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A return to the cobbles of northern France and a finish in Roubaix; a mid-stage dirt track section; a revisiting of the iconic Alpe d’Huez, and the holding of a short, explosive and difficult 65 kilometre mountain stage: these are just four of the various highlights in the route of the 2018 Tour de France.
The parcours of next year’s race was unveiled on Tuesday in Paris. Totalling 3,329 kilometres, the shortest since 2002, race director Christian Prudhomme believes it has the necessary ingredients to be a classic edition.
“We especially wanted to emphasize stage variety and the routes that may prove decisive,” he said, “whilst combining legendary climbs with brand new ascensions or ultra-dynamic formats. [The aim is] to provide a vision of modern and inspired cycling.”
The race will begin in the Vendée area on July 7, with just 176 riders lining out due to new rules curtailing team sizes. It is hoped that this too will lead to more open, uncontrolled racing, thus boosting the spectacle. So too the decision to have intermediate time bonuses offering 3, 2 and 1 seconds at a point during each of the first nine stages.
Day one starts at Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile and covers 189 kilometres en route to Fontenay-le-Comte. This is expected to end in a sprint, as is stage two’s 183 kilometres from Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon.
Day three could see the gaps start to open up with a 35 kilometre team time trial starting and finishing in Cholet. The following day covers 192 kilometres from La Baule to Sarzeau, with stage five to Quimper being 11 kilometres longer and described by Prudhomme as containing roads like Flèche Wallonne. That suggests explosive riders could move to the fore, and they will have their chance once again on stage six.
The race from Brest to Mûr de Bretagne Guerlédan is 181 kilometres in length. “The final should be promising,” predicted Prudhomme, before revealing that it features two ascents of the Mur de Bretagne climb. This punchy uphill finish is hard enough to potentially open gaps between the contenders, and may be one of the first big indicators of the form of the GC riders.
Next up is the longest stage of the race, with the route from Fougères to Chartres lasting 231 kilometres. This is followed by the Bastille day stage to Amiens Métropole, 181 kilometres which end in 20 kilometres where Prudhomme believes the prevailing winds are ‘perfectly directed’ to play a role.
A very different type of challenge will follow on the next stage. Beginning in Arras Citadelle and running 154 kilometres to Roubaix, it features 15 cobbled sectors, totalling 21.7 kilometres. In previous years the cobbles have broken the race apart and this is likely to happen again, particularly if the weather is wet.
The stage will finish next to the famous Roubaix velodrome, and the nervous general classification contenders will breathe a sigh of relief if they reach that point without suffering injury or conceding time.
Into the high mountains
The pummelling of the pavé will bring to an end the first third of the race, and will herald the start of a new, more difficult chunk. The riders will have their first rest day on July 16 in Annecy, and will then begin the 159 kilometre tenth stage facing the first of the major mountains.
Four categorised climbs lie in store, with the Col de la Croix Fry being followed by a new ascent, the Montée du Plateau des Glières. “The hill is extremely harsh,” said Prudhomme. “Six kilometres at 11 percent average.” Equally significantly, once onto the plateau after the summit, there are two kilometres of unpaved roads which will test bike handling and puncture resistance.
Following a descent and approximately 40 kilometres of rolling to flat roads, the climbing will resume and will peak at the top of the Col de la Colombière. From there, there is a 12 kilometre descent to the finish in Le Grand Bournand.
The climbing continues on stages 11 and 12; the first of those is a short, tough 108 kilometres from Albertville to La Rosière. Prior to the summit finish at the ski resort, the riders will take in the Col du Pré pass. This is something the Tour de France organisers believe ‘could be conducive to glorious feats.’ The following day the race travels to Alpe d’Huez, beginning in Bourg-Saint-Maurice Les Arcs. Prior to the legendary final climb the riders will cross two other famous Tour ascents, namely the 2000 metre-high Col de la Madeleine and the 2067 metre-high Col de la Croix de Fer.
“This third act in the Alps will be a real Classic,” said Prudhomme on Tuesday. “The Madeleine will be gruelling for the bodies. And it will be a Tour record, with 5000 metres of uphills.”
The Tour then heads to Valence on stage 13 before what could be another important climbing test, stage 14’s race from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Mende. The latter features a very steep climb in the finale and then a testing descent. The following day’s race to Carcassonne may also provide some opportunity to the climbers with the 1205 metre Pic de Nore.
Short, steep, severe: a new formula is tested
Following a rest day in Carcassonne, the race will head into its final phase. Stage 16 covers 218 kilometres to Bagnères-de-Luchon. The first three hours are flat to rolling, then the trio of Col de Portet-d’Aspet, the Col de Menté and the Col du Portillon rear up before a ten kilometre descent to the finish. That was where Chris Froome made an important move during the 2016 Tour, winning the stage and taking yellow.
The following day is the shortest race since the Tour did away with split stages, or the running of two in one day. “It will be a dynamic format for a dynamite stage,” said Prudhomme, talking about the 65 kilometres between Bagnères-de-Luchon and the finish.
It will take in three climbs, beginning with the Montée de Peyregudes, then the Col de Val Louron-Azet and concluding with the climb of Saint-Lary-Soulan/Col de Portet.
Stage 18 is much flatter and heads to Pau, with the big climbing returning the following day. The 200 kilometres begins in the pilgrim town of Lourdes and heads up the Col Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque before a 20 kilometre descent to the finish. “The climbers will have further opportunities to shine,” said Prudhomme. “All the difficulties are in the in second half of the course. It will be really an endurance race.”
That will be decisive in the general classification battle, as will the following day’s 31 kilometre individual time trial from Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette. The latter is very undulating, and may help the non-specialists to limit their time losses.
“It is a time trial for puncheurs,” said Prudhomme. “We all dream of a spicy finish in Espelette, the world capital of chilli peppers.”
The 2018 Tour de France then concludes with a 115 kilometre stage from Houilles to Paris Champs Elysées.
Alberto Contador will not be riding the race, having retired, but indicated that he would have liked to have had this type of route on offer to him.
“There are very hard stages, with mythical finishes like the Alpe d’Huez and other with novelties at the end: it is always good to know other mountains,” he said. “There is also an initiative that I find very attractive, which is to do a kind of time trial with three climbs. It’s a shame they put it now and not before.”
2018 Tour de France:
Stage 1, July 7: Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte, 189 kilometres
Stage 2, July 8: Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon, 183 kilometres
Stage 3, July 9: Cholet to Cholet (TTT), 35 kilometres
Stage 4, July 10: La Baule to Sarzeau, 192 kilometres
Stage 5, July 11: Lorient to Quimper, 203 kilometres
Stage 6, July 12: Brest to Mûr de Bretagne Guerlédan, 181 kilometres
Stage 7, July 13: Fougères to Chartres, 231 kilometres
Stage 8, July 14: Dreux to Amiens, 181 kilometres
Stage 9, July 15: Arras to Roubaix, 154 kilometres
Rest day, July 16 in Annecy
Stage 10, July 17: Annecy to Le Grand Bornand, 159 kilometres
Stage 11, July 18: Albertville to La Rosière-Montvalezan, 108 kilometres
Stage 12, July 19: Bourg-Saint-Maurice Les Arcs to Alpe d’Huez, 175 kilometres
Stage 13, July 20: Bourg d’Oisans to Valence, 169 kilometres
Stage 14, July 21: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Mende, 187 kilometres
Stage 15, July 22: Millau to Carcassonne, 181 kilometres
Rest day, July 23 in Carcassonne
Stage 16, July 24: Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, 218 kilometres
Stage 17, July 25: Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan (Col de Portet), 65 kilometres
Stage 18, July 26: Trie-sur-Baïse to Pau, 172 kilometres
Stage 19, July 27: Lourdes to Laruns, 200 kilometres
Stage 20, July 28: Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette (ITT), 31 kilometres
Stage 21, July 29: Houilles to Paris Champs Elysées, 115 kilometres
Total: 3,329 kilometres