Words: Matthew Bailey / Images: Chris Lanaway
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
I’m sure you remember how 2019’s Giro started with a prologue that ran around the picturesque streets of the historic city of Bologna, in front of huge crowds of cheering, flag-waving spectators and culminating with a climb to the spectacular Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
Except you don’t, because it didn’t. That wasn’t a prologue. It was Stage 1.
This is confusing. Surely a prologue is exactly this – a short individual time trial held at the very start of a Grand Tour. So why wasn’t this a prologue? Or to put it another way – when is a prologue not a prologue? What’s in a name?
For once, the UCI rulebook appears to set things out with admirable clarity. Rule 2.6.006 of the Road Race Regulations says (among other things) that a prologue to a professional men’s stage race must not exceed 8 km, must be run as an individual time trial, and must count towards the general classification. Well, Stage 1 of 2019’s Giro was an ITT that contributed to the overall GC. But it covered 8.1 km. That’s 100 m too far for a prologue. Those are the rules. Case closed. Correct?
Not so fast. It should be remembered that the commissaires tend to look at the UCI rules in the way that a great chef might look at a book full of recipes. Useful guidance, certainly, but ultimately no more than a starting point for individual creativity.
For example: section 8.2.2 of rule 2.12.007 states that any rider who strikes a spectator will suffer a ‘500 to 2,000 [Swiss francs] fine per infringement, 10 to 100 points [deducted] from [his] UCI rankings and elimination or disqualification’ from the race. But, after delivering a swift, skinny-armed pummelling to a spectator who had just knocked him off his bike during stage 20 of this year’s Giro, Miguel Ángel ‘Superman’ López received no sanction whatsoever.
So how useful are the UCI rules in understanding what a prologue is and isn’t? Maybe history holds some lessons for us.
It is widely agreed that the first identifiable prologue to a Tour de France was a 5.775 km ITT held in Angers in 1967. But, unhelpfully, it seems that while the organisers informally referred to it as a prologue, officially it was Stage 1a (Stage 1b went from Angers to Saint-Malo the next day). And so successful was this that they did the same in 1968, when Stage 1a took the form of a 6.1 km ITT around the picturesque spa town of Vittel.
1969’s Tour was the first that opened with an official prologue. However, the ITT route around Roubaix that year was 10 km long. That’s 2 km – twenty-five percent – further than would be permitted under the current rules. So was it a prologue or not?
That was a minor infraction compared with 1971, when the prologue – yes, that was its official designation – not only stretched to 11 km but also took the form of a team time trial, thus breaking two of the UCI’s ‘rules’ in one go.
So the Tour was willing to play fast and loose with the concept of a prologue right from the start. But that’s nothing compared with the imagination on display on the other side of the Alps.
The first prologue of the Giro d’Italia came in 1968, but it wasn’t really a time trial at all. Instead, the 130 riders were divided into ten groups of thirteen, each of which raced separately around the streets of Campione d’Italia, a tiny exclave of Italy surrounded entirely by Switzerland. The fastest man around the 5.7 km course, France’s Charly Grosskost, wore the maglia rosa the next day, but his time did not count towards the general classification – rather neatly breaking the third and last of the UCI’s rules.
So none of the things mentioned in the UCI rules appear to belong to the essence of a prologue. More surprising still is the complete omission from the rules of what is surely the most important feature of anything purporting to call itself a ‘prologue’.
It is often assumed that the idea of having a short individual time trial at the start of a Grand Tour must have originated with the Tour de France. Specifically, the idea is usually credited to Jean Leulliot, a journalist and race organiser, who suggested the prologue (if such it was) to the 1967 Tour. But in fact the first Grand Tour to feature such an ITT on the opening day was the 1964 Vuelta, when the riders tackled an 11 km course around Benidorm.
However, there is a crucial difference. This earlier ‘prologue’ was officially designated Stage 1b of that year’s Vuelta, the 42 km flat Stage 1a having been held earlier the same day. Very short ITTs designated ‘Stage 1b’ were also held after, but on the same day as, Stages 1a of the Vueltas of 1966 (3.5 km, Murcia), 1967 (4.1 km, Vigo) and 1968 (4 km, Zaragoza).
And here’s the thing. Amazingly, the UCI rules don’t say anything about a prologue having to precede the first full stage of a race. So under the current rules all those Vuelta Stages 1b except the first (which was 3 km too long) would count as prologues.
The truth is that attempting to understand why a short early ITT is sometimes a prologue and sometimes not is a fool’s errand. It’s a distinction without a difference (with one small caveat – see below).
Let’s instead ponder a much more important question: what is the point of a prologue? Why bother starting a three-week Grand Tour with a blink-and-you-miss it ITT?
It is sometimes suggested that the reason for holding a prologue to a Grand Tour is to allocate the leader’s jersey for the first proper stage. And of course it does serve this purpose, to the considerable benefit of certain individuals who might otherwise never get the chance to wear it.
The mighty Chris Boardman, for example, wore the yellow jersey at three different Tours de France, each time after winning a prologue. What is more, he did so at a time when cycling was just emerging as a mainstream sport in the UK, with incalculable positive consequences for the country’s appetite for and grasp of road racing generally and the Tour in particular.
But if all you want to do is ‘allocate the jersey’ it isn’t obvious that an ITT is a better way of doing it than holding, say, a normal flat stage with a sprint finish. On the face of it, it makes no more sense for the leader’s jersey of a race covering over 3,000 km and leading up and down mountain ranges to be worn by a specialist in 5 km time trials rather than by a specialist in going flat out for 200 m.
No: the real purpose of the prologue is very different.
A short time trial held in a city centre at the start of a Grand Tour can pull in a big crowd. Consequently, the host city can materially increase the economic value of the Grand Départ simply by holding a prologue the evening beforehand, especially if it is a Friday or a Saturday evening.
In this respect a prologue is very similar to a city centre criterium (and both are very different to most road races). Like a crit, the racing at a short ITT is easy to understand: as a criterion for victory ‘quickest rider round’ is no more complex than ‘first over the line’. So anyone can follow it. The action comes in short, intense, exciting bursts. And everything takes place in a compact area. Consequently, large numbers of punters settle into one spot for a whole evening, where they see a lot of action, soak up the crackling atmosphere and practically beg to be refreshed. So entrepreneurial locals will pay the host city handsomely for licences to serve beer and frites.
So attractive is city-centre racing that the entire economy of professional road cycling once rested on the criteriums that take place in the immediate aftermath of the Tour de France. Here, huge crowds gather to consume vast amounts of premium-priced carbohydrates while the participants in the recently-concluded Grande Boucle pretend to race around the town centres of northern France, Belgium and elsewhere before letting the maillot jaune ‘win’. This is why Tour winners traditionally give all their race winnings to their teammates: the prize money is nothing compared to the potential rewards of tackling the post-Tour crit scene in the yellow jersey. Even though the economic structure of cycling has changed since then, to this day the post-Tour crits remain popular and highly profitable for riders and organisers alike.
However, as the kick-off to a Grand Tour a short time trial has a number of advantages over a criterium (even where the latter is a real race, as the post-Tour crits most assuredly are not).
For one thing, it’s probably slightly less likely that the favourites will crash out of the race altogether (though short time trials are not without risk – just ask Alejandro Valverde, who broke his patella when he hit the deck during Düsseldorf’s damp 14 km opener in 2017, or Boardman, who broke his wrist and ankle in a crash during 1995’s prologue in Saint-Brieuc).
More importantly, the ‘race of truth’ gives spectators more of a guide to the form of the favourites than would be possible in a crit, where the team leaders would undoubtedly be hidden in the bunch, sheltered by their teammates. And given the time trialling abilities required of contenders in modern Grand Tours the GC stars themselves are pretty likely to shine, even over such a short course.
It is therefore submitted that if these are the goals – to kick off a Grand Tour with an exciting burst of meaningful action accessible to all, to present the riders (and especially GC contenders) to the public, and to present the public to the publiers et friteurs of the host city (all of which seem to the present writer to be pretty good goals) – then a short ITT confined to a scenic city centre is an unbeatable way to meet them.
And yet true prologues have become a rarity. Over the 41 editions between 1967 and 2007 the Tour de France began with an ITT prologue on 38 occasions (there was one ‘prologue team time trial’, as mentioned above, and two longer ITTs, in 2000 and 2005). But the eleven Tours since 2008 have featured only two prologues, with the last in London in 2012.
This is at least in part because of the change of personnel at the highest levels of the Tour. 2007 was the year that Christian Prudhomme took over as race director. Changing the nature of the race’s opening was an obvious way to make his mark.
But the Prudhomme effect alone is not enough to explain the demise of the Grand Tour prologue. The Giro has not featured one since 2006 and the Vuelta has been prologue-free since 1999 (though 2009’s Stage 1 was a 4.8 km ITT around Utrecht).
Since 2008, for its opener the Tour has roughly alternated between long, flat stages and ITTs almost double the length of a prologue. The Giro has done something similar but thrown in a couple of team time trials. And 13 of the last 17 Vueltas have started with a TTT (all but two significantly longer than 8 km).
This is a pity. Maybe M. Prudhomme was right, up to a point: perhaps having a prologue almost every year for four decades was too much of a good thing. And sprint stages, middle-distance ITTs and team time trials all have their place.
But none of them introduces the characters and themes of the bigger event quite so effectively and intensely as a prologue does, and none of them engages the public anything like as well. So none of them whets the appetite for what is to come in quite the same way.
In short, a prologue is to a Grand Tour what an overture is to a grand opera. Moreover, it’s a well-established and highly effective way to get the public to engage with the sport and its stars. At a time when the sport is suffering a decline in interest and a gradual ageing of its audience, maybe it’s time to restore the prologue to its rightful place as the default Grand Tour curtain-raiser – not in the sense that you have to have a prologue every time, but in the sense that if you want to do something different it had better be good.
Whatever the nomenclature, Stage 1 of the 2019 Giro certainly suggests as much. The final 2.1 km climb to Santuario di San Luca had an average gradient of 9.7% and reached 16% in parts. It therefore combined all the attractions of the short ITT with that other crowd-pleasing form of racing, the hill-climb. The thousands of spectators responded by showing themselves very pleased indeed, with the riders straining and gurning their way to the summit past a swirling, roaring technicolour cauldron of advanced refreshment.
Pre-Giro favourite Primož Roglič topped the timesheet. Almost all the main GC contenders finished in the top fifteen. Fastest up the climb, one of only a few who switched from his TT machine in favour of a standard road bike, was Giulio Ciccone of Trek-Segafredo. This gave him the maglia azzurra, which he wore all the way to the race’s end in Verona. Miguel Ángel López took the maglia bianca, which he would give up a couple of times but regain in time for his fisticuffs in the mountains and then retain to the end.
Both as a spectacle in its own right and as a guide to what’s to come it is hard to imagine a better way of starting the Giro. So who cares whether or not it is called a prologue? Is this just another piece of unnecessary and confusing terminology that only serves to put people off cycling, when the phenomenon it refers to has the potential to do the very opposite? Should we cry, like Juliet, ‘prologue, doff thy name’?
Well, this isn’t quite the full story. For the UCI rules actually do provide for a key difference between a prologue and an ITT representing a true first stage. It is this: anyone who suffers an accident and consequently fails to finish a prologue, but not a full stage, is permitted to take to the start line the following day, credited with the time of the slowest finisher.
The significance of this provision is shown by the ejection from the 2019 Giro of Hiroki Nishimura of Nippo Vini Fantini Faizanè after he failed to make the time cut of this year’s Stage 1. In a prologue such a struggling rider could game the rules by having an ‘accident’, missing the end of the stage and still starting the next day. In a true stage this rider would not be presented with any such temptation.
So perhaps this is the reason for dispensing with the prologue. More likely, perhaps everyone has simply forgotten why we had them in the first place. If so, it is fervently to be hoped that Bologna 2019 serves as an effective reminder.
One last thing. For 2019 the Giro’s organisers entered into a partnership with online training platform Zwift, who created a virtual replica of Stage 1. Not only could members sample the course, but also Zwift held an ‘exhibition prologue’ which saw four of the participating teams take to their turbos for two virtual races up the route.
After this exercise rumours swirled that the 2020 Giro might even start with a virtual prologue. Of course traditionalists were aghast at the thought of a maglia rosa being disbursed on the basis of riders on a static trainer controlling a laptop. And of course the organisers have resisted the temptation, announcing that Stage 1 will be a traditional prologue-like 9.5 km ITT around the streets of Budapest.
Which is great news for prologue fans. But, just for a moment, suspend your disbelief and imagine a Grand Tour opening with an e-stage. You could broadcast it around the world on the internet. Punters could join in, riding the same course at the same time as the stars. You could hold it in a stadium, with straining riders appearing on a massive screen like rock stars.
No, forget the stadium. Imagine instead a city-wide event, with riders on turbos in every bar in Budapest. What might that be a prologue to?
This feature was first published in Conquista 22.