Thursday’s announcement of the Tour de France route for 2023 was not short on curiosity. You’ve probably heard a few bits about it already — the lack of time trialling, the variety of climbs — but if you dig in a bit you can see what a departure this is from... expectations? The Tour in recent years has done a good job of spicing up the route compared to 20 years ago, and this was no exception. In fact, it went even further than usual.
Obviously we will pick through all the details next summer, and for sure hit up Will J’s twitter account (@cyclingalps) for some color on the climbs. But for now, let’s hit a few points which I think tell the story of the Tour rollout.
1. Le Grand Départ Is Extra Cool
The Tour is launching from the Pays Basque, as it’s known on the French side of the modern border, although the action will happen on the Spanish side with two very beautiful and fun stages, about as cool an opening weekend as you can get within a short drive of France. It starts with a coastal stage around Bilbao, which will look spectacular and will feature a few small climbs on the way back to town, leaving us wondering all day what sort of finale we will get.
Stage 2 is a bit more definitively not a sprinters’ stage, and is in fact a great opportunity for the punchy climbers to take a shot at grabbing yellow. The route is a truncated and rather muted ode to the beautiful terrain of the Klasikoa Donostia, a/k/a Clasica San Sebastian — which is not a criticism, it’s how the Tour always handles borrowed Classics courses. And for sure it won’t be a sprinters’ day.
From there the Tour will cross the border toward a sprint finish in Bayonne, bringing the curtain down on the Basque stages with a chance for people to remember that this area is sometimes called the French Basque Country. A pretty entertaining start to things, and no long transfers!
2. Do Early Mountain Stages Change Things?
One byproduct of starting in Spain is that unless you want to stretch the parcours far north from Bayonne and put off any mountain stages for a while (hello long transfers), then you’re going to have to head into key mountain stages earlier than usual.
How much earlier? Well, for a typical(ish) route like 2022, the Tour hit the Alps over a series of stages from 9-12, although they tucked in the Planche des Belles Filles on stage 7. A typical sequencing when a French Grand Départ is involved might get you to the major mountain stages by the second weekend, i.e. stages 8 and 9, while Tours starting in northern Europe might not see the big mountains until even later. Even in 2009 when the Tour began in Monaco, they managed to mill about in some time trial stages and skirt the Alps, holding off the big climbs until stage 7. Even weirder, in 1992 the race began in San Sebastian and just completely blew off the Pyrénées, subbing in extra time trials.
You have to go all the way back to 1981 to find an edition of the Tour where a major mountain stage from the Alps or Pyrénées occurred as early as stage 5. And even then, if you want to get technical, “stage 5” only happened after launching from Nice with a prologue and a double stage day on “day 1,” so by the time stage 5 kicked off, they had run three time trials and three innocuous road stages. But hey, the number 5 is really just a human construct. It could mean anything. Bernard Hinault won his third Tour in four years, conceding some time to Lucien Van Impe on that initial Pyrénéan stage before smashing his hopes on stage six, the fourth time trial of the race, where the Badger (surprise!) stamped his authority on the event and coasted to victory.
In 1979 the Tour set a precedent that we might never see again regarding early mountain stages, departing from Fleurance with a short prologue... and then running three real Pyrénéan events (two proper mountain romps and a TT to Superbagnères). Hinault won the TT and the last climbing stage, dueled a bit with Joop Zoetemelk, and then cruised to a 13-minute win.
So, with virtually no useful precedent here, does having the mountains start so early threaten to change the outcome of the 2023 Tour? I’d say... probably not, at least not in the sense that top rides won’t be quite ready to dig deep. The days of starting slow and riding yourself into third week shape are long gone. The Tour is just as frequently won before the halfway point as after now, and riders are better equipped to manage their efforts over the entire three weeks so as to not find themselves unprepared at any time. Now, there is some danger that the opening stages — always nervous and crashy — could leave some of the top riders bumped and bruised as they start the major climbs, but we will keep our fingers crossed there.
3. The Race Against the Race Against the Watch
Do you know how much effort goes into preparing for time trials? For the riders, it involves a certain number of hours honing their form and getting comfortable with their crono bike. That process starts in the winter, when riders and teams reach out to their gear sponsors to plan for the manufacture of custom setups, at least for the top riders. Take this body and fabricate a cockpit that fits it to perfection, such that in a 45 minute race not a single second will be wasted. There is some back and forth, some riding in spring, maybe some further adjustments, until finally the rider feels ready. A lot of time, effort and money is involved.
And for just 22km of racing.
OK, the top guys will probably find a few other TT days on the calendar to put this good work to use, but you get the picture. Why does this Tour de France hate the time trial all of a sudden? I’m joking, or would be, if the truth weren’t... kind of weird. Here is a sampling of things Christian Prudhomme said about why he left out any real amount of time trialling.
“Time trials have the tendency to paralyze the race.”
“I prefer to see the champions shoulder-to-shoulder from the first weekend. You all know that very well too. A shoulder-to-shoulder battle is much better than riders having their times taken one after the other.”
“When I was little, we used to have a duality between climbers and time triallists, an opposition of styles. You’d have a Jacques Anquetil who was a super rouleur but suffered in the mountains, and then The Eagle of Toledo, Federico Bahamontes, who impacted in the mountains but lost time against the clock. That’s when you have to put time trials in, because the styles would balance out. Now, we’re back in an attacking kind of cycling, with riders capable of winning almost anywhere.”
Hmmm... I kind of have no idea what he is talking about. But I’ve seen his position described as feeling like time trials don’t matter because the top climbers are also pretty even in time trials, so what’s the point? I suppose that is true of the past three winners, but I can name you a much longer list of guys who torched their Tour or Giro or Vuelta hopes against the watch.
There may be some subtext around the status of Remco Evenepoel, who is not expected to try out the Tour until 2024. Evenepoel is very much the kind of rider who can evoke Prudhomme’s childhood memories, giving away time to super-climbers like Vingegaard and Pogacar but clawing some or all of it back in a flat ITT. That race is scheduled to happen in two summers. So let’s spend next summer doing something quite different.
Oh, and here is that ITT profile, all 22km of it, and about a third of it going uphill:
4. Filling In the Gaps... With Aplomb
The single most defining characteristic of this parcours is how the Tour tries to fill in the spaces around the unusually early mountains and the unusually crono-deficient setup. With non-traditional mountaintop finishes that are unique, rarely visited by the Tour, and bound to be really hard.
The first of those is in the Massif Central, France’s volcanic region, where stage 9 will finish atop the conspicuously conical Puy de Dôme. Living in Seattle, I can appreciate an exploding mountain as much as anyone. But the story that day won’t be lava and ash, it will be the explosion of a lot of people’s legs.
This comes to km 184 of a day when the peloton will be climbing seemingly all the time. The nicest thing you will hear a rider say about this stage is that it happens on the eve of the first rest day (I think).
Anyway, from there it’s on to the Alps phase, where the race sort of futzes around the periphery of the biggest climbs (though, to be clear, climbs are climbs), before finally ascending to the 2300-meter mark on stage 17 over the Col de la Loze, with a drop to Courcheval. Kind of a queen stage, and you would expect that to settle all scores.
And you would be wrong. Here is stage 20, a thoroughly sadistic little detour on the way back to Paris via the Vosges:
Half as high and generally under 10km in road miles, these climbs shouldn’t faze the guys coming out of the Alps. But the final three climbs, totaling 20km, will average over 8%. That’s on July 22, 17 days after the Pyrénées begin.
These two days combine to challenge our expectations of the Tour as a sandwich made of time trials and rolling terrain as the meat wedged between two mountain phases. This is more like a Vuelta a España course than anything else, with the race rhythm allowed to go in all sorts of interesting directions. Even the Giro has a certain symmetry to its courses, climaxing in the third week regardless of what happened before.
This is my favorite feature of the 2023 parcours. It will be beautiful and interesting, and will probably upset a few applecarts along the way. We should have an exciting race, even as we bide our time for the ultimate young stud showdown in 2024.