The 2017 Tour de France route was unveiled last month. Usually this blog does a snap analysis of the route but having been away last month it’s still worth reviewing the route and sharing some thoughts. Next year’s route looks unusual with so few summit finishes. If Tour bosses Christian Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou were rock stars this would be their experimental album.
1-23 July: The first thing that stands out looking at the map is how the race skips most of France’s boring terrain. With apologies to proud Bretons who love their cycling and others who miss out again most of northern and western France is flat and often featureless. As ever the race can’t visit the whole country in one go so it has to visit each region every two or three years and 2017 offers some choice terrain, the kind to enjoy riding in, nevermind racing. Let’s look closer at each stage…
Don’t call it a prologue, the race starts in sleepy Düsseldorf and Stage 1 is flat 13km time trial and the means establish an early hierarchy for the race. It’s said this will make the race safer, no longer will 198 riders be in contention for the yellow jersey but if the hypothesis holds true, it’s marginal as the opening week is always stressful. It’s part of cycling’s efforts to crack the German market and will be Tony Martin’s date with destiny.
Stage 2 takes the race to Liège and avoiding the Ardennes, the stage ends with a flat finish for the sprinters where Liège-Bastogne-Liège could return once the contract with hilly suburb of Ans ends. Stage 3 leaves Belgium, crosses much of Luxembourg before reaching French soil and a tasty finish in the citadel of Longwy with an uphill climb of two kilometres for the likes of Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert and Michael Matthews.
Stage 4 is for the sprinters as it heads to the town of Vittel, home of the eponymous bottled water. Vittel water is owned by Nestlé, a major sponsor of the race so it’s due a stage finish.
Stage 5 is the first summit finish at the familiar Planche des Belles Filles site which has featured in 2012 and 2014. It’s Thibaut Pinot’s back yard. 2017 should be more like 2012 with a direct run to the foot of the climb rather than the mountain stage seen in 2014 where La Planche came after several steep. This means smaller time gaps but it’ll still be a crucial test of climbing. There’s even the chance that the stage winner takes yellow and VAM-bam-thank-you-Madame keeps it to Paris. As much as the contenders won’t want to lose time they may not want to lead the race this early and so there’s a chance the breakaway sticks.
Stage 6 is for the sprinters with a finish in Troyes as they pass over the Plateau de Langres, source of the river Seine which flows to Paris while the riders continue their longer route. Stage 7 will have sections of the press room in rapture with the visit to Nuits St Georges, famous for its fine wines. The 2011 vintage of Paris-Nice also visited and showed us the lumpy terrain through the vineyards which ended with Matt Goss winning, this should offer the perfect finish for Sagan again.
Stage 8 reaches the Jura mountains and a finish in Les Rousses where Sylvain Chavanel arguably took his best ever win. It’s hilly but not hard, the big climb up to the finish, the “Montée de la Combe de Laisia Les Molunes” is better known to locals as the Lacets de Septmoncel and 5-6% most of the way.
Stage 9 is a festival of compact chainsets and MTB-style cassettes. It’s uphill from the start with two passes and a plateau to cross. Next comes the Col de la Biche which offers almost 1000m of vertical gain in just over 10km and all on a tiny tertiary road and if it’s never been in the Tour de France, it may never have featured in a pro race at all. A brief descent and then the Grand Colombier, now a familiar name but not a familiar route. This mountain has one road over the top but approach roads and they take the directissime version this time with a 22% section and plenty of 10% too. There’s a flat valley section before the road kicks up in the approach to the mighty Mont du Chat. This is a very hard climb but what once had the likes of Eddy Merckx grinding their way up is today a mere spin thanks to wider gearing. Either way it’s selective and there’s little time to regroup before the finish in Chambéry.
Stage 10 comes after a rest day and the route from Périgueux to Bergerac is the sybaritic stage, expect fields of sunflowers as the race passes vineyards as well as truffle and foie gras country before a likely sprint finish. Stage 11 goes to Pau but this time it’s a flat stage rather than the usual pointy Pyrenean contest.
Stage 12 visits the Pyrenees. The Port de Balès is a hard climb before they descend to Saint Aventin and go up the road where Chris Froome went down last summer to the Col de Peyresourde and then the extra climb to Peyragudes.
Stage 13 is a 100km dash across the Pyrenees and tackles the suitably-named Col de Latrape. On paper it’s reminiscent of the Vuelta’s 118km stage to Aramón Formigal, the “Froomigal” stage where Team Sky caught out by Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador’s early attack. There’s no guarantee of action but this does promise beaucoup action with the steep Mur de Péguère.
Stage 14 goes from Blagnac, home of Airbus, to Rodez and features the same uphill finish where Greg Van Avermaet got the better of Peter Sagan. Stage 15 is hilly as it crosses the Aubrac plateau, famous for its cold winters and cattle with handlebar horns and enough climbing to keep some sprinters at bay before a flat finish. Stage 16 is another hilly stage with a flatter finish as the cross the Ardèche plateau before a finish in Romans-sur-Isère, home to Ag2r La Mondiale’s Pierre Latour.
In a race with few celebrity mountain passes Stage 17 is an Alpine classic with the Croix de Fer and then the Télégraphe-Galibier combo. The descent to the finish is in two parts: the tricky drop off the Galibier and then the longer run down the gentler Col du Lautaret where having a team mate or three will be a great assistance.
Stage 18 is scenic and tackles the underrated Col de Vars before a high altitude summit finish on the Col d’Izoard and its steep slopes and scenic Casse Deserte (“broken desert”) section. Stage 19 takes the race away from the Alps with a flat finish to see the breakaway duel with the sprinters teams.
Stage 20 is a 23km time trial around the city Marseille which will be flat except for the steep climb to the Notre Dame cathedral with its 17% slopes. The start and finish inside the Stade Vélodrome, it’s short to the point of explosive. Stage 21 is the traditional run to the Champs Elysées with a twist featuring more Parisian scenes designed to show off potential venues for the 2024 Olympics bid.
- three summit finishes
- five mountain stages
- seven pure sprint stages
The first reaction was “hmm” more than “wow”, if the Tour de France was a band this is their experimental phase rather than the trusty greatest hits album. Gone are many of the celebrity climbs – no Tourmalet, Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez – and there are only three crowd-pleaser summit finishes (La Planche des Belles Filles, Peyragudes and the Izoard). The mountain stages are often spaced apart by a lot of sprint stages (seven for the pure sprinters; four more for the more versatile fastmen) and this could mean the climbing is more explosive as the contenders will be marginally fresher each time a mountain stage comes.
At first glance this route offers attacking riders opportunities but they’ll be hard to take given the risk-averse environment of the Tour de France where dreams of audacious attack can become a boomerang move that backfires.
Who will win?
We don’t even know who start the race but it’s hard to see past Chris Froome who can climb with the best and then beat time in the time trials, plus he’s got a team that will be stronger for 2017. The chart above is from the 2016 Tour de France and shows the overall position of riders relative to Chris Froome on each stage. It’s a handy reminder of where Froome’s rival’s fell away: the 37km time trial on Stage 13 where they all went from seconds down to minutes behind. Froome may like the Giro route but talk of him doing the Giro seems fanciful, Sky as a sponsor is active in Italy but they bank on the Tour de France and if Froome wants to think about “legacy” he’ll do this once the end of this career is in sight rather than being at his peak. Still, the likes of Alberto Contador and Romain Bardet will find terrain to suit their risk-taking ways while consistent riders backed by strong teams like Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte are obvious podium picks too with Alejandro Valverde in the mix too given the 10-6-4 second time bonuses for the taking.
La Course d’Izoard
The women’s race will be an abbreviated copy of the final mountain stage of the Tour with the finish on the Col d’Izoard. It’s still got the feel of a token addition rather than what could be the highlight of the calendar but the Izoard offers a great TV spectacle. Even if it’s just 67km then it’ll offer two hours of action and scenery as opposed to the Parisian procession and inevitable sprint finish. The brevity of the course and the smaller teams should mean fireworks. Still, the mooted extension of this event into a proper stage race can’t come soon enough. A couple of readers have emailed in asking how come La Course is allowed such a short course given the UCI rules but the rules were changed mid-year to allow shorter races so it’s ok.
Made for TV
A big novelty will be the total TV coverage with all stages shown live from start to finish. Why? Largely because of the media landscape in France where a live event attracts an audience and premium advertisers alike as opposed to a daytime repeat. This is to be welcomed for two reasons: First because the first hour can be the best and most intense of the day and everyone can now see it; if nothing happens then you can return to work, sleep or go for a ride and tune in for the finish just as before. Second even if you don’t watch then everything will be filmed so you can see richer highlights later.