With its more copious menu of mountaintop finishes, and time trialing reduced to a single stage 24 hours before the finish in Paris, next years 101st Tour de France has already been labeled one for the climbers. Indeed, right after the route was announced on Wednesday, the bookmakers made defending champion Chris Froome the outright favorite, many points clear of his 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana and this years Giro dItalia winner Vincenzo Nibali, with two-time Tour champ Alberto Contador given much longer odds.
Its true that these four men (if they all start the Tour) should have an advantage on the summit finishes in the Alps and Pyrnes, but the 2014 Tour (July 5-27) has just as many upstart stages that could change the conventional wisdom in favor of less heralded contenders. So come next summer, the odds might well shift from the top climbers to those all-rounders who have strong teams that could help gain significant time on the following five upset stages.
Stage 2: York to Sheffield (198 kilometers)
Theres virtually no flat terrain on this second day of the race that traverses Englands Pennine Hills, which resemble the Ardennes of Belgium where spring classics such as Lige-Bastogne-Lige are held. This stage through North, West and South Yorkshire, famed for its bleak moors featured in the novels of the Bront sisters, features nine categorized climbsincluding four short, steep hills in the last 30 kilometers. More significantly, this finale is on narrow back roads over the moors and into the streets of Sheffield.
Christophe Riblon, the Frenchman who won the super-aggressive title at this years Tour, has already ridden this course because he sees it as one that he could win and take away the yellow jersey from the opening days likely sprint winner. Its also a course that, on home ground, Froomes Team Sky might have a hard time controlling against teams such as Garmin-Sharp and Belkinwhich will be looking to put their respective top contenders, Dan Martin and Bauke Mollema, into a significant breakaway. Though it is possible that 2012 Tour champ and 2013 Tour of Britain winner Brad Wiggins could pull off something special on this typically English stage with a spice of the Ardennes.
Stage 5: Ypres to Arenberg (156 kilometers)
Cobblestones are not new to the Tour de France, but the nine sections that face the peloton in 2014 are among the toughest featured in Paris-Roubaix. The last time the Tour included some pav in its course (in 2010) the first two of the six sectors were not ones used in the infamous French classic and were relatively benignand yet the 10.9 kilometers in the four sections of Roubaix cobbles were enough to shred the peloton. Of the team leaders, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Ryder Hesjedal all finished in the winning six-man breakaway, Wiggins lost 53 seconds, Contador 1:13, and Lance Armstrong 2:08 (after flatting at a crucial point). And Frnk Schleck crashed out with a broken collarbone on the Sars-et-Rosires sector, which is featured again next year.
The cobbles were commonplace for the Tour back in the 1970s and 80s, notably in 1979, when the ninth stage from Amiens to Roubaix (finishing in the famed velodrome) featured no less than 32 kilometers of the rough stuff split in 10 sectors over the final 111 kilometers. That day, race leader Bernard Hinault flatted on the first sector of cobbles in Saulzoir at the exact moment a dozen riders split off the front. In the breakaway was second-place Joop Zoetemelk, three riders from the Ijsboerke team, all classics experts, Didi Thurau, Andr Dierickx and Ludo Delcroix, along with all-rounder Michel Pollentier.
Two and a half hours later, those five riders finished almost four minutes ahead of a 20-strong chase groupwhich Hinault had led for most the final 100 kilometers. Delcroix won the stage and Zoetemelk took over the yellow jersey. Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, who was present in the velodrome, said, With his back against the wall, Hinault conducted himself like a true champion. He no doubt won the Tour today! In that situation, others would have lost a quarter of an hour.
Team Sky will no doubt try to control this stage with its powerful classics men Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, but should team leader Froome get unstuck at some point (through crashes or mechanical), the British squad might have to favor Wigginsand vice versa of course! Of the other favorites, Quintana could suffer the most in a Movistar team built for the mountains, but Nibali and Contador will have stronger backing at Astana and Saxo Bank respectively.
As in 2010, Schleck (on the 2014 Trek Factory Team) may again get a big boost from his teammate and three-time Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara, while four-time winner Tom Boonen could be an unexpected booster for Omega Pharmas new signing, Colombian climber Rigoberto Urn. Others that could be factors include Garmin (with Hesjedal, Martin and Andrew Talansky), Belkin (for Mollema and Robert Gesink), Lotto-Belisol (for Jrgen Van den Broeck) and BMC Racing (for Tejay van Garderen).
Stage 8: Tomblaine to Grardmer (161 kilometers)
This is the first of three stages in the Vosges mountainswhich have never seen so much of the Tour in a single year. Although the focus will be on the third of these days, with its finish atop the nasty climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, where Froome won in 2012, the Grardmer stage has just as tough a finale. The last 25 kilometers will be played out on extremely narrow back roads. They start with the 6- and 7-percent grades of the 7.6-kilometer Col de la Croix des Moinats; then comes the 3-kilometer Col de Grosse Pierre, whose middle section is as steep as 16 percent; and after a fast, sweeping descent into Grardmer, the race takes a sharp right into a narrow street that immediately tilts up at a 13-percent grade, climbing for almost 2 kilometers to the stage finish in La Mauselaine.
Its not labeled a mountaintop finish, but come race day, Im sure the riders will recognize it as one mean finish. Again, as in the upset stage to Sheffield a week earlier, expect a host of could-be contenders to exploit the extremely steep Gross Pierre and La Mauselaine climbs in a bid to upstage the top favorites. Leaders such as Urn, Martin, Mollema and Lampre-Meridas Rui Costa could all spring surprises at Grardmer.
Stage 13: Saint-tienne to Chamrousse (200 kilometers)
There are only two stages in the Alps, both with mountaintop finishes. Again, the focus is unlikely to be on this first one because the second one goes over the more famous Lautaret and Izoard passes before the finishing climb to Risoulbut none of those mountain roads features grades steeper than 9 percent, whereas there are multiple double-digit pitches on the last two climbs of stage 13.
The first of these, the Col de Palaquit, has never been raced in the Tour. Its a two-part climb, all on narrow roads through the pine forest of the Chartreuse, opening with a 3-kilometer stretch at mostly 10.5 percent, while the middle 4 kilometers of the second half are as steep as 11.7 percent. Once at the top, just below the summit of the notorious Col de Porte, the riders face a 13-kilometer downhill into Grenoble that is replete with erratic turns and adverse cambers (Hinault famously crashed on one of those turns at the 1977 Dauphin).
Once through the streets of Grenoble, the road goes up again to the town of Uriage-les-Bains to begin the 18-kilometer finishing climb to the Chamrousse ski resort. Its steepest in the first 7 kilometers, with several 11-percent sections, followed by steadier grades through a series of switchbacks. This is the first time that a road stage has finished on this mountainwhich hosted an uphill time trial in 2001 taken by Armstrong, a minute faster than Jan Ullrich. Next July, it could see a true upset, should the favorites underestimate the days challenges and allow second-tier contenders to go clear on the Palaquit.
Stage 16: Carcassonne to Luchon (237 kilometers)
This is the longest stage of the Tour and the first of three days in the Pyrnes, and on paper its the easiest of the three. The other two both have mountaintop finishes (at Pla dAdet and Hautacam), and the race leaders at this point will want to reserve their best efforts for those difficult challenges. That could open the way for a successful long-distance breakaway on this stage, which traverses the foothills before hitting the first of three climbs 150 kilometers out of Carcassonne.
Only the last one, the Port de Bals, will split the lead group and the peloton. Not only is it the toughest of the three, with some double-digit grades in its 12 kilometers of climbing, but its followed by 20 kilometers of rapid downhill riding into the finish at Luchon. The only other time the Tour used this finale, Contador attacked when race leader Schleck unshipped his chain near the top of the Bals. The Spaniard gained 39 seconds to take the yellow jerseywhich was the same margin between the two in Paris (before Contador lost his title on testing positive for clenbuterol).
Interestingly, in 2010, neither of the two following (much tougher) stages in the Pyrnes produced as decisive result as the one into Luchon. Maybe that will happen again and the spoils of the 101st Tour wont be decided until the races only time trial, 54 kilometers between Bergerac and Prigueux, the day before the finish on the Champs-lyses. If thats the case, then the Tour is likely to be won by the climbers who can ride a strong time trial on a rolling course: Nibali, Froome or perhaps the enigmatic Wiggins.
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