The weekly spin: 2019 Tour de France route tilts Skyward

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It starts in Brussels, paying homage to the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s first of five Tour de France victories. In the space of one week, it dishes up three summit finishes over 2,000 metres elevation. It features two time trials, a 27km Stage 2 team time trial in Belgium, and a 27km Stage 13 individual time trial in Pau. It features an unpaved summit finish.

The route for the 2019 Tour de France, announced Thursday in Paris, features 30 mountain climbs — those rated Hors Categorie, Category 1 or Category 2 — a Tour record. The route travels counterclockwise, first through the hilly Massif Central region before the Pyrenees and finally the Alps. There will be seven high-mountain stages, and five summit finishes. Three summit finishes above 2,000 metres — at the Tourmalet, Tignes, and Val Thorens — is a first for the Tour.

And while there are two time trials, both are relatively short. This is unmistakably a Tour de France for the climbers. There are fewer Hors Categorie climbs but more elevation overall. The route is full of medium mountains. That means tight, difficult roads and opportunities for chaos.

It’s a route for climbers, and for strong teams. Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana may be happier than Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, but is there really such thing as a route that’s not suited to Team Sky?

Course profile of the 2019 Tour de France. The last week gets… heavy.

Stages of the 106th Tour de France: July 6-28, 2019

Stage 1: Brussels – Brussels, 192km
Noteworthy: The second time the Tour starts in Brussels; the first was in 1958. With a nod to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the route will go over the Muur van Geraardsbergen — a climb also used at the 1969 Tour where a young Eddy Merckx won for the first time. The route will pass Charleroi and Waterloo, and then the streets of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, where Merckx wore the first yellow jersey of his career. The sprint finish will take place in a different part of Brussels than the Grand Depart, on the Avenue du Parc Royal, near the largest urban public park in the centre of the Belgian capital.

Stage 2: Brussels Palais Royal – Brussel Atomium, 27km team time trial
Noteworthy: The yellow jersey will almost certainly change hands, and it could well return to Team Sky, as the BMC Racing TTT juggernaut will have been dismantled, with Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Tejay van Garderen all moved on to new teams.

Stage 3: Binche – Épernay, 214km
Noteworthy: After a start in Binche, site of the long-running Binche-Chimay-Binche semi-classic, the race enters France. A long, rolling stage for the sprinters, finishing on the Avenue du Champagne.

Stage 4: Reims – Nancy, 215km
Noteworthy: Not only will this stage end in a field sprint, but the final straightaway is also 1.5km long; plenty of opportunities for lead-out trains to get it right — or get it very wrong. Italian Matteo Trentin was the last winner in Nancy, taking a photo finish ahead of Peter Sagan.

Stage 5: Saint-Dié-des-Vosges – Colmar, 169km
Noteworthy: A lumpy route featuring three hills in the final 70km. The last time the Tour had a stage finish in Colmar, Australian In 2009, Heinrich Haussler won, in the rain.

Stage 6: Mulhouse – La Planche des Belles Filles, 157km
Noteworthy: The first real fight among the GC contenders. Five categorized climbs on the day, including a steep, unpaved finish at La Planche des Belles Filles, the race’s first summit finish. A finish at the ski resort which was used for the first time in 2012, won by Chris Froome, and has been used twice since, in 2014, won by Vincenzo Nibali, and in 2017, won by Fabio Aru, though this is a different stretch of (unpaved) road that follows the traditional paved finish.

Stage 7: Belfort – Chalon-sur-Saône, 230km
Noteworthy: The longest stage of the Tour, and another day for the sprinters.

Stage 8: Mâcon – Saint-Étienne, 199km
Noteworthy: Five categorized climbs, and a few others that are not categorized. A day for the sprinters? A day for the breakaway? The last time a stage finished in Saint-Étienne, in 2014, Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff took the first Tour stage win of his career.

Stage 9: Saint-Etienne – Brioude, 170 km
Noteworthy: Constantly up or down, this rolling stage finishes in the hometown of French star Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). The race will break apart just 33km into the stage, on the steep slopes of the 3km Mur d’Aurec-sur-Loire, which averages 11% and has slopes of 19% at the bottom and 16% at the top. Will the breakaway stay clear? First, they’ll need to get over the final climb, the Côte de Saint-Just (3.7km, averaging 7.3 %) just 13km from the finish.

Stage 10: Saint-Flour – Albi, 218km
Noteworthy: Another long stage, another likely opportunity for the breakaway to stay clear before the first rest day.

[First rest day: July 16]

Stage 11: Albi to Toulouse, 167km
Noteworthy: There have been two stage finishes in the southern city of Toulouse in the past 20 years; one won by a breakaway rider, Juan-Antonio Flecha (in 2003) and one won by a sprinter, Mark Cavendish (in 2008).

Stage 12: Toulouse – Bagnères-de-Bigorre, 202km
Noteworthy: The race enters the Pyrenees, with the Col de Peyresourde followed by the la Hourquette d’Ancizan, but a 25km downhill finish into Bagnères-de-Bigorre should see a sprint finish from a small group. Irishman Dan Martin won here in 2013, out-sprinting Jakob Fuglsang, the only rider who could hold Martin’s wheel on the descent. This could be an opportunity for top descenders, such as Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet, or Primoz Roglic, to take time.

Stage 13: Pau – Pau, 27km individual time trial
Noteworthy: A few hills in the first half of the route will test a rider’s ability to pace himself, but the final 10km are mostly flat. The rolling Pau TT course will also serve as the route for La Course by the Tour de France, the one-day women’s event the race has organized since 2014. The women will do five laps on the Pau circuit, measuring 120km in total, with the sharp climb of Côte d’Esquillot a springboard for the most explosive riders. This date, July 19, will mark the 100th anniversary of the maillot jaune, first worn almost immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Stage 14: Tarbes – Tourmalet, 117km
Noteworthy: A short stage with a monster finish atop the Giant of the Pyrenees. Though the Tourmalet is the mountain that has been climbed the most in the history of the Tour — 82 times — this will mark only the third Tourmalet summit finish, along with 1974, won by Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, and 2010, won by Andy Schleck. The 19km Tourmalet climb (via Super Barèges) averages 7.4%, but the steepest ramps are at the top, where the air is thin.

Stage 15: Limoux – Foix Prat d’Albis, 185km
Noteworthy: No rest for the wicked after the Tourmalet, with a stage that delivers four categorized climbs, including a summit finish atop the new-to-the-Tour Prat d’Albis at Foix, an 11.8km climb averaging 6.9% that’s steepest at the bottom. In 2017, on Bastille Day, Frenchman Warren Barguil took his first Tour stage win in Foix, while wearing the polka-dot jersey as King of the Mountains.

[Second rest day: July 22]

Stage 16: Nîmes – Nîmes, 177km
Noteworthy: A field sprint is likely in Nîmes, the southern city littered with ancient Roman monuments where Mark Cavendish won in 2009 and New Zealander Jack Bauer was caught 20 metres from the line in 2014. More recently, Nîmes hosted the Grand Départ of the 2017 Vuelta a España, which began with a team presentation in the Arena, a Roman amphitheater dating back to the 1st century AD.

Stage 17: Pont du Gard – Gap, 206km
Noteworthy: Gap is known for producing winners from breakaways. Recent winners include Thor Hushovd, wearing the rainbow stripes in 2011, ahead of compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen; Rui Costa, on his own out of a 26-rider breakaway, in 2013, and Ruben Plaza, who held off a fast-descending Peter Sagan, also from the breakaway, in 2015.

Stage 18: Embrun – Valloire, 207km
Noteworthy: Three high-mountain Alpine climbs in quick succession — Col de Vars (2,109m), Col d’Izoard (2,360m) and Col du Galibier (2,642m) — followed by a fast, steep and technical descent to the finish at Valloire. Any GC rider who suffers at altitude will be dreading this day.

Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – Tignes, 123km
Noteworthy: Though relatively short at just 123km, Stage 19 delivers three categorized climbs, including the Col de l’Iseran, the highest point of this year’s Tour, and at an altitude of 2,770 metres (9,087 feet) one of the highest paved roads in Europe. And though it’s been used seven times before, this will be only the second time the Iseran is approached from its tougher south side, a 12.9km climb averaging 7.5%. The stage finishes with the sharp finish atop Montée de Tignes, a 7.4km climb averaging 7% that flattens out 2km from the line, which could make for an interesting sprint among climbers.

Stage 20: Albertville – Val Thorens, 131km
Noteworthy: The final showdown in the mountains features a historic third summit finish above 2,000 metres, at Val Thorens. But first, the peloton will race across Cormet de Roselend and Cote de Longefoy. Though not particularly steep, averaging just 5.5%, the length (33.4km) and elevation (2,365m at the top) of the Val Thorens climb, plus the cumulative fatigue of three weeks of racing could well make the final climb of the 2019 Tour a drag race for the podium. Total elevation gain on the day will be 4,450 metres (14,600 feet).

Stage 21: Rambouillet – Paris Champs-Élysées, 127km
Noteworthy: While the overall winner will have been decided, and the sprint winner cannot be predicted, the KOM jersey could still be in play, with the hills of the Chevreuse Valley playing a decisive role.

What the contenders said

Given Team Sky’s dominance over the Tour de France in the past decade, winning six of the past seven editions with three different riders, it’s a fool’s errand to bet against the British squad.

While four-time winner Chris Froome had to dig deep to reach the podium in July, finishing 2:24 behind teammate Geraint Thomas, he’ll no doubt be targeting the 2019 edition in hopes of joining the exclusive five-time winner’s club of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and Indurain.

“What really stood out to be was the multiple finishes above 2,000 metres,” Froome said. “That’s really going to set this route apart from previous editions. It’s definitely a very different parcours. It’s heavily weighted in terms of the climbs and the mountains. There are fewer time trial kilometres compared to previous editions.”

Thomas, meanwhile, said he’d barely had time to relax since winning the Tour in July — he’s since raced the Tour of Britain and gone on holiday in the United States — and that he was still considering racing the Giro d’Italia in May as he awaits that route announcement, scheduled for October 31.

“Racing both the Giro and the Tour is something I never thought I’d be able to do, but it is something to which I’ll now maybe give some thought,” Thomas told reporters. “I’ll be starting to have a chat about my program with my team in the next couple of weeks and then try and formulate some kind of decision. Chris did it last year, so maybe.”

Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas was noncommittal about defending his title in 2019, or demanding outright team leadership.

“It will suit the usual Tour rider — a well-rounded rider with a balanced team,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to be able to climb, you need a strong team around you. There’s a lot of medium mountain stages, and then there’s the time trial in Pau, which will be crucial.”

Asked about the issue of team leadership, both riders said they didn’t anticipate a power struggle within pro cycling’s most dominant Grand Tour squad.

“It doesn’t matter if I am [leader] or not,” Froome said. “It could end up being similar to 2018 where I had a double role to play alongside Geraint Thomas. It’s going to be a tough, tough, tough race, that’s for sure. But if one of us could win it it would be really special as this year is the tenth anniversary of the founding of Team Sky.”

Other GC contenders who attended the route presentation included Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), second to Thomas in July, and French rider Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), who finished second in 2016 and third in 2017, both times sharing the podium with Froome. While Dumoulin excels against the clock, Bardet is equally at home on steep climbs and treacherous descents.

“It’s a very tough route,” Dumoulin said. “Of course, more individual time trial kilometres would have been better, so it’s not an ideal course for me, but that was also the case this year.”

Bardet, whose hometown of Brioude will host the finish of Stage 9, described the 2019 route as a “very beautiful course.”

“It looks quite difficult on paper, with very little downtime,” Bardet said. “There are many middle-sized mountains, and any time there are mid-sized mountain stages, they are very tricky with uncertain outcomes. Then there are the very high mountains as well, with those mythical passes, the Izoard, Tourmalet, Galibier and Izeran. These important tests at altitude should be able to widen the gap between the favorites. The time trials are placed rather early in the race, which could help unblock the leading positions ahead of the last days, as it happened last year. And I’m happy we have a Tour that will pass over my home roads, including a finish in Brioude, the city where I was born. It looks to be a very nice party.”

During the route presentation, race director Christian Prudhomme said ASO would be asking the UCI to increase the amount of bonus time available on the route, a feature added last year. Time bonuses of 10, six and four seconds will again be awarded at the finish of every road stage; additionally, bonus time will be available along the route on eight selected stages.

“There are time bonuses at strategic climb points to encourage riders to attack at key moments, with the hope that someone will make a bid for a stage win and even the yellow jersey where you might not expect that,” Prudhomme said. “Last year Geraint Thomas was the one who went chasing after the bonus seconds the most and he won the Tour. This was no accident.”

And in what might be seen as a dig at Team Sky’s methodical approach to the Tour, Prudhomme — somewhat surprisingly — said he would seek to rid the race of power metres.

“We reassert our desire to see the end of power meters in races, which annihilate the glorious uncertainty of sport,” Prudhomme said, reminiscent to complaints a decade earlier about the use of race radios. He later acknowledged that this would be a decision to be made, and enforced, by the UCI and not the race organization.

One thing is for certain — there will be a lot of Tour contenders doing high-altitude training camps next year.

“Every year I’ve had to adapt and this year is no different,” Froome said. “I’m going to have to adapt to it and make sure I’m at my best in the mountains. A lot of time at altitude will definitely be on the cards as part of our preparation for this Tour.”

Whether or not Froome will be staring at his power metre in July remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet the rest of the GC contenders at the 2019 Tour de France will be staring at his rear wheel. Same as it ever was.

The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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