It’s almost a Tour de France tradition for the pre-race talk to not be centred around the upcoming edition, but instead, around the drama taking place off the bikes.
Chris Froome did not attend the presentation of the 2015 Tour de France route on Wednesday in Paris, choosing to forego the event in favour of a Team Sky get-together.
An official photo – posted by Sky’s Head of Winning Behaviours, Fran Millar – from the team’s bonding exercise with British Sailing shows Froome looking rather chilly and fed up behind the wheel of a yacht near the Isle of Wight.
Some might say he was all at sea.
That’s certainly how things seem to be, judging by the noises emanating from the Sky camp.
Moments after Christian Prudhomme confirmed a 2015 route that includes five mountain-top finishes but almost as many kilometres of cobbles as it does time trials, Froome’s people released a statement on his website in which he seemed to suggest that he may skip the Tour in favour of focusing on a Giro-Vuelta double.
I've got a pretty decent team – well, they look the part pic.twitter.com/EiZYij13Oi
— Fran Millar (@franmillar) October 22, 2014
“There’s very little emphasis on time trialling which means the race will be decided up in the high mountains,” says Froome of what he predicts will be “an aggressive and massively demanding race”.
While he and Sky will “give it some careful consideration before we make any commitments,” Froome’s insistence that the Giro’s “long time trial of 60 kilometres and tough uphill finishes” make it a “well balanced race” more suited to a “balanced GC rider” like himself.
This clearly suggests – by default – that he sees the Tour route as unbalanced and perhaps more favourable to pure climbers in the mould of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana.
“If I did the Giro I may be able to get myself back to top shape for the Vuelta and go there with a realistic chance of aiming for the win,” he adds in what is clearly a thinly veiled threat towards Prudhomme and ASO.
But what about the actual route? Read on to find out more about the breakdown of stages before I share some conclusions about its significance on the destination of the yellow jersey.
In brief: The 2015 Tour route
The race will start in the Dutch port of Utrecht, with a 14-kilometre individual time trial ahead of a opening road stage that will include the exposed western coast of the Netherlands.
An iconic first-time finish on the Mur de Huy in Belgium – site of the the Fleche Walloon spring classic – is followed by a forth stage to Cambrai in northern France that includes seven sectors and 30 kilometres of cobbles from the famous farming tracks used in Paris-Roubaix.
The sprinters will have a chance to shine in flat stages to Amiens, Le Havre and Fougeres before the race returns to the Mur-de-Bretagne, where Cadel Evans pipped Contador for a stage win during his winning 2011 Tour.
Stage 9 is the second – and final – time trial, a 28-kilometre team affair near the coast of Brittany. With just 14 individual time trial kilometres on the cards, this is a post-World War II low that should see the race won in the mountains – rather than against the clock.
And it’s the mountains that come into play after the first rest day, with the riders transferring to Pau ahead of three days in the Pyrenees. Stage 10 on Bastille Day finishes with a maiden foray up the tricky La Pierre Saint Martin climb to a ski resort twinned with Utrecht.
The next day features the Tourmalet before a flat finish, while the final stage in the Pyrenees culminates with the beastly 16-kilometre climb of Plateau de Beille – where, historically, the victor usually goes on to win the Tour.
Three flat finishes in Rodez, Mende and Valance will open the doors once again to the sprinters ahead of a demanding final week in the Alps after a second rest day in Gap.
The stand-out stages in the Alps culminate at Pra Loup (where Eddy Merckx’s winning run came to an end in 1975), La Toussuire and Alpe d’Huez, whose famous 21 hairpin bends will replace the usual snore-fest of a time trial on the race’s penultimate day.
An intriguing stage to Saint Jean de Maurienne features for the very first time the breathtaking 18 switchbacks of the short but sharp Lacets de Montvernier climb – the beauty of which can be easily gauged with a quick Google search.
The final two stages are just 138 kilometres and 107 kilometres long, with stage 20 featuring the iconic Col du Galibier from the Telegraph side before the final ascent of Dutch Mountain.
After 3,350km, nine flat stages, three hilly stages, seven mountain stages (including five summit finishes) and just two time trials, the 102nd edition of the Tour will finish in Paris for the usual sprinters’ showdown on the Champs-Elysees.
Changes to the rules
Time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds will be up for grabs in the opening week of the race as the organisers hope to see the yellow jersey change hands more regularly. Last year, Vincenzo Nibali wore the yellow for all but three days.
There will also be a shake-up to the green jersey points competition – although Prudhomme did not confirm the changes to a prize won last year by Peter Sagan despite his glaring lack of stage wins.
Conclusions: Froome will be there
The presentation came just weeks after Andy Schleck announced his retirement and the 2015 route is ironically just the kind of parcours that would have suited the Luxembourg climber in his prime.
Froome has every right to be slightly miffed. Not only do the cobbles make a second appearance in as many years, there are also even less time trial kilometres than last year’s course, which itself featured the second lowest tally of ITTs since the turn of the century.
But he should also put things into perspective. Prior to his crash in last year’s race, Froome was considered one of the best – if not, the best – climber in the peloton.
To be complaining about too many climbs betrays a chink in his armour. Perhaps the 29-year-old doesn’t believe he can match the likes of Nairo Quintana and Contador in the high mountains any more.
As for the issue of time trials: although traditionally strong against the clock, Froome suffered in the Vuelta ITTs so he should try and view this as a positive.
Sure, he could do without those cobbles – but even Froome admitted on Wednesday that “I actually quite enjoy the challenge of riding on the cobbles” while stressing that “there’s no reason why I’d be any worse off than any of the other GC contenders”.
His reaction, then, is probably a knee-jerk one that stems from the uncertainty following his tricky 12 months on a bike. It’s been a rotten season for the Kenyan-born Brit – and this slightly left-field Tour route has no doubt taken the wind from his sails.
But once he sits down with Dave Brailsford, the two will surely decide that it would be crazy for Sky’s main man – a previous Tour winner supposedly entering his best years – to sit out the Tour. If anything, it would only make winning the thing in 2016 even harder.
As such, there’s no real reason for us not to expect the big four – Contador, Quintana, Nibali and Froome – taking to the start in Utrecht.
And while the lack of time trials should play into the hands of Frenchmen Jean-Christophe Peraud, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Pierre Rolland, the aforementioned big-name riders are clearly of a different class than the home hopefuls, whose success last year was somewhat enhanced by the absence of all but Nibali.
The 2015 Tour should see a return to form with no Frenchman on the podium.
Once again, a German will probably wear the inaugural yellow jersey – with Tony Martin taking the reins from Marcel Kittel, winner of the opening sprints in the past two years.
The likelihood of Kittel taking a third successive win on the Champs-Elysees is probably larger than that of Mark Cavendish snaring an unprecedented fifth scalp in the French capital – although this is neither here nor there given the time between now and the Grand Depart on Saturday fourth July.
Anything can happen in the off-season, the spring and – of course – the Giro that the likes of Contador, Froome and Nibali have all considered doing (the Spaniard is, so far, the only rider to commit).
But there’s enough meat on the bones of this 2015 Tour de France route to suggest that spectators are in line for an intriguing battle worthy of its expected star cast.