The 2019 Tour de France starts in Brussels, Belgium and in 2020 the Tour of Spain will start in the Dutch city of Utrecht. The 2019 Giro d’Italia will start in Bologna, Italy, but there are hot rumours that the 2020 edition may be held in Marseilles, France. So, why do the major Grand Tours (bicycle stage races) start in different countries? And what is the point?

Bicycle racing fans love the biggest races and they love to be part of it. So, when they hear that the first couple of stages will be hosted in theirs or a neighbouring country, they celebrate. Then they start organising how they can get there and visit the big occasion. People who are not cycling fans say: “Huh?! How can the Tour de France start in London, Rotterdam or Brussels?! It should be in France!”

Three days at the circus

Cycling is a very approachable sport. Fans can get very close to the stars if they visit a race. And there is nothing that fans like more than being a part of the three greatest bicycle stage races on earth: the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta à España. For fans, therefore, it makes perfect sense to start their favourite races in their cycling-mad country.

Grand tours

Fans can get close to their heroes in cycling. Photograph: Cor Vos.

When Grand Tours begin in a foreign country, this usually means there will be three stages held there, and then the circus will move on to France, Italy or Spain. For racing fans, this is three days of top entertainment on the roads they also ride on, and with their weather. And, as the fans know, you cannot win a Grand Tour during one of these three stages, but you sure can lose it. So what about all those people who don’t quite understand what the fuss is about? 

Follow the money

Simple economics are one of the main drivers of these foreign Tour starts. The race organisers charge big bucks for the right to start the race abroad. The city and regions through which those three stages pass, must pay. Usually it is a mix of (local) government money and funds provided by local enterprises. Before a country or region can announce it will host the start of one of the big races, there is often an auction between competing countries/regions. Once the bidding stops, the marketing can begin.

Grand tours

The Grand Départ in Leeds, England in 2015. Photograph: Cor Vos.

And that is what it comes down to in the end. While non-fans will only complain about roads being inconveniently closed off, the hosts are counting the benefits. The Grand Départ of the Tour de France in London in 2007, for example, cost the organisers around £27 million, but generated an estimated £100 million. The Grand Départ in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2015 cost around €18 million, but a report by Utrecht University concluded that the event’s ‘economic impact’ was over €25 million—and that excluded free publicity for the city (estimated at €35 million). So, it’s not only great for the fans, its profitable in a number of ways.

Grand tours

There’s a money to be made if you can see the opportunities a major cycling event offers… Photograph: Cor Vos.

Local heroes

The local cycling stars also receive a great deal of attention during these foreign starts. This high pressure on local heroes can often be too much for young riders destined for great things. In his début Tour de France in 2007, which started in London, Mark Cavendish crashed in both stages 1 and 2, forcing him to abandon the race in stage 8. The Grand Départ in Utrecht 2015 is still fondly remembered by many in the Netherlands: the weather was beautiful, and the echelon stage in Zeeland was action-packed.

Grand tours

Tom Dumoulin in the Tour de France white jersey for best young rider after stage 2 of the 2015 Tour de France. The next day he abandoned the race after a heavy crash. Photograph: Cor Vos.

This was also the year in which Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin first gained a wide international audience. But the pressure was high. Dumoulin fought hard during the prologue, but ended in 4th place, 8 seconds down on stage winner Rohan Dennis. And, sadly, Dumoulin was forced to abandon from the race after a big crash in stage 3, just as the Tour left the Netherlands and entered Belgium.

If you’re not into cycling, a foreign start a great excuse for a street party, or other eccentric behaviour! When the Giro d’Italia passed through Northern Ireland in 2014, farmers dyed their sheep pink…

Grand Départ in Belgium

The 2019 Tour de France starts on July 6th in Belgium, to commemorate the first-ever Tour de France victory by cycling god Eddy Merckx. This promises to be a great event for fan in the Low Countries, and many will doubtless flock to the Belgian capital for this great event.

Grand tours

 Christian Prudhomme director of the Tour de France. Photograph: Cor Vos.

The 2019 race does not have a traditional short time trial prologue, but starts with a 192km stage starting and finishing in Brussels. The second stage is a team time trial, which will also be staged in Brussels.

Vuelta 2020 in Utrecht

The famous Dutch city, 40km south of Amsterdam, obviously got a taste from the Grand Départ in 2015 and is set to host the Tour of Spain (Vuelta à España) in 2020. The Netherlands will host three stages of the race in total. The first stage will be a 23.7km time trial, followed by two road stages. It will be the 75th Vuelta, meaning that Utrecht will become the first city in the world to have hosted the start of the three biggest races: the Giro d’Italia (Utrecht hosted the finish in 2010), the Tour de France (2015) and the Tour of Spain. To be honest, we simply can’t wait!