The Critérium du Dauphiné goes to Salins today, a small spa town that’s seen better days. It’s a long way from the race’s traditional home of the Dauphiné, an old kingdom in the Alps. Seeing the race ranging so far has made a few people wonder about this race’s identity as one day it’s showcasing the volcanoes of the Auvergne, then it’s visiting a spa town in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. Is it really a Critérium du Dauphiné?
The race gets its name from Le Dauphiné libéré, a local newspaper formed in the post-war years whose title evokes both the post-war liberation and its area. The Dauphiné was a historic kingdom or principality in the Alps which, to simplify, maps onto the Isère department today – Wikipedia explains more – but was bigger and the main city in this area is Grenoble, where the newspaper was, and is still based. One of the founders of the paper was Georges Cazeneuve and like many others he decided a bike race would make a great promotional tool and he was right, the paper and race both helped each other and Le Dauphiné libéré saw off competition from two other nascent newsletters to become the regional newspaper. Cazeneuve’s nephew Thierry would take over the race for many years.
Today the title of Critérium du Dauphiné seems anachronistic as most of the race takes place outside the old region. Plus within this region the Dauphiné label evokes history, it’s one of those old kingdoms and principalities whose name has all but vanished. There’s the newspaper and a few old street names, plus it’s also used for some local branding, for example one of the local crops is walnuts and they can be branded Noix du Dauphiné.
In 2010 Tour de France organisers ASO took over the race from the newspaper and renamed it the Critérium du Dauphiné. Chopping the libéré name from the table made sense as the newspaper has nothing to do with the race. Preserving the Critérium du Dauphiné name provided continuity and an obvious identity, the strong association with June, the Alps and the Tour de France. But the race doesn’t spend much time in the Dauphiné. To exaggerate, imagine an eight stage Tour of Luxembourg that has seven days of racing in Germany and France before a final day in Luxembourg, that sort of thing. Or a Tour de Langkawi that rides around Malaysia with only a day on the island of Langkawi.
As part of French territorial reforms in 2016 the Rhône-Alpes region merged with the Auvergne region to form a mega region, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Whereas the Dauphiné race would mainly stick to the Alpes part of this a decade ago, now it’s this wider region that hosts, as in sponsors, the race and so what better way to stitch the region together than to have a bike race. This explains why the race is spending as much time in the Auvergne this week as the Alps as politicians behind the large region want the event they’re hosting to reach all corners. So the more obvious name for the race these days could be the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Tour although it’s less evocative. Today’s visit to Salins today goes beyond the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes as Salins is in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, a different region.
Finally visiting the Jura might be far from the Dauphiné but it’s not new. In 1970 the Critérium du Dauphiné merged with another race, the Circuit des Six Provinces whose name hopefully doesn’t need translation. The Six Provinces had itself merged with the Tour du Sud-Est which as the name suggests, toured South-East France, although more east than south. The Six Provinces was run by a rival newspaper Le Progrès and went to some of the places on today’s stage. So in a small way it’s in the Dauphiné’s heritage to visit this part of France as well.
We’re not in Kansas any more. The race is still branded with Dauphiné but now travels well beyond this historic area and the race’s own roots. It’s really a Tour of the vast Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France, and today the race even goes beyond that too. This area is so big that it can feel like the race has become rootless, an peripatetic event but it is underpinned by a regional government, this isn’t like the Critérium International having to shop around for host regions. As labels go Critérium du Dauphiné is still evocative but how long until a politician asks for the race to be called the Critérium du Dauphiné-Région Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes… and everyone still calls it Le Dauphiné anyway.
Having a bigger range means more roads to chose from but there’s something to be said when a race has a local identity. A 100% Dauphiné route could still offer plenty of terrain and within a big area by itself. Imagine an square with the city of Lyon at it’s top left corner, trace a line down the Rhone valley south to Orange and then everything to the east is where an authentic Dauphiné could take place. It won’t happen, any more than a Tour de France sans ski station summit finishes or a Giro d’Italia that spends more time in the Apennines than the Alps. But the people of Salins must be wondering what the Dauphiné has to do with their town.