By the time 2019 comes around, it will be fully seven years since the last Tour de France where a time-trial specialist could hope to put one over the pure climbers. As so often in recent years, Chris Froome, Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana will be smiling about most of the Tour de France route, announced on Tuesday in Paris, with a plethora of summit finishes, a wealth of mountain stages and a bare minimum of individual time-trialling, which could well discourage the Giro d’Italia winner, Tom Dumoulin, depending on what the other Grand Tours come up with.
As Froome embarks on the quest to join the elite club of quintuple Tour winners, fired up by his and Team Sky’s dominant performance in the Vuelta a España, there is no sign of the Tour organisers putting together a route that would cause the four-time winner to quake. There is a good reason for that: since 2013 Froome has shown himself equal to pretty much everything the race can throw at him apart from in one year, 2014, when he started the race short of form.
The novelties for 2018 will not discourage Froome, who is not entirely ruling out an attempt on a Grand Tour slam at the Giro d’Italia, although the current mood music points towards him targeting the Tour as his main priority. After all 2018 has a superficial resemblance to the 2014 Tour won by Vincenzo Nibali, the only one since 2012 to have escaped the Team Sky machine: a (now rare) clockwise route with the Alps before the Pyrenees, a heavy dose of cobbles in northern France, and a – possibly – climactic time trial on the final Saturday rather than the more common mountain-top finish. However, there are more bells and whistles as the organisers seek more inventive ways of testing the riders.
A shortish team time trial on day three will hold no fears for Sky, while the double climb of the short, steep Mûr de Bretagne on day six will offer a spectacular final hour. The biggest challenge – perhaps of the entire race – comes on stage nine, the day of football’s World Cup final, with a weaponised “Hell of the North” stage across the cobbles of northern France, resembling the classic Paris-Roubaix stripped of its opening phase.
The run-in to the cobbles is only 43km, ensuring it will be eyeballs out from the start and there are 15 sectors totalling 22km in the final 110km – the most since the 1980s. If it rains, as it did in 2014, this will be decisive; if not, it will eliminate at least one or two from the mix – witness Thibaut Pinot’s fate in 2015. As Froome said, the race could be “ripped apart” here.
The mountain climbing is a mixture of the classic set pieces over the great passes and mountain tops – the Croix de Fer, the Madeleine, l’Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet, Aspin and Aubisque – with inventive tweaks such as the stage finish at La Rosière, and the two kilometres of rough track on top of the Col des Glières in the Alps, through a plateau known for its Resistance history.
The key discovery, however, could be the Col de Portet in the Pyrenees, located beyond the time-honoured finish at the Pla d’Adet ski station. The Portet rises to 2,215 metres, up a narrow road with breathtaking views, at a gradient between seven and 10%. The true innovation, however, is that it comes at the end of a stage of only 65 kilometres, of which 38 are uphill, including the Peyragudes ascent where Froome cracked briefly this year, and the Col de Val Louron. Like the stage over the pavés, that is short enough to ensure intense action, although Froome and Team Sky have amply demonstrated their ability to cope.
As so often in recent years, it is the sprinters such as Mark Cavendish who come off worst, with the organisers understandably keen to avoid the relatively predictable run of blanket finishes that marked this year’s opening phase, dominated by the German Marcel Kittel. There are only seven sprint stages at most, and slender pickings once the Tour has flown south from Roubaix to the Alps after stage nine.
There are minor rule tweaks, such as time bonuses awarded at a special location in the finale of some stages, but these are only for three, two and one second, and if – as it appears – they are for only the first nine stages, they will not total much and will not figure when it matters: in the final week. The number of riders per team is cut from nine to eight, but that is unlikely to cause sleepless nights at Sky, given they won the 2017 race after losing Geraint Thomas before half-distance.
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