The Tour de France wants a Frenchman to win on Bernard Hinault road in 2023

Stranger things have happened, probably.

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Now that the Tour de France 2023 route has been announced, cycling fans have something to hold on to as we enter the dark days of winter. Dreams of sweeping valleys, high mountain peaks, French people perched precariously in cherry pickers. It gives us hope that it won’t be too long before it’s not getting dark at 5pm and cycling will be back on the television. For Australian readers, congratulations, you won. Enjoy the summer, I hope it makes you happy.

Next year’s route is a peculiar one, taking up very little of France and eerily similar to the demarcation line of the Second World War. It has a Basque start, then a short visit to the Pyrenees before a painful-looking jaunt around the Alps without ascending any of the truly mythical climbs.

Most controversially, it has only 22 km of time trialling, as race organisers ASO attempt to keep the race more closely contested at a time when Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard are two of the best climbers and time triallists in the world.

For fans of racing against the clock, this is a travesty. Our very own Ronan McLaughlin was borderline inconsolable at the lack of time trialling kilometres announced. So much so that he spent the proceeding days scouring the 22 kilometres of TT course for anything that might spark some joy. And he may have found it.

Taking place between Passy and Combloux in the Alps, there are only so many roads that the course could take for this route, meaning that although ASO haven’t yet released detailed routes of all the stages, it can be easily discerned on which roads the time trial will take place.

Stage 16’s time trial features two categorised climbs, the Côte des Soudans almost straight out of the start hut before a dip into the valley and then the road heads uphill all the way to the finish line.

This uphill stretch features the second categorised climb of the day, the Côte de Domancy, 2.7 km in length with an average gradient of 8.9 per cent. As the road rises up from Domancy towards Combloux, eagled-eyed map readers (such as Monsieur McLaughlin) can spot a street with a recognisable name – Route Bernard Hinault.

The Côte de Domancy was of course featured on the route of the 1980 World Championships, won by Hinault, and the road name was changed to honour a French rainbow jersey winner. Cycling Alps on Twitter has posted some nice photos of an ornate wooden sign announcing the beginning of Bernard Hinault’s road as well as a bike statue on a roundabout – which is very Tour de France of them. The 2027 World Championships will head to the Haute-Savoie region and the battle for the rainbow jersey will also take place on the Côte de Domancy/Route Bernard Hinault.

So, what is the meaning behind going up a road named after France’s most recent Tour de France winner (if 1985 counts as recent)?

By taking out the time trial kilometres, are the French race organisers once again doing all they can to try and give one of their own riders even the slimmest chance of winning the thing? While there is a lot of climbing in the 2023 race, there aren’t as many huge climbs as we may be accustomed to, and really it’s against the clock that Pogačar and Vingegaard can truly make the pure climbers pay.

In 2022, France had four riders in the top 15. Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu finished 13 minutes back in fourth place, while his teammates Valentin Madouas and Thibaut Pinot were 10th and 14th respectively.

While Gaudu will no doubt benefit from a lack of time trialling, the more intriguing prospect is Romain Bardet, who was sixth overall at this summer’s Tour. That result doesn’t necessarily reflect what the soon-to-be 32-year-old is capable of since his rejuvenation at Team DSM. That sixth place followed a collapse on stage 16 into Foix, finally finding the limits of his efforts in what was his second Grand Tour of the season, his Giro unravelling after a bout of sickness.

More pertinently, Bardet was fifth on an uphill Tour time trial in 2016 on a course that took in both the Côte de Domancy and Combloux. By the time that race got to Paris, Bardet was second on the podium behind Chris Froome.

At the very least, this looks like a course designed to try and get at least one Frenchman on the podium. And should misfortune or poor form befall either Pogačar or Vingegaard, then who knows what could happen.

What we do know is that a GC rider who can time trial isn’t going to blow away a home hopeful on the road to the Champs-Élysées. There is a world in which we see a French yellow jersey limit their losses on the Route Bernard Hinault before a tough final few days of fighting to become the first French winner in 38 years of their own Grand Tour.

There are nine months to go and in the depths of the off-season, anything seems possible.

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