Tour de France Route Thoughts

Having looked at the route in a procedural sense on Tuesday, now time to take a step back and look at things in more detail, from aspects of the course to details like the transfers and more.

It’s certainly the Tour of the South of France with a route that barely strays north of the 46th parallel. Now the race can’t visit every region, every year and the aim is to visit each region of the mainland once every three or so years but the 2020 map looks flagrant, it’s visually a route that skips regions. But there’s data to settle things, this map below from France Info shows the départments visited since the race started.

Obviously if the route had a bias to some regions in, say, the 1920s then that’s little comfort to spectators today. What stands out is France’s central areas don’t get the Tour very often. They’re sparsely populated, not very wealthy and don’t have much of a tourism industry.

Tourism’s booming elsewhere. Christian Prudhomme described the Col de la Loze as the “prototype climb of the 21st century”. It’s a new climb, freshly tarmacked but before anyone complains about celebrating increased traffic in the mountains, note this one is reserved for cyclists and hikers only: it’s literally a cycle path and it’ll be weird to see the Tour de France going up it, a bit like the Giro’s opening team time trial in 2015 on the Sanremo cycle path. It’s not the first climb to get tarmacked to draw cyclists, see the Col du Portet in the Pyrenees above Pla d’Adet and it’s probably not the last with several projects in the pipeline for new roads made just for cyclists only. Alpine towns want to promote summer tourism and in turn they’ll want the Tour de France to come and shine a spotlight. It’s down to road cycling being seen as a tourism draw for traditional cycling resorts but also the e-bike boom where winter sports outfitters are investing in fleets of electric bikes so tourists can enjoy an assisted ride: now they can tackle a car-free climb of the Tour de France.

All this would suggest the race gets pulled to the Alps more than the Pyrenees as the tourist infrastructure is that much bigger there, there’s a lot more investment going into the Alps these days. But here’s more leeway to chose a route that encourages lively racing. In times past the hosting fees from start and finish towns dictated a lot of the course choice but this time there can be up to 300 offers to host the Tour each year and if the going rate has gone up over the years, it’s now a small proportion of the race’s income and so less of a driver. Forgoing hosting fees to have a livelier race makes business sense.

Orcières-Merlette is back on the route and famous for Luis Ocaña’s triumph in 1971. The last visit was in 1989 when Steven Rooks won the mountain time trial. A small historical nugget was that this was the first time live race data telemetry was beamed onto TV when the Toshiba team, sponsored by Look, rode with Look powermeters on their rear hub and, thanks to giant aerials under the saddle, the watts were beamed onto the screen.

The 2020 route has a lot of climbs but not as many hors catégorie climbs as last year. The race hasn’t yet awarded labels to the climb which gives plenty of time to toy with the classification and the points system for the mountains competition but as ever it’s hard to engineer a satisfying outcome.

Going higher than the mountains now and despite sticking to a small section of France it looks like there are two plane journeys for the riders and a long drive for the rest of the caravan. It’s not very écolo to fly but, according to journalist Patrick Chassé speaking on a radio broadcast last July, France’s railway company the SNCF is wary of transporting the Tour de France for fear it’d be an obvious target for strikes and protests and so a special train is out of the question.

On a similar subject, ASO boss Jean-Etienne Amaury said a goal is to have an electric caravan one day in the Tour de France but this is a long way off. Vehicles that can manage a claimed range of 500km would be stretched, for example a team car has to drive to the start, cover the 200km stage and drive to the hotel after, and all this with a rack of bikes to spoil the aerodynamics and that’s before we consider the problem of finding charging points in rural France. Put another way if pro cycling goes for electric vehicles it’ll be when the whole of Europe has gone electric.

Another area where progress is slow: Jean-Etienne Amaury’s speech started listing all the women’s races ASO runs and it seemed to be building to a crescendo of an announcement of something new. But no. French champ Jade Wiel and new FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine recruit Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig had to sit through a long presentation about a race denied to them. Instead the news is La Course is back to Paris and lapping the Champs Elysées. Personally I always found this course boring, you can tune in for the final three minutes and not miss much but when the race was moved away from the capital and into the countryside there were complaints too, some saying the media couldn’t attend easily; that VIP access for crucial sponsors was limited; and the Champs provided valuable marketing material with iconic images. Perhaps it’s good for business but it’ll be boring to watch, the test is whether ASO can come up with the summer stage race that’s rumoured.

Here’s the chart showing the amount of time trial kilometres over the years. 2020 has a little more than recent years. But kilometres are only one metric, perhaps time is more appropriate? On this basis 2020 will have a longer course than 2016 because the climb of La Planche des Belles Filles adds to the duration.

The lack of time trial kilometres shouldn’t be a handicap for Tom Dumoulin, Primož Roglič or Chris Froome if they’re all in top shape. Some see the declining amount of TTs in the Tour and declare it’s “unbalanced” but this seems to be one of those zombie ideas that just won’t die. They say with more timetrialling the climbers would have to attack more but the point here is they can’t: if they could ride away for a stage win they’d do it already. The best TT riders tend to be the best anyway, take the last Vuelta which Roglič would have won if the Pau TT was deleted, it would have been close but he’d have still won overall, everything else being equal. The same for Chris Froome’s wins, he was typically outclimbing the climbers anyway and the time trial just let him put minutes into them on top. So to “balance” the race, the idea is to reduce the amount of TT kilometres. That’s probably the idea but the rest is down to the riders.

We’ll get the Giro route soon too and then riders can start planning what to do. We know RCS pays appearance fees so sometimes sitting down to compare the routes isn’t the deciding factor but several teams and riders face choices:

  • Who will Jumbo-Visma bring? Dylan Groenewegen might see few opportunities but the Dutch team’s philosophy is trying to win on every possible stage and so he could still ride
  • Ineos have plenty of riders to chose from. Their aim for 2020 is to go into each grand tour with two leaders capable of winning and they’ve been shopping accordingly, for example hiring Richard Carapaz. This leads endless media questions about leadership but the idea is the internal competition spurs riders on
  • Decision time for Julian Alaphilippe. This Tour route really suits but it’s an Olympic year and he’s the prototype rider for the Tokyo course. This isn’t to say he can win the Tour but a podium and more time in yellow look likely. Others will face the same tension, the Tour finishes on Sunday 19 July and the Olympic Road Race is on Saturday 25 July
  • As for Thibaut Pinot for a long time he’s loved the Giro but the Tour is the priority again, he’s so keen to be back that he should ride Paris-Nice next year when he’s usually opted for Tirreno-Adriatico. Besides time trial stage starts in the town he was born and uses his home roads. He’s over the injury too
  • Romain Bardet’s been talking about riding a different grand tour and maybe a sabbatical in Italy could be good for him but this route will tempt him
  • What else can Peter Sagan do at the Tour de France? Bora-Hansgrohe could aim for a bumper start fee from RCS and then send Pascal Ackermann to the Tour, a move to keep both riders happy while “passing go” and collecting at the same time.
  • The World Tour and wildcard situation’s still up in the air, as things stand Dimension Data aren’t certain to be in the World Tour but if ejected they’d still get a Tour de France wildcard under the UCI rules while the best Pro Conti team at the moment is Total Direct Energie but only just with Wanty-Gobert just a handful of points behind and both are riding the Tour of Guangxi.

Finally some of the route is still unknown, we know the start and finish but not always what comes between. Now there’s no mystery or surprise, it’s more the precise route isn’t public. One reason is all the roads have to be signed off by every mayor and councillor along the way and there are complicated things like access for the emergency services (not to the race but how they can bypass the Tour’s route). It means the entire route probably won’t be signed off until some point early next year and then the actual maps will be made in the spring and published on the race website in May. Still we can derive or guess plenty of the road and if you want any help for planning a trip, drop an email.

22 thoughts on “Tour de France Route Thoughts”

  1. I’m quite excited by this tour route! I was pleased to not see the “usual suspects” crammed into the last week unlike previous editions where I’d be thinking “that’s going to be blockbuster” to then be disappointed as the race threatens to come to life but never quite manages it. One of the reasons I find that the Vuelta has become the more interesting GT is that Spain hasn’t really got any “mythical” climbs (except Covadonga) that demand to be inserted in the race every couple of years. This gives them the freedom to explore new climbs and roads and it’s always good to watch. I think this year’s Tour will be the same, at least the anticipation will be. I think Ineos’s “galáctico” line up will be interesting for most of next season but definitely in the Tour, as nice a chap as Bernal seems, I doubt he’ll happily step aside to allow Froome to lead. A quick note on the “La Course”, I don’t understand why the women’s Tour continue to bother with France, they have the freedom to set up a big tour in a country where they would be better received, the States perhaps? Colombia??

    • On La Course – It’s not so much that the womens tour wants to crack the French market, it’s more that they want ASO to take some proper resonsibility and stick to it’s own promises. ASO made big claims years ago about growing La Course, taking it away from Paris, making it a multi-day race etc etc only to never follow through and in the last year has gone backwards with it’s actions.
      They are also very clear they do not want a Grand Tour or the same sort of monolpy situation the mens side is in. Excellent races in the States already exist (it’s probably the best domestic womens scene in the world), the Womens Tour in the UK is arguably the biggest on the calendar, and it’s happily established the traditional areas of Belgium, Netherlands and Italy.

      • Interesting that the US stage race calendar for women seems to face the same problem the Cyclocross calendar is facing. Not high enough level of talent to compete with the best of the world, and sponsorship level is also not worldwide but national/continental in scope at best.

        • There are some great climbs that offer plenty but they haven’t built up the mythology of other places. You can visit the likes of Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux today and take your pick from rental bikes, commemorative t-shirt etc… this shouldn’t be the measure of a climb – I’m quite happy the Fauniera is deserted – but it points to a climb’s status and don’t think there’s anything like this for the Vuelta yet but give it time.

      • Angliru is a great climb but has only been in the Vuelta 20 years and Bola del Mundo is 3km of sketchy concrete tagged onto Navacerrada, neither can really be compared to Galibier or Stelvio for example. As I said, it’s actually a positive thing in many ways and no disrespect to the Vuelta. And as IR said it’s actually better riding up these places and not having to dodge cars, Motos and the occasional bus.

  2. Great read as ever, INRNG!!

    Regarding the map of FranceInfo: it would look different if one consideres only the years since Prudhomme took over – way more south-loaded and the Departments in Massif central rather regularly visited.

    I really appreciate the willingness of ASO to go off the beaten mountain tracks. Yes, they can obviously afford it. This kind of Tour they had in mind for long: medium mountains will be of central relevance for the GC battle rather than nice annexes. Was there ever a Tour without all the big name ascents?

    I am curious how the race will develop on this parcours. Hope, it will indeed be hard to control.

    “kilometres are only one metric, perhaps time more appropriate? On this basis 2020 will have a longer course than 2016” – not sure about that one (think of the Megeve mountain TT)

  3. I think it’s very unlikely that Sagan heads to Italy. Specialized will want him to come to California.

    I don’t know how much of Sagan’s contract specialized is paying these days, but I imagine they will want him at their “home” race.

  4. Great article… slight aside. Just read the news about Edo Maas, very sad news.
    I heard the news of the boxer dying this morning and thought ‘glad I don’t follow such an needlessly violent sport that seems to result in so many deaths’ but now hearing this and thinking over the other recent cycling deaths, as a fan I find it hard to stomach. Accidents will happen but the severe accidents seem to be happening too regularly in races recently, I hope more can be done to protect the riders in the near future. I’m not interested in watching any sport out of blood lust.

    • I read that with great sadness too.
      And then I wonder with next year’s new mountain cycle path route what kind of support infrastructure can be provided on it, as well as considering safety with spectators etc?
      I’m also a touch uneasy about using the Tour as a fillip for e-bike tourism.
      I love e-bikes and the wider physical and mental benefits they can bring to public health but is sending a 200 odd sized peloton up precipitous cycle paths a true symbiotic relationship?

      • No it isn’t and it does celebrate increased traffic in the mountains, to the mountains and from the mountains however much Inrng and others want to spin that it doesn’t.

    • This subject has very much been on my mind too, I did suggest on a earlier thread that a proper discussion would be interesting and useful. There will always be an element of risk in cycling but I do wonder if those tasked with designing the courses pay as much attention as they should to rider safety. Thrills and spills are great but not if it creates an unacceptable level of risk.

  5. Thanks for the attention to the women. With the olympics and uncertainties of UCI rules in 2020, I understand it would add to the challenge of organizing a new women stage race.
    I have high hopes that my opinion will be validated with a short 3-5 day summer stage race in 2021 by ASO, perhaps with backing of FDJ and the Departement of NA + Bretagne?

  6. If Jumbo Visma bought out Tom Dumoulin’s contract from Team Sunweb, one may presume that it was money spent to win the TdF.
    Is there any way that Dumoulin and Roglic can appear on the same TdF team?
    They’d be the absolute perfect match to Froome and his chief lieutenant, whoever that may be.
    I hope it happens – if it does, it wouldn’t matter a jot that Ineos employ the mountain train tactic because this would suit their rivals as well.
    And they couldn’t rely on the TT to gain time.
    Wow, that would be the race of the Century, no?

    • Whilst it will be interesting to see the result Ineos being challenged in the control stakes, Race of the Century might be pushing it. I envisage the “young turks” we’re seeing come through now providing opportunities for more exciting races in the 2020s than there have been so far in the 21st Century.

      This Tour is about tourism. I’m already relishing the notion of slipping a visit to some of these new climbs into future trips across the Channel. (Brexit reference deleted.)

  7. It’s interesting that as you say the best time trialists today are also the best climbers, or certainly amongst the best climbers. It’d be interesting to track back and find the tipping point at which the norm and why. Armstrong with his massive asterisk was the best climber and TTer in his day. Before him Indurain, Zulle and Ullrich could climb but relied on the TT a bit more. Is it a case of there being no outstanding climbing talent at the moment, modern sports science allowing tters to blast out 450 watts for an hour whilst weighing 65 kilos, super strong teams running mountain trains from halfway through a mountain stage so no one can get away or a combination of all of these? Certainly time trials serve only to create gaps between the leading TT specialists now whilst writing off the climbers, rather than creating a climber vs rouleur contest.

    • We can go back and find LeMond and Fignon winning mountain stages, the same for Hinault before them, Merckx, Anquetil, Bartali etc; perhaps the difference today is that the climbers are now GC contenders when in the past they struggled, GC wins from the likes of Pantani and Ocaña are rare.

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