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2018 Tour Route Embraces Risk

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TDF Route Presentation 2018 Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Not since the year that the race started in Monte Carlo did a Tour route involve more gambling. The tone for this year’s route was set with the Tour de France logo jumping out of the sea like so many breaching sharks. The first nine days are spent in the north of the country, making us wait for the mountains, but that’s not to say that we’re going to have to sit through nine sprints. Stage one will be a nervy day along the west coast of France, stage three will be a team time-trial, stage five is a wonderfully jagged, hilly route reminiscent of the Yorkshire stage two in 2014. The next day will involve two climbs of the Mûr de Bretagne to finish the stage. Following that will be two long sprint days, before the jewel in the crown of the first week. Well, I say jewel, but I obviously mean cobble. A short stage of 154 kilometres, 21.7 of which are cobbled sectors. And these are real cobbles, some four star, and yet more three star sectors, from the same direction as they are run in Paris-Roubaix. Bersée, Camphin-en-Pévèle, and even one-third of Mons-en-Pévèle will just three of the fifteen cobbled sectors used in the most intense cobbled day I remember seeing on the Tour.

And then come the mountains. Will has written about the big mountain stages, so I won’t go too far into them. A big noise is being made about the Plateau des Glières, but I’m less than enthused about it for the simple reason that it peaks ninety kilometres and a valley away from the end of the stage, so no amount of gravel is going to change much, scenic as it might be. The final two Cols of Romme and la Colombière will probably be challenging enough to kick off the first mountain fight of the Tour, even if they will likely not be decisive in any way. I’m less happy about the following stage.

La Rosiére is no climb to use as a summit finish, it’s just not steep enough. It’s a graduate of the Arcalis-school of climbs, which has an annoyingly good record for being included in the Tour. Not to detract from the rest of the stage, of course, that’s all very well-designed. But I can just picture six or seven GC riders drafting up the five per cent gradients with no one even trying to make an attack. I’ve no problem with stage twelve, however.

The Madeleine is a horrible climb, I’d rather it were used more often. The Croix de Fer is more commonly seen, but no easier. The organisers clearly just threw Lacets de Montvernier in there because they could and while I’m never going to pretend that Alpe d’Huez ever lives up to the hype, it’s a reliably good finishing climb. This stage puts paid to any conservatism from the GC contenders that might have persisted through this year’s Tour. There’ll be big gaps in the GC at the top of L’Alpe, whatever happens.

There’s a bit of a famine for sprinters around the middle of this Tour, broken only by a stage to Valence, a handy stopoff outside the Alps for a sprint, last used in 2015. Following this is a stage to Mende and Laurent Jalabert’s climb, always a welcome jaunt. A hilly stage to Carcassonne follows, before the rest day gives everyone a chance to digest their cassoulet properly.

The final week of the Tour will take place in the Pyrenees for the first time since 2014, with a punchy finish over the Col du Portillon to serve as the opener. I’d heard there was a chance they’d take the race up Superbagnéres, but that unfortunately has not transpired.

Stage 17, however, will be this route’s greatest talking point. A sixty-five kilometre sprint over the Peyresourde, Val Louron and one of the toughest summit finishes I’ve seen in the Tour in the Col de Portet will make for compelling viewing no matter what the circumstances. Notice I said viewing, and no doubt some will criticise the focus on TV audiences in this move, but I think it’s a good way to shake up the race.

Another sprint stage to Pau gives everyone a break from the mountains, before stage 19 takes a traditional enough route over the Tourmalet, Aspin and Aubisque. The penultimate day of the race will again be a time-trial of medium length, but with a twist. It will take place in the French Basque Country, as you could probably guess from the spiky hills that litter the thirty-one kilometre route.

The final stage should have no surprises, so the man who pulls on the yellow jersey in Esplette will wear it on the final podium.

The response from most to the route has been positive, as the response usually is when the route contains as many mountains as this one. There are eight sprint stages, the cobbles stage, six mountain stages, four hilly stages, and two time-trials, one team and one individual. The sprint stages are improved by their spacing — there is never more than two consecutive flat days. The cobbled day is of course a great addition to the Tour, but Gouvenou and Prudhomme will face tough questions if it leads to too many broken collarbones, given the extra intensity produced by the greater number of sectors. The mountain stages, too, are largely unobjectionable, never mind what quibbles I may have about La Rosiére, I approve of them in the main. The same goes for the hilly days, especially stage five’s jaunt to Quimper. Even the individual time-trial I am happy with — it is designed to be nicely unpredictable.

My first problem with the route, however, comes in the form of the team time-trial. Henri Desgrange chucked a load of them into the Tour to punish the lazy riders who wanted to do lazy things like draft, and change gear, and so their shadow has passed into the present day. A thirty-five kilometre long team test will open up huge gaps in the GC for riders with weaker teams (and may I suggest that French favourites Pinot, Bardet and Barguil, riding for FDJ, AG2R and Fortuneo, will bear the brunt of this) with only three days gone. It will be unpredictable and it won’t be compelling on television. Really, it kind of stands out as an anomaly for this Tour, ensuring that everyone knows who will and who will not stand at the top of the GC for the first week. You know Froome’s whole thing of somehow sneaking a load of time ahead of everyone so he’s in yellow before any climbing is done? This TTT will abet that no end.

BMC TTT Bryn Lennon, Getty Images

My other problem with this route is that it may lend itself rather well to a dominant winner. We’re all, I’m sure, more than familiar with the second-week lethargy that affects Tour-watching cycling fans having discovered who the best climber is, and by how much time exactly they intend to win the Tour. The solution to this, having less selective mountain stages, was met with even more criticism having been used this year, so it is perhaps no surprise that we’re back to tougher mountain stages earlier on, in what is truly a vicious cycle. Of course, that is the risk of the whole thing: if two or more well-matched climbers and all-rounders meet in France, this route will be a masterstroke, ideal.

Who will meet there? Well, we at the Café have somewhat come to the ideal that Froome and Dumoulin are the two most likely Tour winners next year. How is this route for Froome? I would say very good. The cobbled stage will no doubt be at the forefront of his mind, but Ian Stannard and Gianni Moscon will no doubt start in the Vendée next July; he is at no more of a disadvantage than any other GC guy. In an interview, Froome mentioned the Alpe d’Huez stage as a target, and it is easy to see why. Froome’s tactic of a knockout punch on an early mountain stage will be easiest to enact there, and if he comes in top form he may just do it. The sixty-five kilometre stage is where Froome may find his greatest challenge — he is under no illusion that he will be able to control that stage, so he’s going to either use attack as the best form of defence or he will suffer. As for the time-trial, he may have preferred a flatter stage to remove a few variables, but he will view it as an opportunity to gain time, and not the other way around.

Froome takes off Patrick Verhoest

Dumoulin, on the other hand, will be just a little bit discouraged by this route. He mentioned bare days ago that he would consider giving France a miss next July if he thought he could not win, but sponsor pressure on him may push him to the start, and if so he will face a battle to compete. The early hilly and cobbled stages will suit him, and the world championships reveal that he shouldn’t fear the TTT too much, but Dumoulin’s Giro win was mostly based on his time-trial successes, chances denied him in this Tour. He will struggle to take a meaningful amount of time from Froome on stage twenty, and it will be a big ask to see him compensate for that in the mountains. If he means what he says about avoiding a Tour he can’t win, I would wonder how much charm Italy will have for him.

Romain Bardet may be the best climber at next year’s Tour, and though there has been a clear effort on the part of ASO to skew the race in the direction of those bearing the tricolore, I do not think he, or indeed Thibaut Pinot, can be happy with what he has seen today. He will lose out, make no mistake, in the team time-trial. He won’t be any happier than his GC rivals about the cobbles, either. Those cobbles are bringing people to consider Nibali. That’s nonsense. It’s a good course for Richie Porte, but I’m reliably informed that the tarmac is still hard, which might set him back when the two collide. Nairo Quintana too, should be pleased with the route. It is no better for him, however, than was the 2015 race. Rigoberto Urán, second last year, will not go in to this race as a favourite, not least because Cannondale are unlikely to enjoy the TTT.

So there you have it, another Tour route, with no lack of change from the last one. If this year’s course perhaps skimped on the high mountains, next year’s certainly will not in what I would say is a good response to the 2017 race. I myself think the course looks almost too good for Chris Froome, but then again it is difficult to design a course which is not. Either way, I’m looking forward to next July.