Blazin' Saddles: Can someone different win the 2017 Tour de France?
Announced this week, the 2017 Tour de France route contains fewer but steeper climbs and only 36 time trial kilometres. But will Chris Froome still come out in yellow?
Speaking at the glitzy launch party in Paris, race director Christian Prudhomme unveiled what he hoped would be "an unpredictable Tour, where the race can be at stake on any given day".
Highlights of the innovative 2017 route include an opening 13km time-trial in Dusseldorf, (where "local" world champion Tony Martin will be favourite), stages in all five of France's mountain ranges (including one stage just 100km long and only three major summit finishes), at least nine potential sprint stages, a penultimate day time trial of just 23km in Marseille, and a final stage to Paris which will see the peloton ride through the famous Grand Palais.
Sporting a zipped-up black shirt and an equally questionable rusty brown jacket, Froome, the triple Tour champion, looked chunkier and rather full-faced as he chewed the fat with journalists, giving his verdict on a race that he still believed "will be won in the mountains".
Froome said that the lack of time trialling makes it "more challenging" for him, adding: "With only three summit finishes, I think that opens up the race to be very aggressive elsewhere."
Prudhomme agreed, claiming the course he had come up with ASO's route-finding supremo, Thierry Gouvenou, should result in a "more open, less controlled race". Between the lines: one which Team Sky and Froome will have to work harder at winning.
But even so, can anyone actually beat Froome next July – and who will be grinning, and who will be groaning, following the disclosure of the route?
The route – at a glance
- 104th edition covers 3,516km over 21 stages
- Starting in Germany, the race crosses Belgium and Luxembourg before entering France
- 2 time trials, 9 flat stages, 4 hilly stages, 6 mountain stages
- Bookended by just 36km of time trials (Dusseldorf, 13km; Marseilles, 23km)
- Stages in all five French mountain ranges: the Vosges, Jura, Pyrenees, Massif Central and Alps
- 3 summit finishes (La Planche de Belle Filles, stage 5; Peyragudes, stage 12; Izoard, stage 18)
- Legendary climbs of Alpe d'Huez, Tourmalet, Ventoux and Aubisque all do not figure, but there's a place for the Galibier in stage 17
- The 100km stage 17 to Foix on Bastille Day is one of the shortest stages in recent memory and features the Mur-de-Peguere, which peaks at 18%
- All 21 stages will be broadcast live on TV from start to finish
The route – tell us more
Running from Saturday 1st July until Sunday 23rd July, the 2017 Tour looks – at least from a squinting bird's eye view – like France's reaction to that little referendum that took place in Britain a few months ago and is still rocking every boat in the British Channel...
Of course, it's just as more likely to be a reaction to London's 11th hour withdrawal of its accepted bid to host the Grand Depart – or perhaps, simply, a question of logistics (north-west France hosted a cluster of stages last year after Mont Saint Michel's curtain-raiser, while any race visiting all five of the nation's mountainous regions probably needs to steer clear of the pan-flat Pas de Calais).
Ah, the mountains – not many of them this year?
The jury's out. Even though ASO have emblazoned the words "The road just got steeper" on the Tour website following the launch of the course, it's true that there are fewer climbs in total – and just three summit finishes.
Froome will be pleased to see an early finish on La Planche des Belles Filles – the super-steep slope where he notched a break-through Tour stage victory in 2012. The second summit finish – at Peyragudes in the Pyrenees – will see Froome lead his rivals up the same back side of the Peyresourde climb that he so acrobatically descended last year, en route to his opening win.
Then there's the historic and unprecedented stage finish on the summit of the Col d'Izoard in Stage 18 – with the classic Alpine col tackled from its south side and through the lunar Casse Deserte. Preceded by the steep Col de Vars, that will be one of the highlights of the race – an "absolute beast" in the words of the defending champion.
But there are still many other mountainous stages – including the stage to Station des Rousses in the Jura and, most notably, the bombastic Stage 9 to Chambery, which features the testing tryptic of the Mont du Chat, Grand Colombier and Col de la Biche ahead of a downhill ride to the line.
Most intriguing, perhaps, is the short but sharp 100km stage to Foix on Bastille Day, which features enough climbing to have Froome on his toes following his undoing during a similarly short stage in the Vuelta in September. Following two rolling days in the Massif Central, the legendary Col du Gablier also features in an Alpine stage that boasts the Croix de Fer in its armoury.
But "steep" is the catchword for the course: although there's fewer climbs, there are more climbs – such as the Chat, Biche, Grand Colombier, Planche des Belles Filles and Vars – that have double-digit gradients pushing 20 per cent at times.
Will this make it harder for Team Sky?
In a word, yes. At least, in theory. It's harder for a single team to control things on steep climbs – especially if they come early on during the stage. It all seems to be part of Prudhomme's objective to make the Tour more open. Indeed, he's still pushing for the UCI to allow him to reduce teams to eight riders, and not nine – presumably in a bid to reduce Sky's stranglehold on the Tour.
Will ITT black hole knock Froome, too?
It will. After all, much of Froome's advantage this year came from his performances in the solitary 37.5km time trial. Well, this year there are two ITTs but, tellingly, they amount to fewer kilometres against the clock. Indeed, the penultimate day's 23km ITT around Marseille takes place over a technical urban course and includes one climb, so Froome will struggle to build up the kind of gaps we usually associate with him and a tight skin-suit.
The very fact that Dutchman Tom Dumoulin – who won that time trial last year – admits that the 2017 Tour "isn't perfect for me" goes to show that this is not the kind of course that favours big, powerful riders of his ilk. Although he may reconsider once he takes a look at the climbing agenda.
Tom Dumoulin wins stage 13 of the Tour de FranceEurosport
Alberto Contador, who's ITT powers are on the wane, is right in seeing the course as "very interesting" because the shorter final time trial will keep the race "more open until the finale". The soon-to-be Trek-Segafredo rider is not the only figure to benefit from this: Nairo Quintana's comparative weakness against the clock were highlighted during his Vuelta victory over Froome, and the Colombian will be relishing this course – even if he does prefer longer, steadier climbs.
All this being said, it's worth remembering that Froome won the 2015 Tour by 1:12 on Quintana in a year that the inclusion of just a solitary 14km ITT was meant to favour the Colombian.
Who else will be buoyed by the route?
Esteban Chaves has yet to ride the Tour – preferring to tackle both the Giro and Vuelta for the past two seasons. But with less time trialling and more steep climbs, the Colombian could be tempted to alter his programme. You'd imagine at least one of the Yates brothers will feature for Orica-BikeExchange – especially following Adam's fourth place last year and Simon's showing in Spain.
Colombian Esteban Chaves of team Orica celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 110th edition of the giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy), a 241 km cycling race from Como to Bergamo on October 1, 2016. Esteban Chaves, of the Movistar team, beatAFP
Vincenzo Nibali will be Bahrain Merida's top dog after playing second fiddle to Fabio Aru in his last year at Astana. And with the 100th Giro d'Italia starting in his native Sardinia, expect Aru to go all in for the maglia rosa and perhaps skip the Tour. The route may entice Andrew Talansky back for Cannondale after his Tour break this July, while Richie Porte will surely be given the green light over the stuttering Tejay Van Garderen at BMC.
But the most excited by the prospect of a Tour with punchier climbs and less racing against the clock will clearly be those riders hoping to end the host nation's long wait for a winner. Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot, Warren Barguil, Pierre Rolland and Julian Alaphilippe will all be licking their chops in anticipation.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)AFP
Of the above, Bardet, last year's runner-up, may never have a better chance at going one better. The short nature of the final time trial means the French whippet could feasibly enter the Marseille ITT with a slender lead from the Alps – and still not follow Andy Schleck's lead and have the maillot jaune wrested from his shoulders on the eve of the finish in Paris.
What about the sprinters?
Well, Eddy Merckx won't be enthralled: Mark Cavendish needs just four more wins to draw level with the Belgian's career stage tally and with nine potential sprint stages for the taking, history could be made next July. Still, we probably won't see much of the world champion's rainbows: Peter Sagan is most likely to be in green most of the race.
Mark Cavendish in yellow!AFP
The final verdict
Like an album that gets better with every listen, the 2017 route at first seemed rather underwhelming – but its depth and intrigue is revealing itself more by the day. It's certainly a bold effort for Prudhomme and the Tour organisers to try and shake things up a little because variety is very much the spice of life and a mainstream race like the Tour often gets accused of going stale.
But Froome is the best Grand Tour rider of his generation and he's able to adapt to everything that's thrown at – or taken away from – him. He'll still be the favourite for a fourth win, hands down – provided he can shed the off-season weight he's already clearly put on...