Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
It’s hard to imagine Cadel Evans raving about the parcours for the 2015 Grand Boucle. Likewise, Sir Bradley wouldn’t be salivating at riding this particular 3344km lap of France. And don’t even ask five-time winner Miguel Indurain.
Barely 42km of bitumen has been allocated to the time trial specialists at next month’s Tour de France, and only 13.8km of that is for individual riders. A Team Time Trial chews up the remainder.
So where it leaves Chris Froome’s bid for a second Tour win in three years is anyone’s guess. Despite his impressive win in the recent Criterium du Dauphine, the 10second edition favours his rivals Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador.
Five times, we’ll see a summit finish, in the seven mountain stages and there are three so-called “hilly” stages. Nine stages are classified as flat and then there’s the Individual and Team’s Time Trials.
In 2013, Froome had 65km of ITT and another 25km in the TTT to underpin his title bid. Importantly too, there was no pave “lotto” to factor in.
The cobbles are back in 2015 as race director Christian Prudhomme once again rolls the dice on an opening week that could decide who won’t win the world’s biggest bike race.
Time gaps will appear in Stage One, a flat but twist and turn infused, 13.8km ITT through the streets of Utrecht.
Finish-line time bonuses kick in on Stage Two, the 166km race from Utrecht to the island of Neeltje Jans.
Crosswinds could play a part here as the sprinters vie for the ten, six and four seconds on offer and a shot at the yellow jersey.
The GC should shake up again on Stage Three, after a charge to the top of the Fleche Wallonne centrepiece, the Mur de Huy. Prudhomme, who was once Fleche Wallonne’s Race Director, calls it “the longest kilometre of the racing season”, the 1.3km climb averaging 9.8% but peaking at 26% in one particular corner.
Essentially, it’s a two-corner climb, but it’s just as important to have energy for the final 200m when the road levels out.
Someone will be caught out on the Mur du Huy, but if not, Stage Four is locked and loaded.
At 221km, Seraing to Cambrai is the Tour’s longest and any repeat of the cold, wet weather we saw last year will only heighten the nerves that are so evident in the opening week.
The first sector of pave doesn’t appear until 101km, while the remaining six sectors dominate the final 45km. Last year, the pave saw the end of Chris Froome’s challenge (well, he actually withdrew before the cobbles) whereas Nibali decisively snatched third place on the road to demonstrate his intent.
It should be a “day off” for the GC boys in Stage Five in the 189km flat stage between Arras and Amien, but as we saw in last month’s Giro, crashes outside the final 3km mark can turn the race on its head.
A potential new hazard summarises Stage Six. This 191km race along the northwest French coast screams crosswinds but should again see a bunch sprint.
The final of three sprint-friendly days see Stage Seven bring the peloton into Fougeres.
The Mur de Bretagne ends Stage Eight. You might remember Cadel Evans winning here in 2011, summiting fractionally ahead of Contador. The latest Giro winner should again figure on this 2km climb where the first kilometre averages 10%. This is the final chance for time bonuses, so expect all the contenders to have a massive dig at a top three finish.
Team Time Trials at both the Tour and Giro have been great for Orica-GreenEDGE over the past couple of years, but what will they make of the finale of Stage Nine in Plumelec? Winds along the Brittany coast are one thing, but the 1.7km climb of Cote de Cadoudal averaging 6.2% but peaking at 7.2% promises a real challenge.
This year, the Tour travels anti-clockwise around France. So after a rest day, Stage Ten is the first of three in the Pyrenees.
This is a largely gentle stage but the organisers have put a sting in the tail. The one categorised climb, the Col de Soudet (averaging 5.5%), is the final 22km into La Pierre Saint-Martin, so we will see some time gaps. And being Bastille Day, the French contingent will surely have something special planned.
The final two days in the Pyrenees also feature summit finishes.
Leaving Pau in Stage 11, there’ll be some relief after scaling the Col D’Aspin (12km at 6.5%) and the mighty Tourmalet (17.2km at 7.6%), because the ascent to Cauterets barely rises above five per cent.
Conversely, Stage 12 (Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille) presents three cols before the energy-sapping finale (15.8km at 7.9%). This climb only drops below seven per cent in the last two kilometres, so if the GC contenders reach this point together, the final kilometre (averaging 2.5%) could be explosive.
With the Pyrenees behind them, Stages 13 (Muret to Rodez, 200km), 14 (Rodez to Mende, 178km) and 16 (Bourg-de-Peage to Gap, 201km) should see the re-emergence of the opportunists/Classics type riders, who like the sprinters will have seen the Pyrenees from their spot in the Gruppetto.
Stage 14 offers a strong whiff of intrigue with the 3.1km climb of Cote de la Croix Neuve (averaging a nasty 10%) summiting just 1500 metres from the finish. Then it’s a one-kilometre descent before a small ramp to the line. Joaquim Rodriguez won here in 2010.
The sprint trains should reform for Stage 15, where some not insignificant lumps (the Col de l’Escrinet averages 4.2% but peaks at 7.5%) end a good 50km before the finish in Valence.
After the second rest day, it’s climb, climb, climb as we enjoy and the riders endure four monster days in the Alps.
Five of the 22 cols are in Stage 17 where the 23.5km Col d’Allos (averaging 4.3%, and the Tour’s highest point) is overshadowed by the summit finish at Pra Loup.
40 years ago, defeat on this Col, cost the legendary Eddie Merckx a record sixth Tour crown. In 2015, the 10% ramps and 8% climax could see another decisive moment, but so could the descent, which is spectacularly dangerous.
The two highlights of Stage 18 couldn’t be more contrasting. One hundred kilometres from the finish in Saint Jean de Maurienne, there’s 1560 vertical metres to conquer in the 46.5km climb of Col du Glandon (averaging 4%). That’s won’t decide this day though.
In many ways, the little known Lacets de Montvernier is like the Tour Down Under’s Old Willunga Hill. Lacets is 3.8km averaging 8%, while Willunga is 3km averaging 7.6%. What sets them apart is Lacets’ head-spinning 18 hairpin bends. That’s a 180 degree turn every 211 metres! It’s not a summit finish but I can’t wait for those aerial shots.
A few years ago, 248km of road over seven Alpine cols would’ve screamed two words: “Queen Stage.”
This year, Stages 19 and 20 total 248km but in no way will dilute the drama.
Stage 19 goes uphill from the start across the Col de Chaussy (15.5km), the Croix de Fer (25km) and the Col du Mollard (5km) before a testing climax.
La Tousuirre averages 6% over its 18km rise, but is steepest in the first few kilometres (averaging 7-9%), but only around 4% in the final two kilometres.
In 2012, French duo Pierre Roland and Thiabot Pinot finished 1-2 on this climb.
The final Alps day won’t be long but it will be magical. Just 110km to race with only three Cols. But what a trio it is.
The Col Du Telegraphe, a repeat of the Croix de Fer from Stage 19, and the iconic l’Alpe d’Huez with its famous 21 hairpins bring an end to the climbing for Tour 102. This stage should’ve included the awesome Col du Galibier, but a landslide back in April still hasn’t been cleared forcing a relatively “last minute” change. The alteration doesn’t affect the length of the stage though.
It’s hard to imagine there won’t be a showdown on d’Huez but who knows whether the yellow jersey will still be undecided. Like Christian Prudhomme, we can only hope it is, but the lack of Time Trial kilometres goes a long way to making that happen.
And if the GC is decided before l’Alpe d’Huez we still may get a Champs Elysees finale that decides the Green jersey.
Despite the absence of Marcel Kittel who isn’t considered fit enough after struggling with illness for most of the season, the other big hitters Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Andre Greipel are ready to go.
I’m salivating already.