PARIS – For the first time in 25 years, all five mountain ranges of continental France will feature in next year’s Tour de France, in a stretched-out endurance test of racing that smiles on the climbing strengths of defending champion Chris Froome and his Colombian rival, Nairo Quintana.
In their quest to keep the 113-year-old race young, Tour organizers have again unearthed fresh challenges from the geography of France for the three-week slog, with new climbs and, on stage 18, an unprecedented mountain-top finish on the punishing Col d’Izoard high in the Alps — a rocky, hostile and lunar terrain that could be the final big battleground for the winner’s check of 500,000 euros ($550,000).
“That’s going to be one of the really decisive stages,” said Froome, the race winner for Team Sky in 2013, 2015 and again this year.
Before that, on stage 12 in the Pyrenees, the Tour climbs to the Peyragudes ski station where parts of the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” were filmed in 1997.
From its July 1 start in Dusseldorf, Germany, to the July 23 finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the 3,516-kilometre (2,185-mile) route will wind over climbs in the Vosges, Jura, Massif Central, Pyrenees and Alps. Not since the Tour of 1992 have organizers made riders take on all five mountain ranges.
“It looks hard,” said Australian rider Richie Porte, who finished fifth for the BMC Racing team this year.
The toughest climbs — graded two, one and unclassified on cycling’s rising scale of difficulty — will be slightly fewer next year: 23 in total compared to 28 this year and 25 in both 2015 and 2014. But they will be scattered across a 14 day-spread, rather than being concentrated in two blocks in the Alps and Pyrenees, and will include six especially teeth-grindingly steep ascents. The Col du Grand Colombier in the Jura has 22-per cent gradients. Riders will have to arrive at the Tour in good climbing form, and maintain that strength, to compete for the title.
With just three mountain-top finishes, including the Izoard, that are so often decisive on the Tour, title contenders like Froome may have to also race hard on other terrains to shake off their rivals.
“It could make the race a lot more tactical in the mountains,” Froome said. “It opens the door up for people to be more aggressive.”
Just five days in, the 198 riders will face the relatively short but very sharp shock of climbing to the Planche des Belles Filles ski station in the Vosges, with leg-searing 20-per cent gradients, in eastern France.
“The first big shake-up,” Porte said.
With little time for riders to catch their breath, the Tour then swings south for more climbs on stages eight and nine in the Jura, before crossing France to the west.
The peloton will spend one very long day — 214 kilometres (133 miles) — followed by one short one — 100 kilometres (62 miles) — in the Pyrenees. The race then heads north again to the Massif Central range, where climbs and possible strong winds up high could catch out unwitting riders on stage 15 to Le Puy-en-Velay, part of it on roads so off the beaten track that they don’t appear on some maps.
“The sort of stage where we can hope for unusual things to happen,” said race director Thierry Gouvenou, who helped draw up the route.
Two individual time trials — the first over 13 kilometres (8 miles) on day one in Dusseldorf; the last, over 23 kilometres (14 miles), on the penultimate stage in Marseille — will bookend the Tour before the finish in Paris but promise to be too short to be decisive in the overall outcome.
“It’s very light on time trials, so, for sure, the race is going to be won or lost depending on what happens in the mountains,” said Froome, who named two-time runner-up Quintana first among his list of expected rivals. “I’m going to have to be as good as I can be in the mountains. That’s going to be my focus.”
In a remarkable piece of showmanship on the final stage in Paris, the riders will race through the iconic Grand Palais, a giant steel-and-glass structure built for the world’s fair in 1900, on their way to the sprint finish on the Champs-Elysees, with the aim of highlighting one of the sites that could be used for Olympic events if Paris wins its bid to host the 2024 Games.