Blazin' Saddles: The 2020 Tour de France route dissected and digested
Six summit finishes, a host of new climbs, eight possible sprints, just the one time trial and a longest stage which has never been so short – the challenging route of the 2020 Tour de France features all five mountain ranges in France and suits the aggressive riding of home-grown stars Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot over the controlled calculation of Ineos duo Chris Froome and Egan Bernal.
The first thing you notice about the 2020 Tour de France route is its apparent aversion of the north, with the race venturing into the top half of the nation on just two occasions in the final two days of the 107th edition.
Starting a week early (on 27th June) because of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the 2020 Tour features nine mountain stages (including five, possibly six, summit finishes), eight sprint stages, three possible breakaway days, and just the single individual time trial – a 36km slog through Thibaut Pinot's back garden in the Vosges, culminating with an ascent of La Planche de Belles Filles on the penultimate day of the race.
Perhaps buoyed by Julian Alaphilippe's panache-tastic performances in 2019, the race organisers chez ASO have produced a route that favours aggressive riders, with the top ten likely to chop and change most days, and the first major GC showdown as early as day four.
A mountainous opening week kicks off with a scintillating Grand Départ on the French Riviera, which includes a second stage to and from Nice that includes more climbing than ever seen before at such an early point in the Tour.
For the first time since the high mountains were introduced to the Tour in 1910, this is an edition that does not feature one of the legendary ascents of the Tourmalet, Aubisque, Aspin, Ventoux, Galibier or Alpe d'Huez. In fact, while much has been made of the race visiting all five of France's mountain ranges, the Pyrenees are almost bypassed entirely – dipped into on two days but with no big-name summit finishes.
Instead, ASO have favoured new climbs and historical milestones. Famed by Tim Krabbé's account in The Rider, the mythical Mont Aigoual returns to the race for a first summit finish, while there's a nod to Luis Ocaña with a finish at Orcières-Merlette as well as a first-ever Massif Central summit showdown on the Puy Mary in all its bucolic beauty.
An alternative Alpine sequence also features the stunning hairpins of the Grand Colombier and enters unchartered territory with the super-steep Col de la Loze overhanging Meribel – at 2,304m the highest point in the race, a road only recently laid and one solely open to cyclists, too.
But interspersing all these climbs and punishment, nine potential bunch sprints should suit the sprinters – including two stages in week two which are entirely flat, most notably an unprecedented leg between two islands, which could be animated by strong crosswinds coming off the Atlantic.
So, without any more ado, let's take a closer look at what the likes of Stevie Kruijswijk, four time winner Chris Froome, defending champion Egan Bernal, and French pair Alaphilippe and Pinot saw at the unveiling of the 2020 Tour route at Paris on Tuesday.
Grand Départ: Nice
Thirty-eight years after it hosted the Grand Départ in 1981, Nice opens its arms to the biggest cycling race on earth – meaning, three months after Paris-Nice, the Tour will take the pro peloton back to the French capital via one or two meandering detours in a Nice-Paris that stretches out over 3,470 undulating kilometres.
Stage 1: Nice – Nice 156km
Two loops around Nice followed by a larger loop north of the city and into the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes will test the legs of the riders but a flat finish on the Promenade des Anglais should ensure that the first yellow jersey of the 2020 Tour will cover the shoulders of a sprinter.
Stage 2: Nice – Nice 187km
Never has the Tour been so high, so soon. A climbing trio of the Col de la Colmiane, Col de Turini and the Col d'Eze will all but guarantee a new man in yellow after what is the highest second stage ever seen on the Tour. With a total of 4,000m of altitude gain, this demanding stage – which will be used for the 30th Étape du Tour on 5th July – will certainly shuffle the pack.
Stage 3: Nice – Sisteron 198km
Despite some rolling roads through the perfume fields of Grasse and along the famous Route Napoléon, the flat finish should reopen the door to the sprinters and see the likes of Dylan Groenewegen and Caleb Ewan do battle beneath the stunningly jagged Rocher de la Baume.
Stage 4: Sisteron – Orcières-Merlette 157km
The first of five summit finishes pays homage to the 1971 Tour de France and the day Luis Ocaña looked to have dealt a fatal blow to Eddy Merckx's chances of a third consecutive Tour crown after the Spaniard soloed to glory at Orcières with the Belgian almost nine minutes in arrears.
Stage 5: Gap – Privas 183km
Resisting the temptation of continuing into the Alps, the route doglegs away from the mountains and through Provence ahead of an expected bunch sprint in the Rhone valley.
Stage 6: Le Teil – Mont Aigoual 191km
Fans of Tim Krabbé's seminal novel The Rider will be all over this like hipsters at a new avocado toast joint in East London. While Mont Aigoual (1,507m) has already been used in the 1987 Tour, this will be the first time a stage has finished on the famous peak in the stunning Cévennes National Park. Preceding the final climb is an unprecedented assault of the 12km Col de la Lusette, which should create quite the finale on the fringe of the Massif Central.
Stage 7: Millau – Lavaur 168km
After passing beneath the incredible Millau Viaduct – higher than the Eiffel Tower – the riders will have to deal with both rolling terrain and potential winds before what could be another sprint, but which could just as easily suit a break. Mark Cavendish won in Lavaur in 2011.
Stage 8: Cazères-sur-Garonne – Loudenvielle 140km
The first of two shortish stages that dip into the Pyrenees but avoid any of the traditional hotspots is this intriguing test which could prove key in the battle for yellow. First up is the Col de Menté (where Ocaña's 1971 hopes unravelled in a crash days after his win at Orcières) then the Port de Balès (11.7km at 7.7%). A seventh visit in 10 years to the Col de Peyresourde (9.7km at 7.8%) is followed by a downhill run to the finish. Froome will be motivated.
Stage 9: Pau – Laruns 154km
A day of medium mountains kicks off with the race's first ascent of the Col de la Houcère followed by the Col de Soudet. The double-digit ramps of the Col de Marie Blanque precede another downhill run to the finish, this time in Laruns (where Primoz Roglic won Stage 19 in 2018).
Stage 10: Île d'Oléron – Île de Ré 170km
After the first rest day, the first island-to-island stage in Tour history sees the pack tackle windswept marshlands and the coastal roads between Le Château-d'Oléron and Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Those former English school children who remember the Tricolor textbook that accompanied their French classes will relish the passage through La Rochelle ahead of a flat finish that may follow some crosswind chaos.
Stage 11: Châtelaillon-Plage – Poitiers 167km
Another flat stage spirits the riders away from the Atlantic coast and towards central France via the marshlands of Poitou for a finish in Poitiers where Frenchman Arnaud Démare became national champion in 2014.
Stage 12: Chauvigny – Sarran Corrèze 218km
The longest stage of the Tour has never been this short – in fact, this is the only day where the riders break the 200-kilometre barrier. The major test in this rolling stage is the race's first ever ascent of the narrow and exposed Suc au May climb ahead of the finish in Sarran, where Jens Voigt pipped Bradley McGee for a maiden Tour stage win in 2001.
Stage 13: Châtel-Guyon – Puy Mary 191km
This unrelentingly rolling stage through the Massif Central has no fewer than seven climbs (two of which categorised) ahead of a mouth-watering combo of the Col de Neronne and Puy Mary. With a total of 4,400 vertical metres on the menu – including the stinging double-digit ramps of the final climb, also known as the Pas de Peyrol – this is prime ambush territory in the heart of France.
Stage 14: Clermont-Ferrand – Lyon 197km
Climbs of the Monts du Forez and the Col du Béal could slim the pack ahead of a finish which has been described as Milan-Sanremo-esque. Not for its coastal location, mind: you can't get more landlocked than the gastronomic centre of Lyon. No, it's more because of the Cipressa- and Poggio-style climbs of the Côte de la Duchère, Montée de l'Observance and Côte de la Croix-Rousse which precede the fast finale, where Matteo Trentin took his first pro win from a break in 2013.
Stage 15: Lyon – Grand Colombier 175km
In recent years the Tour has taken on all of the numerous ascents up the Grand Colombier. Now there is finally a summit finish, on the so-called Pyramide du Bugey – with three of the four roads on the climb tackled over 17km, including the picturesque hairpins after Culoz and a maximum gradient of 22%. A testing final stage in the Jura mountains before the second rest day also includes the Montée de la Selle de Fromentel and the Col de la Biche.
Stage 16: La Tour-du-Pin – Villard-de-Lans 164km
The Bastille Day offering tackles the jagged roads of the Vercors Massif and features four categorised climbs ahead of the final rise to Villard-de-Lans, where Frenchman Jean-François Bernard memorably cracked in 1987 to concede the yellow jersey to Stephen Roche. Although preceded by 10 flat kilometres along a plateau, the final ramp to the line could easily be considered the race's sixth summit finish.
Stage 17: Grenoble – Méribel, Col de la Loze 168km
The highest summit of the race is the newly crowed Col de la Loze, which directly follows the Col de la Madeleine to make a 22km uphill finale which could prove key in the battle for yellow. Only laid a matter of months ago, the road links the ski resorts of Méribel and Courchevel and is usually closed to all traffic except bikes – when it's not covered in snow, that is. With several ramps over 20% in the final few kilometres, this should prove an explosive new edition to the Tour.
Stage 18: Méribel – La Roche-sur-Foron 168km
More than 4,000 metres of climbing is on the menu in this final Alpine chapter, starting with a climb which was cancelled last July owing to a landslide. After the Cormet de Roselend, the riders tackle the Cols des Saisies and Aravis before a return to the gravel track atop the Montée du Plateau des Glières, which was used in 2018. The descent to the finish is broken up by yet another short climb.
Stage 19: Bourge-en-Bresse – Champagnole 160km
Something of a rarity these days: an offering to the sprinters just two days from Paris. Those remaining fast men who have survived four of the five mountain ranges will get a chance to do battle in a dress rehearsal for the Champs-Élysées and, perhaps, a vital chapter in the fight for the green jersey.
Stage 20: Lure – La Planche des Belles Filles 36km ITT
The only race against the clock in the 107th edition of the Tour comes on the penultimate day and is a tale of three parts: a fast and flat opening third, some rolling roads, then the steep final 7km climb to the finish. This stage takes place in Pinot's home region of the Vosges – and although it does not include the steep gravel portion of the climb where Giulio Ciccone took yellow in July after Dylan Teuns' win, it will ensure that the ultimate winner of the 2020 Tour can hold his own to the very end. Don't rule out the jersey changing hands at the 11th hour, either.
Stage 21: Mantes-la-Jolie – Paris 122km
The usual processional ride into the French capital ahead of the eight laps of the city centre circuit on the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées. This year, rather than give the girls a proper stage in the mountains, La Course returns to Paris with 13 laps over 90km in a move which may make sense logistically, but will no doubt anger fans and protagonists alike.
Verdict: thumbs up for this climber's paradise
This is the route Nairo Quintana would have dreamed about five years ago. As things stand, Colombian hopes will probably lie with the defending champion Bernal – provided he gets the nod over Ineos teammate Froome, who will be vying for a record-equalling fifth win. And that's not even taking into account Geraint Thomas…
On paper, the 2020 route favours aggressive riders who love climbing but who can hold their own in the wind and on rolling terrain suited to ambushes and breakaways. With fewer than 15 flat kilometres against the clock, never have things looked so good for Messrs Pinot, Quintana and Romain Bardet.
Conversely, the paltry ITT offering may help Jumbo-Visma with their selection headache, with new arrival Tom Dumoulin perhaps being forced to favour another tilt at the Giro over a Tour which seems to suit Roglic and Kruijswijk better.
The mountainous terrain has led to claims of the "Vueltafication" of the Tour, but this route is hardly a slap in the face for the sprinters: they should get seven chances for glory before an eighth just two days from Paris. In between, there is that appealing uphill time trial, which should be captivating.
As for the fans, well, the purists and traditionalists will get their knickers in a twist about the absence of big-name climbs. But when did Alpe d'Huez or Ventoux last really deliver? Their concerns should be quickly alleviated once the race gets going: this route promises a bit of everything, and the finishes on Mont Aigoual, the Puy Mary and the Col de la Loze should be spectacular.
Sure, those who live in the north of France will feel a trifle aggrieved. But the Tour is often shaped by the location of the Grand Départ – and a more southerly-centric edition is the inevitable quid pro quo for an opening three days in true cycling hinterland. Brittany, Normandy, Alsace, Lorraine and the most northerly provinces haven't exactly been starved in recent years and they'll get to pop the Champagne corks again soon, as will Champagne.
Before that, there's this quite brilliant-looking 107th edition of the Tour to look forward to. We should be applauding, not nit-picking, ASO's daring 2020 vision.