Some more thoughts on the Tour de France route and the presentation earlier in the week. Once the presentation’s been digested and the profiles poured over there’s more to think about.
First up this is a route to look forward to and the closer your inspect it, the better it gets.
What’s better? The variety of climbs, to caricature the route has several mountain stages that each have with four or five climbs rather than, say, one or two high passes and a summit finish. This makes the race a touch harder to control.
Novelty: it’s been easy to bemoan the way the race returns to the same old sites, like a diner going to preferred restaurant and ordering their usual meal without even looking at the menu. The 2016 route has some old haunts like the Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux but there are several new dishes, or at least some new climbs which look very tasty. The race visits 16 new start or finish towns but the most interesting part is the use of new or underused climbs like the Grand Colombier (pictured), the Forclaz de Quiege or the Hourquette d’Ancizan with its very difficult descent. This matters not for the sake of novelty but because it means riders and team managers lose their bearings, it gets a touch hard to predict what will happen.
Old habits: there are three ways up Mont Ventoux but the Tour de France usually climbs up from Bédoin. It’s a good climb with an irregular profile – soft past the orchards; very steep through the forest; exposed on the lunar section – but known to many. The climb up from Malaucène would make a good alternative one day as it’s hard all the way up. But the current configuration allows the race to occupy the top of the mountain with the essential logistics and then place more equipment further down below at the Mont Serein ski domain, a large area for parking, trucks and more.
No Queen Stage? There’s no obvious monarch of the mountain stages. There doesn’t have to be. Stage 9 at 184km is a candidate with the Collada de Beixalis before the Arcalis summit finish. This is one of those set-piece stages where the likes of Team Sky and Chris Froome will look to control things.
Zapping: Speaking in interviews after the presentation Christian Prudhomme mention le zapping to mean the tendency of television viewers to channel hop. He and his colleagues are acutely aware that the race has to provide plenty of thrills for viewers. It seems the days of several sprint stages in a row are over for good, in fact the number of sprint stages per Tour could well be limited. Five this year, six next year instead of seven to nine stages in the past. Will sprinters become less valuable?
Zapping II: time trials don’t make for great TV so with le zapping in mind one way to make them enjoyable is to ensure stunning scenery. As long as the weather plays along we’ll get this with stunning shots of the Rhône and Ardèche rivers for the first TT and then the Alps for the second one. TV production is still an issue, the solution has to be a real time comparison between riders so that the drama is live on TV rather than limited to the checkpoints along the way and the finish line.
Beep: Christian Prudhomme has said he wants the sound of the peloton included. It is missing at the moment as the TV cameras record sound from the motos meaning you here the engine and the endless roar of “allez” from the crowd but not the changing of gears, the squeal of brake pads and more. Be careful what you wish for though because riders often exchange choice words when the action is on.
Good show: the route may leak but it’s only the start and finish points. The music is a bit pompous and Jean-Etienne’s speech isn’t too stirring but the route release proves the race is much more than a list of start and finish towns. The Vuelta’s launch never gets much interest and the Giro presentation started off stylish but got stuck with long segments of men-in-suits talking.
History repeating? The last time a race went over the Joux Plane to arrive in Morzine wasn’t Floyd Landis’s roid rage rampage but in the 2012 Dauphiné. It was the first sighting of the Team Sky mountain train in full effect as it paced Bradley Wiggins to perfection. Only one rider managed to get clear of this train. It was Nairo Quintana.
French press: 273 towns wanted to bid for the race said L’Equipe on Wednesday. The Radiovelo show revealed that ASO approached the town of Montauban to host the finish of Stage 6. It turns out the race has many towns across the north of France queuing up to host the race but fewer in the south so ASO has to call up some towns to offer them the race.
Smallville: glance at the list of stage starts and finishes and a lot of small towns are on the list, apart from Paris only Montpellier has more than 250,000 inhabitants. It means the race chooses lots of scenic roads which make for good racing. But it isn’t going towards the urban population, even for the sprint finishes. While riders and journalists have celebrated the apparently small transfers between the finish and the next day’s start there maybe some longer journeys to find a bed for the night… or a bad bed and perhaps last summer’s mini polemic over hotels and motorhomes will be back?
Spectator Friendly: the small transfers underline the way the race is grouped into a small area. If you’re planning to see the Tour de France and can devote two weeks to it then there will be a lot to see if you pick a base in the Pyrenees, one in the Rhone valley and another in the Alps. Even for a few days, one base in the Alps could allow you to see several stages allowing you to catch a stage start, some viewing on a mountainside, the time trial and perhaps even standing above Morzine to see the riders drop into town, a route where apparently Sean Kelly clocked 124km/h in the 1984 Tour de France.
Vuillermoz effect? one place you might not reach is Moirans-en-Montagne, a tiny place in the remote Jura départment, just over 2,000 people live there and it will host the start of Stage 16, quite possibly the biggest event ever to happen there. How come it got picked? Well it’s in the right area between the finish of Stage 15 and the destination for the finish in Bern but it’s not famous for much… except Ag2r’s Alexis Vuillermoz is from the area and he’s given his name to a local time trial race in Moirans. One extra is that the head of the Jura is now also chief of an ASO committee that reunites all of the French departments so he’ll have had a say.
Loop the loop: Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné have deployed a finish loop several times where the race crosses the finish line and heads out to climb a hill before returning to arrive in town. Now the Tour gets this in Culoz.
Maps FAQ: some have been asking when the full route comes out with maps and more. Normally this is online at letour.fr from May onwards. Until then you can try to guess for yourself, normally it’s obvious for the mountain stages.
Renaming France: ASO also has a way of renaming places, aided by tourist offices. Stage 19 finishes in St Gervais Mont Blanc. St Gervais is a long way from Mont Blanc, it’s the equivalent of a Canadian stage race having a Toronto-Niagara Falls finish. Although if you climb up you do get good views, the podium pic from the Dauphiné probably has Mont Blanc behind the clouds. In fact if you climb up for the summit finish of the stage you are in Le Bettex and not St Gervais. Similarly take the finish at “Finhaut-Emosson”. There’s no such place, Finhaut is the village down in the valley below, Emosson is the name of the dam. The actual name of the climb is the Col de la Gueulaz. In the Pyrenees a stage starts in Vielha Val d’Aran which is a combine of the town’s name and the valley name, for locals the town is Vielha, or Vielha e Mijaran on the map.
It’s only a map: finally if this was an art exhibition it’s as if we’re getting excited over the canvas and the supply of paint and brushes before a single artist attempts a brush stroke. Still it’s all we’ve got to go on for now ahead a grey winter. Plus it’s a reminder that much of the season, from Oman onwards, is spent analysing who is up and down ahead of July. Remember the Big Four?