Saturday 23 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 20 Preview

Incredible and depressing as it may seem, we're already at the penultimate stage on the 2011 Tour. It seems just a few days since the peloton got off to a wobbly start along the Passage de Gois, the crashes that took Bradley Wiggins out of the race and Alexander Vinokourov out of cycling could have been the day before yesterday; but in fact it's been three weeks since Vendée. All that is left is the individual time trial today and the short ride into Paris.

Grenoble at night, photographed from the Bastille.
The city of Grenoble has been a stage town no fewer than 38 times and we can expect a festive atmosphere because, as residents of the unofficial Capital of the Alps,  the 160,000 Grenoblois are well-used to large sporting events: in addition to the regular Tour visits, they hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968 and, annually, the Six Days track cycling festival. It's also a major mountain biking centre and attracts skiiers, snowboarders, paragliders and the practitioners of all other sports that require altitude from all around the world are drawn here partially for the excellent sporting facilities but also for the famous atmosphere - Grenoble has grown wealthy on sports and high-tech industries, and with 51.55% of the residents being aged between 15 and 44 this is a party town.

Surviving section of Roman city wall, Grenoble.
Surrounded on all sides by mountains with some 20 skiing stations, the city occupies a plateau at just over 200m altitude. Mountain sports have led to the creation of many sparkling new towns, but while Grenoble sparkles it's most definitely not new: the earliest mention in text dates to 43BCE when it was known as Cularo. It was already an important place by the 3rd Century CE when the Roman emperor Gratian fortified it, adding a wall and bestowing upon it the right to call itself a city rather than a town. Sections of the walls can still be seen in the older neighbourhoods, most notably along the Rue Lafayette. Gratian gave his own name to the community when it became Gratianopolis which, in time, was modified to Graignovol during the medieval period and, eventually, to its modern form.

Graignovol was chosen by the noble House of Albon, rulers of an assortment of territories throughout the region which as part of the Holy Roman Empire were subject only to very limited French control, as their capital during the 11th Century and the city began to grow larger - and as the Counts made the city richer and more important, it returned the favour. In time they were powerful enough to consolidate their properties and thus create the state of Dauphiné, an independent province with a name familiar to all cyclists due to the eight-stage Critérium du Dauphiné race that takes place annually in early June and serves an important testing ground for the Tour de France in addition to being one of the most important events on the cycling calendar in its own right.

The city benefited from rulers who, by the standards of the time, were remarkably benevolent and who shared their power with some equally generous bishops. Under their command it gained two hospitals and a university, and the Roman bridge was rebuilt. In the late 14th Century Humbert II found himself without an heir and, with no obvious and suitable successor to whom he could hand over the state, he sold the Dauphiné to France. However, it remained to all intents an independent state until the middle of the 15th Century under Louis XI when it was officially and fully incorporated into the kingdom, though the city's inhabitants obtained a charter guaranteeing them certain rights and a fair say in decisions affecting their province.

The Bastille at Grenoble is the most extensive example of 18th Century
fortifications in France.
With a largely Protestant population, Grenoble was attacked frequently during the 16th and 17th Century religious wars and fell to the Catholics in 1590. Rather than controlling and inhabiting their new acquisition, the new rulers - called the Ligue - seemed intent on running it into the ground and so resistance groups led by François de Bonne, duc de Lesdiguières, soon formed and within a year had successfully regained control within a year. De Bonne became lieutenant-general and set about improving the city, increasing its size and building sewers, improved city walls, a bastille and many fountains (because the French do love their fountains). The Bastille still stands on its rocky mount overlooking the town and is now the site of cultural centres, restaurants and various attractions. Around the time of the Revolution the city was briefly renamed Grelibre, but became Grenoble once more under Napoleon. It fell to Austrian troops in 1814 but was rapidly taken back by Napoleon's forces, later withstanding attacks in the wake of Waterloo - which lessened Napoleon's power in France considerably

. By the late 19th Century, industrialisation was in full swing in the city. The great engineer and scientist Aristide Bergès - very much France's Isambard Kingdom Brunel - was instrumental in Grenoble's early adoption of hydroelectric power, which revolutionised the glove-making industry for which the area was famous and massively increased output so that Grenoblois gloves were exported and sold to wealthy people all around the world. Bergès also established papermills, adding another wealth-making string to Grenoble's bow. This expertise made the city an ideal base of production during the First World War when the hydroelectric schemes were expanded to provide power for the war effort and chemical factories grew up among the papermills, the beginnings of the high-tech industries that now generate much of Grenoble's wealth.

That industrial power of course meant that the city was considered highly valuable by the Nazis, who targeted it early on in WW2. Their early invasion attempts were thwarted by General Cartier, leaving the province free of German control right up until the establishment of Vichy France when it became subject to Italian occupation. However, Grenoble never did submit to Fascism and was a problematic hotbed of Résistance activity; seeing many heroic deeds by the underground army - it was this, combined with the Italian's tendency not to be quite so rabidly antisemitic as the Nazis, that saw the Jewish population of Grenoble increase greatly during the war. Late in 1943 the Résistance successfully destroyed a German artillery station which caused a violent crackdown in response with eleven Résistance members murdered - but even this didn't defeat their spirit. A newly-built German arsenal was blown up less than a month later and other attacks took place throughout the province. These brave and decisive actions were recognised soon after the Nazis pulled out when the city was awarded the Compagnon de la Libération by General de Gaulle.

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
In 1955 the physicist Louis Néel, who would receive a Nobel prize in 1970 for his important work with magnetism which has been instrumental in the development of modern computes, established the CENG nuclear research facility combining research and industry in what has become known as the Grenoble Model. In time, many other laboratories were attracted or set up in Grenoble, including the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and many others which have helped to make the city a world centre of physical research. Latterly, micro and nanotechnology firms have set up, ensuring that Grenoble's status as the largest research centre in France after Paris is secure for many years to come.

With its connections to the Criterium du Dauphine, Tour and mountain biking Grenoble is a city very much in love with le velo, even by the standards of the French obsession with cyclisme. The stage begins near the city hall, at a large park containing the hall itself and a variety of sporting facilities, then heads south-east on the D5. This being an urban environment, the road features a large number of hazards in the form of street furniture and roundabouts before it reaches Eybens after 2.5km on the outskirts of the city. Eybens has in the past been declared the most sporting city with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in all of France, so large crowds are likely to be lining the streets today. The road then swings east and across a roundabout shortly before reaching Eyben's velodrome, then south-east through a wooded section, then south again along a much clearer road into Tavernolles and another roundabout. A long, straight section through Le Replat will encourage high speeds, favouring the individual time trial specialists such as Fabian Cancellara but also giving the sprinters a chance to work on their overall times. On the southern edge of the town, the road has kink and an unusual ~ shaped traffic island, making the section quite technical and a possible site of crashes if its wet at any point.

Chateau de Vizille
A few kilometres on is Brié-et-Angonnes with a medieval chapel that the camera operators will - fortunately - be unable to resist. The parcours then turns south-west, along the side of a very steep hill known as Haute-Brié (surely the ideal name for a particularly stinky cheese? It rises 175m in under 0.5km at one point) and takes in a very sharp hairpin bend shortly before Vizille - a hazard that is almost guaranteed to claim at least one victim today. Vizille is famous for its chateau, one of the most photographed in the country and the star of many a postcard, jigsaw and biscuit tin. If you're one of the numerous people who watches the Tour for the chateaux, don't miss this one.

There are a few technical junctions and some street furniture on the way into Vizille; and the road narrows considerably before the tight left-hand turn onto the D524 which leads us to the chateau gardens, home to some extremely territorial geese. It then heads north-east back into the countryside, passing many large houses on the way to Les Cornier which stands at the foot of a steep mountainside that rises to over 2000m. The parcours passes through assorted small hamlets and villages until it reaches a roundabout and junction with the D111, onto which we turn right and head east to a hairpin, then south and up a short but reasonably steep climb to Belmont. Leaving the D111, riders travel north on much narrower, twisting roads into Le Boulond before heading into Saint-Martin-d'Uriage and joining D280. Saint-Martin-d'Uriage's chateau housed a staff training college for the Vichy Government during WW2.

We then pass through the town - more street furniture, corners, roundabouts - to the D524. The first section has several hazards, including a large island containing buildings and a park in the road which could potentially win or lose seconds depending on which way riders go around it. The road then takes a series of sweeping bends around forested hills, untechnical but with possible slippery parts if it rains, into La Combe de Gières and via a fork in the road into Gières with the little Fort du Mûrier. Just past the fork we join the D112, taking us through another forested section and then onto a straight section through town and back into Grenoble, heading back to the park from which we started.

Predictions: This a course that ought to suit Cancellara, but with so much still to play for several riders will be going all out to win this one. Tony Martin, the probable next king of time trials, will also do well - perhaps even beating King Cancellara. The two with most to play for - and potentially lose - are Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck, either of whom could win the Tour today. Cadel is the better time trialist and as such the favourite, but Andy starts the day with a good lead and has hugely improved his time trialing in the last year or two.

Weather: It's really not time-trialing weather today - parts of the course may get some rain, making technical sections more hazardous. The wind will help riders on the way out, but will then become headwinds as they turn back towards Grenoble making the going more difficult and taking valuable seconds off recorded times.

Grenoble Tourism
Grenoble Cycling

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