Parliament Square in an almost entirely straight line. Before too long though, the sight of the Palace of Westminster - the Houses of Parliament - come into view, along with a statue of the - recently voted - Greatest Briton of all time, Winston Churchill keeping an eye on things. With Parliament on their left riders will be able to check their times against the Parliament Clock Tower. Pedants should note that Big Ben is actually the nickname of the Great Bell that chimes the hour, not the clock tower - but everyone calls it that...
The course takes a wide turn to the right around the outside of Parliament Square, past the enormous entrance to Westminster Abbey - where Britain's Monarchs are crowned. A slight left hand kink takes us onto Victoria Street, possibly the least picturesque part of the route, between large unspectacular office buildings. Before we reach Victoria Station though, we swing round a fairly sharp right onto Buckingham Gate.
Sweeping round a long left hander the road straightens out and we're presented with the spectacle of the side view of Buckingham Palace. The road bursts out onto the Forecourt in front of the Palace and takes a wide sweep in front of it and the Victoria Memorial - the massive monument erected in front of the Palace to mourn the death of the great Empress. The Queen wasn't at home while I was testing the course - a Union Flag was flying, the Royal Standard is flown over the building that the Queen is residing in at the time. I'm not sure if she'll be in on July 7th next year, but there'd be no way that I'd be away while the Tour de France was going past my front door!
Swinging left around the Victoria Memorial the course takes the straight Constitution Hill up towards Hyde Park Corner. Not the steepest hill in London by any means, in fact to the naked eye it looks completely flat, but there is a definite gradient, albeit one that won't be noticed by the pro peloton. We pass between the Gardens of Buckingham Palace to our left, and Green Park on our right. Any Canadian riders will just about be able to make out their war memorial between the trees.
We reach Hyde Park Corner, one of the busiest intersections in London. As well as Constitution Hill, this is the junction of Grosvenor Place, Knightsbridge, Park Lane and Piccadilly. Hyde Park Corner is dominated by the Constitution Arch - or Wellington's Arch - which used to be the formal entrance to London. The traffic goes around the outside of the roundabout, but the course goes straight through the middle of the arch!
As well as his arch, there is a huge statue of the Duke of Wellington - conqueror of Napoleon's army - because he used to live in Apsley House, just on the other side of the road. It was once one of the most exclusive houses in the city and actually had the address of Number 1, London. I wouldn't fancy living there now though, the traffic noise would be unbearable!
If riders go straight on here they're heading down towards some of the most exclusive parts of London and the Harrods department store, instead of which we pass through the arched gates and into Hyde Park.
This is probably the sharpest turn on the course as we swing left onto the South Carriage Drive. This road is officially inside the park, but doesn't really feel like it, looking left you can almost make out Harrods and the shops of Knightsbridge. The course passes the barracks of the Household Cavalry (they exercise their horses in the park) before arriving at the point where Hyde Park becomes Kensington Gardens and swings right towards the Serpentine Lake.
If riders choose to look to their left at this point they will not quite be able to pick out the Memorial Fountain to Princess Diana, but they will be able to see the magnificent sight that is the Albert Memorial. The Albert Memorial was built by Queen Victoria to mourn her husband and consort Prince Albert, who died in 1861 - forty years before she did!
By the way, yes it is that Prince Albert! No one knows for sure if he actually had the piercing that he has given his name to. Apparently men of the period used to wear such tight trousers that they had to strap certain things to their legs to keep them under control, a piercing aided this...
On another note, those people who consider that the Victorians were prudish and repressed should remember that Victoria and Albert had nine children in the space of seventeen years, but she was rarely ever 'amused' after his death!
Back on the course, we crest the slight rise onto the bridge over the Serpentine - the view here is spectacular across the vast lake, back towards the city. We swing right and join the Serpentine Road which follows the lake side back in the direction we have just come. This is London's premier boating lake where it is possible to hire a rowing boat or a pedalo, or simply sit to feed the multitude of ducks and geese that wander around. A small gaggle of Greysands Geese decided to take a stroll across the road in front of me, I hope they don't decide to try this next July!
This part of the course is one where the wind may come into play, even at the low speed that I was travelling - to avoid accidents with the multitude of pedestrians, rollerbladers and horse riders - I could feel the resistance from the breeze drifting off the water. It's a fairly short time before we enter the shelter of the trees of the park and head back towards the gates.
Back out through the park gates (a different arch to the one we came in on, we don't want any collisions!) and back onto Hyde Park Corner, we follow the road around the outside towards the top end of Constitution Hill where we came from. Again, if riders miss the turn here and go straight on, they'll be heading towards Piccadilly Circus and the West End.
As the course rejoins Constitution Hill, the downward slope is more evident and this will probably be the fastest part of the stage. I couldn't go too fast myself though, as I didn't want to startle the horses of the Household Cavalry who were travelling from their barracks in Hyde Park to take their places on Horseguards Parade in Whitehall, where I started my journey.
With the speed they'll get up on this 'descent' it won't be long before rider are arriving back at Buckingham Palace. This time, the course takes a slight kink and heads straight on, onto The Mall and the finish line. This is the Boulevard that links the Palace with the West End, where various regiments are marched on their way to and from the changing of the guard, where the London Marathon finishes every April, and where this year, Tom Boonen won the final stage of the Tour of Britain.
The Mall carries on through Admiralty Arch and back on to Trafalgar Square, but the riders will have to wait until the next day for this - Stage One will start at the Prologue's finishing point.
I won't tell you my time - I was taking lots of pictures and had to stop at traffic lights - but this will be a very fast course next July. Almost entirely flat, the only slight rises in gradient are the slight bump over the Serpentine in Hyde Park and a very very negligible gradient on Constitution Hill. There are also very few sharp corners, which should suit the smooth style of the pursuiters and pure time triallists, in contrast to this years twisting course which was preferred by the punchy style of the sprinters, allowing Thor Hushovd to take the win from George Hincapie.
Expect the front runners to be the usual favourites; World TT Champion Fabien Cancellara has won before and will be keen to show his stripes to good effect. British specialists David Millar and Bradley Wiggins will be very keen to impress - especially Wiggins who was brought up only a few miles north.
I also managed to ride the entire course without changing gear, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if at least one rider didn't ride fixed - the popular way to ride in London these days - as Stuart O'Grady did at the Giro Prologue in 2005.
If any rider manages to get halfway round the course and is still oblivious to the sights he's riding past, he's a more focussed man than I. After London, all future Grands Departs are going to have to up their game so as not to pale in comparison. It wouldn't surprise me if London gets awarded it every year now, because no one will ever do another course like this!