First of all, the rumors we had heard were basically true. We'll see Ventoux on Bastille Day, we'll go to Andorra and Switzerland but there were some tasty new tidbits too. Second, lets get the negatives out of the way. This is a TdF of mainly big set-pieces, there isn't much in the way of sneaky mid-level stages. Granted not all the details are out but what there is is an uphill dash to the finish on stage 2, a tough Massif Central stage 5 to Le Lioran, also with a bit of an uphill finish, and then two slightly unclear stages to Revel and Berne that we don't know much of anything about. Apart from that it is pure sprinters/climbers/TT stages.
We start off on the Normandy coast with Mont Saint Michel and a sprint at Utah Beach, plenty of eyecandy and then a more sombre historical backdrop for the finish. This will be the first of four sprinters-chances in the first week. Stage 1,3, 4 & 6 all look like sure sprints unless there are some dodgy crosswinds on the coast for the first two of them. In total there are 9 stages that look like possible sprints without having seen the profiles but you'd assume that there will be some nasty surprises on at least one or two of them once we see the details?
The buildup of the GC looks to be a slow boil though. There is the Massif Central on stage 5 that should create some gaps.
Willj: This remote stage features some of the best climbs in the Massif Central. It will celebrate Raymond Poulidor’s birthday passing through his home town. "Allez Pou Pou!"
Next we hit the Pyrenees on stage 7 with Col d'Aspin in the finale as the first of four mountain stages that end after a downhill.
This feels like a very conscious strategy. The Vuelta are going full bananas with 63 mountaintop finishes in three weeks but the TdF are clearly trying to make for more varied stages while still adding more climbing. They still manage to squeeze in four mountaintop finishes which isn't an unusually low number for the TdF. Going with downhill finishes is clearly a more uncertain strategy, a MTF is always a sure card where you know what you are getting. Downhills can work differently depending on the day. You may end up with a dud or it may open up the stage for much better racing, it's hard to predict before the raceday what you're going to end up with.
Also notable at this point is that we are starting with the Pyrenees for the second year running which is unusual as ASO usually go clockwise-counterclockwise every other year but clearly the Alps offer up so many more possibilities for last week insanity that it will be tempting to go counterclockwise more often than not. I'm guessing this will be a theme in years to come, largely based on the Alps being richer with more places offering more money for the ASO. The pyrenees still offer up two very tough stages though. First the predictable but classic multi-col romp that includes the Tourmalet and Peyresourde.
Not original but challenging of course. It is then followed by the announced stopover in Andorra that will not be as looney as the Vuelta stage we just witnessed but it still looks like a hard, well designed stage.
Willj: We’ve seen this stage or something like it so many times. This year the Eugène Christophe forge story comes after the descent of Tourmalet. The final descent into Bagnères-de-Luchon is not remotely technical. Very Big road. This may be the yawner mountain stage.
With three days with chances for time gaps like this we should have a good picture of how this race will pan out already by stage 9. The main concern when looking at what comes after is perhaps that the Pyrenees turn into a snoozefest as they did in 2011 when clearly no one of the top GC guys were interested to start showing their cards or risking anything. With the Mont Ventoux and then a crazy last week in the Alps waiting that looks like a very real possibility. Even Team Sky who are fond of the old Armstrong method of clobbering everyone into submission on the first big mountain test might want to cool their jets a little which perhaps leaves us with the french GC hopefuls as the only ones with a real interest to get aggressive early on? With more time-trialing than in the last two years you could see guys like Bardet, Pinot and Barguil a little anxious about their chances and they may feel the need to put time in the bank in anticipation of the first TT on stage 13 whee they are sure to be losing time to their rivals.
Willj: Note, Arcalis is the highest point in the entire Tour. Not a single climb in the Alps is above 2000 metres.
That timetrial, a 37 km beauty in the Ardeche is part of a rough week 2 extravaganza. Thursday is Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day and Friday is the TT which means there is very little chance to save anything to be fresh for TT day.
Willj: Mont Ventoux is the toughest climb in this Tour. They are doing the famous Bédoin side. Heat, wind, Bastille Day, etc could all combine to make this a special stage. Pinot, Pinot, Pinot.
Recovery more than outright TT-ability might be the name of the game here. 37km has to be seen as a short-ish TT by normal standards but right now that, combined with the stage 18 mountain TT, feels like a veritable TT-fest. Neither of the TTs are flat rouleur courses though, the first one has a fair bit of uphill/downhill and the second between Sallanche and Megéve is an odd-ish one, falling just short of being a pure mountain TT.
Willj: Cyclostourists should pay attention to this Ardèche stage. Lovely. Look for polka dot kayaks paddling the gorge.
Willj: Stage 18 Time Trial is a tribute to Bernard Hinault. This uphill time trial includes the steep Domancy climb where he won his World Champion stripes in 1980. There is a little "statue" to Hinault at start of climb.
That is seventeen plus thirtyseven kilometers that should really make an impact on how this Tour is raced. Clearly they will look mouthwatering to Froome, Contador, Dumoulin and perhaps even Quintana but it is curious how they have been placed so late in the race both of them. With the long one earlier it might have helped make the Tour less backloaded and also created gaps for riders to compensate for earlier? This could be a bit of a missed opportunity even if I do love the evil of the Ventoux/TT combo. The way this is planned it does feel like the TTs might serve more to cement already established power-balances rather than create new dimensions but I suppose one of the problems they want to avoid is having Froome establish dominance early on again. Even ASO are keenly aware of Sky's ability to kill cycling with their modus operandi given the opportunity at this point. And anyways, this is probably as kind of a way to ramp up the TT kilometers without killing french hopes as they could have come up with.
This leaves us with an insane final week. It starts on Sunday already with a fun looking stage that ends with a loop-de-loop on the Grand Colombier.
Willj: Welcome to the Jura mountains. A beautiful stage 15 features Wolf-Pee Pass (Col de Pisseloup). They will climb the fearsome Grand Colombier massif 1.5 times. First by the "easiest" of the 4 routes, and then up the scenic first half of the Culoz side that appeared in 2012. Nice helicopter shots. Tough stage.
An all-climbing day ends with a quirky finale going up one side of the Jura giant Grand Colombier, descending down a very difficult steep and twisty road to the other side where a short flat leads them to Culoz where they will go back halfway up the same mountain, rejoin the same nasty descent descent and then have ten flat kms to the finish. That second loop will see them climb this familiar thing from 2012:
Those images are surely what they are hoping for, they are even calling that climb "Lacets de Grand Colombier" to evoke memories of "Lacets de Montvernier" from last year I suspect. Having personally permanently damaged my hands from frantic heavy breaking to stay alive on that descent they're doing twice I can't see how this doesn't turn into a spectacular finale though.
Willj: Yes, that descent is VERY steep and in the woods. Bravery and local knowledge may win this stage.
And then there is Alps. Lots of Alps. French ones. Swiss ones. All nasty ones. Besides the mountain TT the third week sees these three monsters.
Willj: Note, this Swiss stage 17 passes Aigle and UCI headquarters: It feels just like the Tour de Suisse/Romandie. The little road to the beautiful Lac / barrage d’Emosson is steep, it featured in the Dauphiné the other year. The dam was originally built to produce electricity to power the Swiss railway system. Lovely.
Willj: It's a little strange having two Alps stage finishes at Megève and nearby St. Gervais. This is NOT road cycling country. Zero high paved roads, just skiing/mountains. Early in the stage, the Col de la Forclaz de Montmin is the best view by bike above Lake Annecy - see here.
Willj: There will be 3 passes named Col de la Forclaz in the 2016 TdF. Forclaz is an old word used mainly in Savoie (& Suisse Romande) meaning col, pass, or narrow gap. Forclaz is derived from the latin Furcula (little fork). Centuries ago it was often often used instead of Col. eg. Forclaz des Chavannes is now called Col des Chavannes. I think I have cycled 7 Col de la Forclaz, but from a cycling perspective, the two famous are in this Tour. The Forclaz in Switzerland, and the Forclaz above Lake Annecy.
All these three have their individual challenges. Much of the talk will be about the finish to Lac de Emosson as it is both hard and spectacular. The Dauphiné tested this climb in 2014 and now the TdF dares to take the big show up there for what cannot be anything than a great stage. Then there is a middle stage to the much less spectacular Bettex, also seen in the Dauphiné as late as this year. The treat on this stage is instead the climb of the Bisanne which our own mountain guru Will was praying for just the other day. They've slightly neutered the climb by avoiding the dreadful top two kilometers though but you can't have everything.
Willj: Boo to neutering.
For a final challenge there is the four Col stage 20 which will also serve as L'Etape de Tour for the amateur cyclists. This sees the Joux Plane as the final challenge which presumably means we'll see some american rider in a leading role as they seem to have been here in the past, not that it is reflected in the history books anymore. It's a shorter stage with lots of chances for those willing to throw a Hail Mary on the final day even if the Tour has abandoned the idea of some iconic huge climb as the last thing that happens before Paris. Given how well it worked for them last year it is a brave choice but probably a good one. You can't count on getting that lucky each year.
Willj: That final stage is my backyard. Woohoo! BBQ and beer chez moi at 10am and then we pedal. Everyone except Billdozer is invited. Joux Plane is tough because it is so irregular. An American pre-Landis struggled there one year. A few crazy steep ramps and the final descent to Morzine will be hair-raising.
This is a fairly conservative route in terms of design if not difficulty. It looks fairly brutal in terms of the difficulty and amount of climbing and TTing but there are less quirky newfangled things than the ASO have tried in the last few years. No cobbles, no crazy hard Grand Depart stages and more straightforward days for the sprinters followed by the GC guys having their days. It seems likely we won't see the superfun first week that we have in the last two editions but then again repeating that pattern year in and year out isn't an easy challenge for organizers. There is also the downsides to consider, the brutal first weeks have been criticized for taking a too big toll on the peloton and making routes that are decidedly sprinter unfriendly does create some resentment in some teams and gives very little room for the star sprinters to shine. Personally I like the balanced sprinter stages that make the teams work for it while giving other riders a chance and making the outcome not 100% given and it's hard to tell if there are any of those in this years race but we can hope.
As for GC speculation that will wait for later as we delve deeper into the course but the initial feel is that it is a Froome-friendly and perhaps less French-friendly route this year. It was bound to happen sooner or later though, the French kids have to build their TT ability because the Tour can't be TT-less forever. It's hard to see anyone of the bigs who won't find something on this route to their liking, it feels fair in that respect. Everyones current darling Tom Dumoulin should find this a decent test of his future TdF chances too even if that last week looks demoralizing to someone who just lost a GT on stage 20. Overall it is a route that it is hard to pinpoint a given scenario on from looking at the stages and in the end that is a good starting point. I'm sure we'll find the flaws on closer inspection in the months to come but for now this looked like a brilliant teaser to live on in the cold winter months.
Willj: Jerôme Coppel for the win !
Below: Jens, a friendly Japanese cyclist, and Will enjoy the Tour at Grand Colombier in 2012.