1. Hurry up and wait... as usual
If there is one word to describe the course, it would be "backloaded." This is kind of an annual exercise, as many of the usual suspects (Levi, Sastre, Evans, Kloden, etc.) have a long history of treading water for two weeks or so before even contemplating launching -- gasp! -- an attack. I kid gently here; Sastre shows that the strategy has merit. And the Tour has been more than a little complicit in this dynamic, wanting to keep viewers from tuning out before the final weekend. But the riders make the race, and sometimes they can't help themselves but to cause important splits in the early going. And then there's Bruyneel and his strike-on-the-first-incline strategy that worked so well for Lance 2.0. Surely Lance 3.0 is thinking devilish thoughts about Andorra...
This year: nothing doing. The three Pyrenean stages come early in stages 7-9, but I can't picture them separating out the real contenders very much. A fine preview? Sure. But when the Col du Tourmalet is the biggest item on the menu and it is followed by 70km of descending, it's hard to see ASO as really trying to create drama. The only uphill finish of the three is the first day, and Arcalis is more of a single long slog than a deadly stage. Even the Tour website sounds halfhearted, saying mealy-mouthed things like "this stage will undoubtedly have some surprises in store". By comparison, week three features words like "beatdown" and "bloodshed" in reference to Grand Bournand and Mont Ventoux. Or, it would, if I were in charge.
The other piece of evidence is the distribution of time trial kms. 14km Saturday, plus another 39km of the team chrono -- two events where the splits should be relatively manageable for all of the prime suspects. By contrast, the Annency time trial in stage 18 will be 40 decisive kms, coming between the Alps and Ventoux. Anyway, for a visual demonstration of how this race will unfold, go here and scroll to about 0:40.
The next four... you know where.
2. My Life on the B-List!
What #1 means is that there will be some 14 stages of maillot jaune infighting featuring a colorful list of climbers from the Valverde-Cunego school of grand tour ability: dynamic guys with the ability to finish off a stage, until the road goes up too high and their expectations come crashing back to Earth. OK, Denis Menchov has a habit of winning early Pyrenean stages, but otherwise the Pyrenees triptych will favor guys like Luis Leon Sanchez, Kim Kirchen, Mikel Astarloza, Linus Gerdemann, one of the Liquigas guys, whoever Riis wants to use as a primary decoy, and maybe, just maybe, a frisky, insubordinate Lance Armstrong. We should only be so lucky. Anyway, the Vosges stages will look equally inviting to this group, along with the inevitable guy-you-didn't-think-of who can climb OK and gets away in a break. Fourteen stages is a TON of valuable face time, and I expect the pseudocontenders to make the best of it.
While I often find the Tour's naked effort to backload the race to the last weekend -- and same goes for the Giro and Vuelta -- a bit annoying, this time around I am sympathetic. By choosing Monaco as the start the Tour is breaking out of the mold which says that the race starts and ends somewhere in a northerly direction, saving the Alps and Pyrenees for the middle to later part of the race. Monaco is the furthest south of any Grand Depart since 1992, which kicked off in San Sebastian (another lovely choice!). I discussed this during the unveiling last winter, but to recap, the southerly start in '92 put the peloton at the foot of the Pyrenees with nowhere to go but up, starting on stage 2. Well, you can't tempt out the GC favorites on stage 2, so they ran two tepid Pyrenean stages with low-elevation finishes (back in San Seb and then to Pau), and put off the hostilities until a wicked five days of Alpine mayhem in week three. This year the Tour spread things out a bit, being loathe to confront the Alps so tepidly as they did the Pyrenees in 1992, by skimming the shoreline for five days after Monaco before the slightly early Pyrenean turn. Respect. I don't know how many options they really had.
4. Speaking of Upside-Down...
Did anyone else notice that the Alps follow the Pyrenees... for the second year in a row? This isn't an Earth-off-its-axis kind of moment, but the Tour has a very consistent pattern of Alps-Pyrenees one year and Pyrenees-Alps the next. The last time they ditched the regular rotation was in 1998, putting off the Alps til later for reasons that aren't apparent to me. Hopefully this is where the comparisons between 1998 and this year's Tour end.
5. Hitting the Highlights
One last set of kudos to ASO on the course: they managed to include some really memorable places along the route. Most years the starting and ending towns are familiar primarily to cycling fans, if anyone. The Grand Depart has become an exception, with places like London, Amsterdam, Berlin, etc. on the list. But the remaining towns tend not to be international hotspots. Stopping by Barcelona is very cool, in a they-didn't-have-to-do-this kind of way. Marseille is an Original Six city, and Monaco is as inviting a Grand Depart as any major European capital. Of course, the Seattle-to-Portland stage to open the 2023 Tour will put all of this to shame, but for now... looks good.