The Tour de France presentation was unveiled and if we knew the start and finish and most of what came in between had leaked out there’s still a lot to digest with details of new climbs, potential rule changes and more.
Today’s presentation had two themes, the yellow jersey and Eddy Merckx. The 2019 Tour will commemorate 100 years of the yellow jersey but only loosely, for example there was talk of a stage to Grenoble where the first ever maillot jaune was awarded but a political quarrel seems to have zapped this; meanwhile ASO have kissed and made up with Eddy Merckx after a dispute a year ago but the route isn’t a Merckxian tribute, there’s no Luchon-Mourenx stage for example. In short the twin themes are light when it comes to the race itself… the real themes seems to be short distance mountain stages and high altitude.
The race begins with a likely sprint stage in Brussels via the Kapelmuur and then a 27km team time trial, 8.5km shorter than the 2018 version. On Stage 3 the Tour leaves Binche for Epernay, swapping Belgian beer for champagne as if to mark the race’s return to France and a likely stage for Peter Sagan. There’s more for the sprinters on Stage 4.
Stage 5 exploits the Vosges mountains with some sharp climbs like the Trois Epis, famous as a motorsport hill climb and which should thwart some sprinters.
Stage 6 is the first stage for the GC contenders with The Planche des Belle Filles as the first summit finish, all in Thibaut Pinot’s fiefdom. It’s now a familiar climb but with a twist this time, the finish will be higher than the usual place and via a gravel road making an already steep finish even harder. Tougher still is what precedes the climb, the Grand Ballon and Ballon d’Alsace climbs and then the approach via the vicious Col des Chevrères. Stage 7 is for the sprinters and at 230km, the longest in the race as the race picks up three stages on roads known to Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Stage 8 a scenic, lumpy ride through the Beaujolais before a finish in the industrial city of Saint Etienne. Stage 9 on Bastille Day goes to Brioude and the town where Romain Bardet grew up. A gift to him? It’ll be spun this way but Paris-Nice visited in 2013, it’s a useful stopping point. The passage through the Massif Central could be harder, there was talk of the Col du Béal, but it’s only the opening week and note the road to Brioude features an uncategorised climb of Saint Just, 3.5km at 7.5% and all on a narrow rural road. It’s followed by a stage and a rest day in the red-brick town of Albi and then Stage 11 to Toulouse is another likely sprint as well as picture-postcard images of the peloton passing fields of sunflowers.
Stage 12 sees the race enter the Pyrenees with the Col de Peyresourde and the tricky Hourquette d’Ancizan before the descent of the Aspin’s lower slopes to Bagnères de Bigorre and all within 117km.
Stage 13 is the only individual time trial and just 27km long, a loop around rolling roads south of Pau. It’s the least amount of time trial kilometres since 2015 and part of a trend but unlike recent years it comes before the high mountains rather than after them as we’ve seen in recent years in Marseille and Espelette. The same course will be lapped five times for La Course, a disappointing choice given the mountains on the horizon and that the women rarely get to race in the high mountains; last July’s La Course in the Alps was a great race.
Stage 14 is just 117km via the Col du Soulor to the Col du Tourmalet, a hard summit finish.
Stage 15 is the novelty route across Cathar country, the Port de l’Hers and Mur de Peguère are known quantities but the Prat d’Albis is a “new” climb and worthy of a climb from the Vuelta, a narrow road to nowhere with 11.8km at an average of 6.8% but with plenty of 9-10% slopes early on. Talking of the Vuelta, Stage 16 takes the race to Nimes which hosted the Spanish Tour’s start in 2017, and likely the result of one of ASO’s cross-selling initiatives: “host the Vuelta’s start and we’ll give you a stage of the Tour and a rest day on top” and as well as being a pleasant part of the world it’s flat but exposed to the Mistral wind. Stage 17 goes to Gap via the descent of the Col de la Sentinelle, not as scary as the Rochette descent used of late but still awkward and a good day for the breakaway.
Stage 18 has to be the Queen Stage. 207km and the Col de Vars, the Col de l’Izoard and the Col du Galibier – all well over 2,000m high – before a high speed descent into Valloire, 18km but it’ll take minutes and makes the Galibier a virtual summit finish.
Stage 19 and the high altitude theme continues with the 123km stage over the mighty Col de l’Iseran and then the steady climb to Tignes. The Iseran, aptly described by Antoine Blondin as a “liberal monarch”, is the king of the Alps as Europe’s highest paved mountain pass while also accessible and approachable. It starts at 1800m above sea level, roughly the same altitude where Alpe d’Huez tops out and then goes up for 13km at 7.5% to a hypoxic height of 2765m before a long, fast descent and the climb to Tignes, 7.4km at 7% before a final flat kilometre through the ski resort.
Stage 20 is the last chance to alter the GC with 130km over the scenic Cormet de Roselend via the Col du Meraillet (and not the Col du Pré) before using the Isère valley like a snowboarder down a halfpipe to take the climb up to Notre-Dame-du-Pré before the valley and then the long climb to Val Thorens, 33km at 5.5% but strip out the descents and much of it is a selective 7% or more. Then comes Stage 21, part parade, part glamour criterium.
It’s still a lap around France and the temptation is to exaggerate the differences. Still, the previous edition was Christian Prudhomme’s acoustic album: big on novelty and experimental ideas, whether the 65km mountain stage, the Breton coast, the Roubaix stage, the Glières gravel and the numerous secondary climbs used last summer. This is a return to more standard fare, swapping the backroads for the main roads, especially in the Alps where long, steady climbs like the Iseran, Tignes and Val Thorens feature. That said, short distance mountain stages may be the new normal these days but should still be noteworthy, Stage 14 is just 114km long and Stages 19 and 20 are both under 130km and should be lively. There’s supposedly more climbs than ever with 30 categorised ascents, but fewer HC climbs than last year. This is ASO’s subjectively labelling though, the race can tackle passes without a mountains competition mention. What’s undisputed is the altitude with seven passes over 2,000m in the race, in recent years there have been as few as two or three.
There’s even fewer time trial kilometres than last year and part of a trend. Partly they’re not a ratings hit but also the exchange rate between time trial stages and summit finishes has changed, a pure climber can often only hope to take seconds on a rival like Chris Froome or Tom Dumoulin on a summit finish while still losing a minute in a 27km time trial is quite easy.
The sprinters are well served with seven stages waiting for them, two fewer than 2018, assuming they can cope with the likely tough time cuts once again and there are five stages, like those to Colmar, Brioude or Gap that should reward breakaways and attacks for the likes of Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet et al.
Away from the course and there are relatively few transfers, several stages finishes and starts happen in the same place which should please riders and the attendant media alike and the press pack might enjoy the recurring wine themes along the way with the likes of Epernay, Turckheim, Villié-Morgon, Jurançon, Limoux and more along the way.
Christian Prudhomme declared he wants to ban power meters and that he wants to increase the time bonuses available. He’s probably asking for both in order to settle for the latter. You might remember the time bonus sprints from the first week of the 2018 Tour, they’ll be back for 2019 only throughout the three weeks of the race and so we can expect time bonuses atop mountain passes, eg on the Galibier and not just at the finish line. The UCI rules restrict in stage bonuses to 3-2-1 seconds respectively but ASO want to be able to award more time, perhaps 10 seconds but we’ll see if this happens and how this might influence the race.
As ever the presentation lists the start and finish towns and the likely route but the exact route, maps and timings should be published in May 2019.