An abrupt (too abrupt?) start to the 2020 Tour de France

Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, does not want us sleeping anymore.

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The Tour’s sleepy starts are a tradition. The world flips on its TV for the white noise of commentators describing castles and hay bale art, and we doze, literally or figuratively, awakening only when the rising voices indicate a sprint is near. For nearly a week every summer, this is the routine, and it is as cozy and unhurried as July’s heat.

Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, does not want us sleeping anymore.

The 2020 Tour de France will skip its usual first-week pleasantries and reach for the highest point seen in any Tour opener since 1979, pitting the peloton against a pair of stages with major climbs outside of Nice.

There is a chance that such an early test will spread out the general classification early, taking riders out of contention when the race is still in its infancy. A traditional grand tour builds tension throughout its three weeks, culminating in a crescendo of final mountain stages, as the opportunities dwindle and contenders feel increasingly desperate to gain time on rivals. So what happens when that tension rises on stage two?

The 2020 Tour de France start

The first stage will be a primer of sorts, featuring a mere 2000 metres (6500 ft) of climbing and a long, mostly flat run-in to the finish. Despite the early climbs, it’s likely to be one for fast men who can make it over smaller climbs.

Stage two wedges four cols and 3,700m (12,100ft) of climbing into the 190km between its start and finish in Nice. The two highpoints are the Col de la Colmiane and the Col de Turini (featured in the photo above), which was the finish for the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice this year. From the tight switchbacks of Turini, the race drops back down toward Nice, over the Col d’Eze and Col de Quatre Chemins before an 8km, mostly downhill run to the line. It’s the same finish Paris-Nice used for its final stage.

The local organizer is running a Strava competition on the actual routes for each stage, which means you can dig through each route in detail. Here’s Stage 1 and Stage 2.

Turini is difficult enough to cause major splits. It’s officially 14km long with an average gradient of 7.3%, and the long ride up the valley to its base climbs slowly as well. A select group is likely to come into Col d’Eze.

Stage 2 profile of the 2019 Tour de France.

Throwing mountains up front is indeed unusual for the Tour. Last year, the first uphill test didn’t come until stage 6, on the short Mur de Bretagne. In 2017, Planche des Belles Filles came on stage 5. One has to go back to 1979 to find a similarly crucial start.

That year, a 5km prologue and flat opening stage were followed by a 24km uphill individual time trial from Luchon to Superbagnères. Bernard Hinault won the stage. The following stage hit the mountains again, riding from Luchon to Pau. Hinault won again. The Frenchman would go on to win the Tour.

Sounds like a nap-worthy, three-week procession, right? Foes vanquished early, a super talent on the rise (Hinault was just 24). But it wasn’t, not exactly. On stage 9, from Amiens to Roubaix, the Badger flatted on northern France’s cobblestones and lost his lead to Joop Zoetemelk, who finished more than three minutes ahead. You may recall that Hinault hated Roubaix, once calling it a “race for dickheads.” That stage from Amiens didn’t help.

Hinault came out of that stage over 2 minutes down on Zoetemelk. He clawed a bit back over the next week, then retook the lead by a minute on stage 15, yet another ITT, this one finishing in Evian. The two continued to battle across the Alps, where Zoetemelk was slightly better than his French rival. Though it seemed clear that Hinault was the stronger of the two over the last week, they battled all the way into Paris. Hinault couldn’t resist attempting to win on the Champs Elysees, and so he attacked, wearing yellow, and only Zoetemelk followed. The laps around the Champs were a race of two, mano a mano. An apt metaphor for that entire Tour, really.

Bernard Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk on the Champ Elysees in 1979. Photo: Cor Vos

The Nice start is not a perfect analog of that 1979 edition, because there is no Hinault in the modern peloton, and because the actual stage is unlikely to do the damage some fear. The major climbs are far from the finish; the final two are short. Legs will be fresh. Teams will be strong. Sure, a few contenders will fail, falling backwards and out of the Tour already, but that always happens. Surely they would rather fail on a climb than in the crosswinds of the Vendée or the cobbles up north. At least in Nice they have nothing to blame but their own legs.

The Tour is usually a race of impending gratification, a promise that next week will be harder and taller and therefore more thrilling, but it need not always be so. If ’79 is proof of something, it’s that this is the Tour de France, and anything can happen. So why wait a week?

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