Mountains Galore at 2019 Tour! Words and images by James Startt

The Tour de France loves to honor its own history. And on Thursday at the 2019 Tour de France presentation in Paris, the honor roll was long. The 2019 Tour marks the centennial of the of the distinctive yellow jersey, introduced into the race midway through the first edition after World War I to better distinguish the race leader. And to celebrate the golden tunic, three of the Tour’s official five-time winners—Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin—were all on hand. And while Hinault may be a familiar face at Tour events, it was the first time in more than 20 years that Induráin or Merckx came to the annual “party” in Paris.

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And in many respects Merckx stole the show—but that was likely orchestrated by the race organizers themselves. After all, the Tour’s 105th edition will start on July 6 in Brussels, the Belgian legend’s hometown, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Tour victory by the sport’s most decorated champion. But while the Grand Départ in Brussels was well publicized before the presentation, most of those on hand in Paris came to discover what would follow when the three-week race leaves the Belgian capital.

They discovered that it will head straight into the heart of French Champagne country with a finish in Épernay and a start next day in Reims, before moving east to the Vosges mountains with a first summit finish on the always-telling Planche des Belles Filles—but with an added kilometer to the climb with 20-percent grades! 

From there, the race will continue diagonally across the country, through the Massif Central mountains to the Pyrénées, then loop back toward the Alps for three final mountain stages before returning to Paris on July 28. By all accounts, the 2019 Tour will be a climbers’ race, including three mountaintop finishes above 2,000 meters (6,567 feet). But race director Christian Prudhomme was quick to point out, “There are actually fewer hors-catégorie climbs throughout the race, but more climbs.” And while mountaintop finishes on the Tourmalet in the Pyrénées, and at Tignes and Val Thorens in the Alps, are the crowning climbs in the race, the mid-mountain stages through the Vosges and Massif Central will favor aggressive, punchy climbers keen to force opportunities. All told, the 2019 Tour boasts a record-setting 30 categorized climbs 

“The mid-mountains are always tricky. They are filled with traps,” said Frenchman Romain Bardet, who has finished on the podium twice in the past three years. “You know what is really hard is that there is almost no moment to relax,” added Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale teammate Pierre Latour, who won the best young rider jersey at the 2018 race. “The short stages are really hard and the easier stages tend to be long. That is really going to take its toll.”

Meanwhile, for those who also enjoy the Tour de France because it is also a tour of France, there promises to be plenty of postcard shots, especially in the south. The Tour’s newest summit finish at Foix scales the nearby Prat d’Albis mountain that climbs for 12 kilometers at an almost 7-percent grade. The next stage passes below a magnificent Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, on its way to Nîmes and then returns to start the following stage at the foot of the Pont. 

But while the Tour received plenty of high marks, it was not immediately to everybody’s liking. Dutchman Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, second last year, said he was frustrated by the lack of time trialing, as the race only offers a 27-kilometer team time trial on stage 2 and another 27-kilometer individual time trial on stage 13 at Pau between two days of climbing in the Pyrénées. “It’s not ideal for me,” Dumoulin said, “but that was already the case this year.”

Even defending champion Geraint Thomas of Team Sky was non-committal, saying simply that he would wait two more weeks before making decisions about his 2019 season. Thomas, according to some, could instead focus on the Giro d’Italia, a race he has yet to win, leaving Tour duties to teammate Chris Froome. Only third this year, Froome nevertheless is a four-time Tour winner and he has made it clear that he will return in 2019 with his eye on another victory—so that he can join Merckx, Hinault, Induráin and Jacques Anquetil in the elite circle of five-time winners. Like the Tour itself, Froome it seems, also has an eye on history.