What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
According to that old chestnut it’s the riders who make the race – not the route. But when you have cycling’s ‘Big Four’ plus a raft of plucky outsiders in tow then the route can make all the difference.
This year ASO have come up with a humdinger of a route around France: 3,358 kilometres of robust racing that kicks off with a series of classics-style one-day races within a race before crescendoing in a flurry of short-and-sharp Alpine sufferfests that culminate atop the famous Alpe d’Huez before the champagne finale in Paris.
The joy of any Grand Tour is diversity of challenge and this year’s route couldn’t be more different from the time-trial heavy courses of 2012 and 2013 – won by Sky duo Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
Remember, it was Froome himself who threatened skip the Tour for a tilt at the Giro d’Italia due to the paucity of racing against the clock this July. The prospect of just 13.8 individual time trial kilometres – coupled with a return to the perilous pavé of northern France – was enough to force Froome to throw his powermeter out of the pram.
Of course, the 30-year-old has since had a rethink. Froome is one of the best riders of his generation and the Tour – whatever the route – is the biggest cycling race in the world. There’s no way his employers (not to mention his own self-respect) would condone skipping such a tectonic showdown with his big three rivals – Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali.
Last year both Froome and Contador crashed out before the race hit the high mountains. Accidents and incidents will happen again – that’s cycling – and it will be no surprise if one of the main protagonists falls by the wayside during an opening nine days that features cobbles, crosswinds, the usual hazardous sprint stages and some punchy uphill finishes, sandwiched either side of a short opening time trial and a controversially late timed team effort.
Throw in the return of time bonuses and we could see a variety of riders exchanging the yellow jersey before the proper race hierarchy begins to take shape in the Pyrenees.
Getting the race’s only ITT out of the way on the opening day will suit a cluster of outsiders for whom the discipline has always cast a shadow over their Grand Tour credentials. The likes of Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) – not to forget Colombia’s Quintana (Movistar) – will not lose so much time over the 13.8km pan-flat course to put them out of the GC reckoning.
Simply the threat of crosswinds coming off the North Sea will be enough to charge stage two in Zeeland with nervous energy regardless of whether or not the gusts materialise.
Stage three’s finale on the Mur de Huy in Belgium and the similar showdown on the Mur-de-Bretagne in Brittany for stage eight could suit GC men and sprinters alike – with riders such as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Barguil perhaps rubbing shoulders with an uphill sprinter in the mould of John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin).
Even Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) demonstrated in the British national championships that he can hold his own when the road heads upwards – and the Manx sprinter will be keen to make up for last year’s Harrogate heartbreak and add to his 25 career stage wins on the Tour.
Sure, Marcel Kittel’s absence is a blow – but the void left behind by one German 26-year-old will open the doors to another in Degenkolb, while the in-form Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) has enough in his armoury to give Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) a real run for his money in the green jersey competition.
Even the French will have hopes of a sprint win from the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), Bryan Coquard (Europcar) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) – and a happy home nation is always a solid foundation for an enthralling Tour.
None of he four ‘flat’ stages between those punchy finishes at Huy and Bretagne are guaranteed to end with a bunch sprint: with the cobbles in stage four likely to force a selection en route to Cambrai, and finishes in Amiens, Le Havre and Fougeres all coming after undulating days in the saddle, one of which (stage six at Le Havre) featuring a ramped finish that has the names Sagan or Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) written all over it.
Cue the demanding team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec in stage nine, which crosses lumpy, exposed roads and comes just ahead of the first rest day after what should be a frantic opening phase of the race.
It’s not sufficiently long to kill off anyone’s chances should their team falter – but, with three climbs peppering a 28-km parcours, it’s certainly demanding enough to shake things up ahead of the Pyrenees and force certain riders to go on the offensive at the outset of the mountains.
An unprecedented summit finish at La Pierre-Saint-Martin will give one rider the chance to make history in stage 10 on Bastille Day and precedes an intriguing stage 11 that features both the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet ahead of a short but potentially damaging uphill finish in Cauteret.
Then it’s the pick of the Pyrenean bunch: a succession of three demanding climbs renowned for their tough gradients and narrow, sinuous descents, before the brutal game-changer that is Plateau de Beille. Take my word for it: this is one hell of a climb. I suffered up it mercilessly during a sweltering summer sportive in 2013 – and it could well be where the race is won or lost.
History dictates that whoever triumphs at Beille usually goes on to take the yellow jersey in Paris – and there’s no doubt that Stage 12 would be the 2015 Tour’s queen stage were it to feature in the last week.
As it is, Plateau de Beille will be pivotal, with the chance to close the door on the GC aspirations of many riders; but there will – in theory – be time to regroup and recover. Just how much three tough transitional stages across Languedoc, through the Massif Central and into the Rhone and Drome valleys will allow for regrouping and recovering is anyone’s guess, though: the profiles look rather beastly.
It’s fair to say that the second rest day on Tuesday 21st July will come at just the right moment – but not before at least one rider will risk all on the dicey descent off the Col de Manse and into Gap in the foothills of the high Alps in stage 16.
We all know just how well Nibali can descend – while both Bardet (Criterium du Dauphine) and Contador (Route de Sud) have shown in recent races that they are willing to throw caution to the wind when the road heads downhill. Should either Froome or Quintana hold a slender lead on GC, this could be the perfect place to pounce.
Bardet, of course, may be keeping his power dry for stage 17 to Pra Loup – a carbon copy of which he won while demonstrating those descending skills off the back of the Col d’Allos in the Dauphine.
This stage has it all. The race’s highest peak in the Col d’Allos, plus a bit of history – it was on the final climb to Pra Loup where Eddy Merckx surrendered the yellow jersey to rival Bernard Thevanet in the 1975 Tour.
The we have something totally different: a mountain stage with seven peaks including the Col du Glandon and a Tour debut for the 18 hairpin bends of the Lacets de Montvernier – all ahead of a downhill run into Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne that will again ensure that the winner of this Tour will be more of an all-rounder than ever before.
Two summit finishes complete the decisive Alpine segment of the race – and both are short stages that will encourage attacking riding from the outset. While stage 20 boasts the legendary Alpe d’Huez, the preceding test is perhaps the race’s true queen stage – with the Cols de Chaussy, Croix de Fer and Mollard all featuring ahead of a showdown on the road to La Toussuire.
Three years ago Froome found himself neutered by team orders when he pulled away from yellow teammate Bradley Wiggins – a subplot that took the sheen off Rolland’s marvellous solo win. Can Froome bury the ghosts of the past and show the world what might have been?
A landslide means the planned ascents of the Telegraph and Galibier have been scrapped from stage 20. Instead the riders will tackle the Croix de Fer from the opposite side before hotlegging it to the base of Alpe d’Huez where race favourites and climbers alike will vie to join the legend and get their name on one of the famous 21 hairpin bends.
Provided no one has an unassailable lead in the general classification – and the sheer volume of favourites and outsiders should put pay to that – then the final competitive outing of the race could deliver the most fireworks than any stage in the previous three weeks combined. At just 110.5km in length, this will be three and a bit hours of drama, excitement, pain and joy – and that’s just for us spectators.
Finally, even the race’s processional final stage to Paris has been shaken up. Yes, we have the usual 10 laps of the Champs-Elysees, but the route into Paris takes an unaccustomed detour through the Bois de Boulogne – and with Kittel absent, we will see a new winner in the French capital for the first time in three years.
Winner four times on the bounce before losing his Elysium crown to Kittel, Cavendish will eager to return to winning ways in Paris – but those changes to the green jersey competition could mean that the destiny of the points jersey is still undecided, with any number of sprinters in with a shout at entering the record books.
We are all in for a huge treat this July. Bring on Utrecht!