The route as it was unveiled today contained most of what had been leaked in the past few days but the big picture when you see it as a whole is still quite puzzling.'
It all starts off with a 14 km timetrial in Utrecht. So longer than a prologue but still not too unusual. But here's the kicker: that's all the individual timetrialing there is in the whole race. 14 kilometers. On day one. Let's just say that there won't be any rumors of Indurain making a comeback to win this race. Looking at the current crop of GC stars it's easy to see though that there are very few of them who are very competent TTers, especially among the French. Far be it from me to insinuate that such matters have influenced the decision but it is a notable fact.
After the opening day things get rather complicated fast. Last years challenging opening has clearly inspired ASO. Stage 2 is presumably a sprinters stage but one potentially marred by crosswinds as we finish out by the sea in Zeeland. No one can control weather of course but it's not hard to see what we'll all be keeping our fingers crossed for and it's not a procession win for Marcel Kittel. By stage three things get even worse. Mur de Huy makes it's first appearance as a stage finish in the Tour so a third group of riders come to the front for this one, the most famous of all "wall"-finishes. Making for even more drama is the re-introductions of timebonuses which should see the battle for yellow intensify in the first week. Interestingly the bonuses will only be in the first week of the race which is a new approach. We've seen the Giro experiment with bonuses on selected stages in the past but this is pretty clearly aimed at just ramping up the excitement for the first week while keeping the competition "pure" once we hit the deciding mountain-stages. Time will tell how well that concept works.
Onto stage 4, time to settle down you say, let the sprinters have their fun you say? No, instead let's throw some cobbles on the route just as we did last year. Not quite as bad as last year but 13 kms of pavé sectors. Six of the sectors in the last 50 kms of the stage, the last two the longest at 3,7km and 2,3 km, that's no picnic either even if the riders get luckier with the weather than they did this year.
Let's assume it will be more like the time Thor won the cobbles-stage than this year's armageddon but it will still be a massive test for the GC riders to avoid timelosses here. We have a route that otherwise looks tailormade for Nairo Quintana but he will still have to navigate this hurdle before he gets to the stuff he likes. Goody-goody.
Now the race settles down. Perhaps. Stage 5 is for sprinters but yet again we have a full day by the coast on the way to Le Havre with the potential for windon stage six. The flat stage seven then takes us more inland as we move towards Brittany and on stage eight there is once again a tough finish up the Mur de Bretagne. This Mur is less ridiculous than Huy and gives a chance to climbers and puncheurs alike, Cadel won here last time in 2011 and it guarantees a great finish.
Stage 9 offers the next curveball, and perhaps the most controversial day of this course. Team timetrials are divisive enough when they come early in the race but on stage nine it's already causing hot debates. To begin with it seems a bit muddy how he ASO have been able to put it there at all since the rules state that TTTs should be in the first third of the race . I'm sure we'll find out how they got away with that soon enough but the rule is there for a pretty good reason, the later it is the greater the risk is that some teams have been reduced to fewer riders and so are at a disadvantage. Presumably the ASO are looking for the TTT to have a bigger impact on the GC but they are really playing with fire with this one. My verdict: questionable at best and likely to backfire and create unnecessary controversies and random outcomes.
After the TTT the peloton makes a first of two planetransfers to enjoy a restday in Pau. Counter-clockwise tour means Pyrenées before Alps and the main challenges this year are mountaintop finishes at all three stages. A new acquaintance in the La Pierre-Saint Martin climb and then the familiar Cauterets and Plateau de Beille finishes. The stages get progressively harder, culminating on the nasty Plateau de Beille but none of the three are crazy brutal, this route is more about serving up a string of opportunities for the GC riders to have a go at each other.
The transition to the Alps should be three days of sprinters vs. breakaways in varying degrees of challenging terrain interrupted by a finish in Mende with it's by-now classic steep finish. They may have strategically deleted the "Montee Laurent Jalabert" references because he's been a naughty naughty boy but it's still the same climb. By stage 16 we have reached Gap, the gateway to the Alps, and the second restday. From here on out there's not a dull moment (well, there's the champagne coasting on the way to the Champs) in what looks like an incredibly well-designed crescendo to the race. First up is a stage over the Col d'Allos finishing up at Pra Loup, a stage with some Eddy Merckx nostalgia as this was the scene of his exit from his role as Tour-dominant. Then there's a cheeky stage with the mighty Glandon followed by a short dash up the picturesque Lacets de Montvernier and a 10 km descent into the finish in Saint Jean de Maurienne. It's a stage with any number of possibilities, Nibali for one probably isn't complaining.
Two big days remain, first the riders go back up to Glandon/Croix de Fer, via the Col de Mollard and a technical descent to finish up to La Toussuire which has become a steady visitor on the TdF map. It's a big day followed by the intended climax the day after on Alpe d'Huez. The final stage is a short fireworks stage wam-bam Galibier,L'Alpe, thank you mam. 110 km, no dead spots, just a'bloc racing. The risk of course is that the race is already decided at this point but no other type of stage works better for last minute hail-mary attempts to rescue your GC either so we're pretty much guaranteed a great day. If we are lucky enough to have a close GC it will be magnificent.
All in all it's a course with a lot of oddities. Debates on a TdF course with only 14 kilometers of timetrials will probably rage for a long time but it is really only a logical conclusion of a period where timetrialing has been reduced in importance to the point that the "heavy" allrounders in the mold of Ullrich, Indurain and Armstrong are no longer the undisputed kings of the Tour. Maybe it's an adjustment to the realities of cleaner racing, maybe it's an adjustment to the inability to create compelling TV entertainment out of decisive TT stages but at the moment mountain-goats seem destined to reign supreme for the foreseeable future. It's hard not to wonder what a just retired Andy Schleck thinks when he sees a course that would have made him an absolute favorite just two years ago? The six mountaintop finishes are notable too. Will they make for exciting stages or will they make for more formulaic racing? Looking at the stages there really are opportunities to avoid conservatism but it's an obvious risk of course. Then again, maybe the ASO are perfectly happy with 40 certain minutes of excellent TV every day and maybe so are we.
Mostly though we should be happy with Prudhomme's willingness to make the opening half of the race varied and challenging. If he is unlucky then Sagan returns to brutal top-form and then he's maybe set things up for a week of total one-sided Slovak dominance, as many of the stages are right up his alley, but chances are we'll get a thrilling start to the race. With once again altered rules for the Green Jersey, this time to give more advantage to stage winners, it remains to be seen if Sagan will once again be near unbeatable in that competition. I'll leave those calculations to the numbers-people. My guess is there isn't much they can do to break Sagan's grip on it as long as he is mildly interested in going after it. Riis says he won't in 2015 but who the heck knows.
So who will win?
Clearly Tony Martin isn't going to win the Tour de France this year either on this course. Neither is probably Tejay van Garderen, Talansky, Wiggins or anyone else who depends on a bit of timetrialing but other than that it is a fairly open course. Of course it's going to be said that of the big four, Nibali, Froome, Contador and Quintana, it is probably the Colombian who will look like the biggest benefactor but timetrials are not a huge issue for him anyway as long as we're not talking really long ones. All of them have capable TTT teams too so that shouldn't be a huge factor. The real winners here are probably the French talents. Pinot, Bardet and Barguil are given a spectacular chance to factor high up on GC once more even if they don't "luck out" with the big names abandoning and that way the home crowds will have something to get excited about once more in July.
Another big factor will probably be what season choices the riders make. Nairo and Nibali seem intent on focusing solely on the TdF while Contador will probably do the Giro-Tour double. After seeing the course Froome claims he may even skip the Tour to go for the Giro/Vuelta double but that seems like one of those things you believe when you actually see it. For now lets assume they will all four try and line up at the start in Utrecht. On this course it should be a pretty fair fight.