The 2012 Tour de France hasn’t been announced but the blogosphere has a good take on the route already. Whilst rumours circulate it seems several reports are confirming that the first mountain stage will feature the Grand Colombier climb in the Alps. It sits above the Lac du Bourget near Aix Les Bains and regardless of the route to the top this a hard climb with double-digit gradients and ramps at 20% at times. Many riders will know it from the Tour de l’Ain race held every August.
It won’t be a summit finish as the race will descend to the nearby town of Bellegarde for the finish. But it marks a change in the attitude of the Tour de France organisers. I found the 2011 race benefited from the first week’s use of uphill finishes to vary the outcome each day; many of you will remember the days when the first week saw sprint finishes day after day. Now it’s not just the first week that is being modified but the whole attitude of the race.
If you tried to learn French geography via the Tour de France you could get a good appreciation of the country but when the race visited the Alps you would get the impression that only a few roads existed. For sure the likes of the Galibier and the Izoard connect important valleys but France has a vast road network and there are so many routes in the Alps that have been ignored by the Tour de France. This has been in part-logistical, the Tour de France caravanne is so big that small roads are out of the question. It’s been part-financial with big corporate-owned ski resorts keen to host the race and outbidding more modest towns. But there’s been a conservative element too that saw the race returning to the same roads years after year. A bit like someone visiting a restaurant who always orders the same dish.
Now though it seems that Tour director Jean-François Pescheux is looking for new roads. Some are being tested in the Dauphiné race, now owned by Tour de France organisers ASO and others are tried by the Tour de l’Avenir. Either way the Tour is changing a format that stood still for years, partly – it seems – inspired by the Giro d’Italia’s innovations. Whilst steep climbs like the Angliru and Zoncolan have been staples of the Vuelt and Giro the Tour de France has tended to stick to more accessible climbs.
The Grand Colombier is a steep climb and reconnaissance will be essential. And not just for the ascent but the descent too for this is just as technical.