Oct 20, 2015 – “I like it,” he said. “I think it actually suits me better than last year.” British rider Christopher Froome, was speaking of the 2016 Tour de France race route, which was officially unveiled here in Paris today. And the 2015 winner was on hand to witness the unveiling and reflect on his chances to defend.
Words and Photos by James STARTT
Under the spotlights of the Palais de Congrès on the western edge of Paris, race organizer A.S.O. orchestrated their annual extravaganza with their signature pomp, celebrating the riders and races of old, while still focusing on the actors of today, those who will ultimately decide whether the next edition will be one of legend or a simple page-turner.
For the first time in four years, the 2016 Tour will start on the French mainland. After highly celebrated starts in Corsica, England and Holland, race organizers clearly were in search of a memorable site for their return to the mainland. And they found it at the Mont Saint-Michel, one of the country’s most-visited landmarks. Located on the shores of Normandy, this mythic landmark will undoubtedly provide for a memorable start to the 2016 Tour. The nod to history will continue when stage 1 finishes on Utah Beach, the central site of D-Day.
But while the Tour may start in the north, this year’s race is predominantly bottom heavy, as the race quickly moves south, and with it, into increasingly mountainous terrain. Unlike in recent years, the Tour will hit the first real mountains already on stage five, when riders tackle the lethal Puy Marie climb and the Col du Perthius before the finish in Le Lioran, a small ski resort in the central Cantal region of France.
This year in fact, race organizers made of point of exploiting non-traditional Tour climbs. In the Pyrenees, for example, the Col d’Aspin, traditionally an early climb on a typical Tour stage, will be placed at the end of stage seven. Stage eight, into Bagnieres de Luchon is fill with non-traditional climbs like the Hourquette d’Ancizan or the Col de Val Louron-Azet, and the surprises continue on stage nine when the Tour ventures into Spain before finishing in Andorra.
“There are 10 climbs that have never been climbed,” says Thierry Gouvenou, Tour de France race director. “That is something we have really been striving for. It doesn’t make the race any less difficult. But it can make the racing more surprising.”
After leaving the Pyrenees, the race will cross the picturesque Midi region in the south as they make their way towards the Alps. But there will be one major bump in the road as the riders must first tackle the infamous Mont Ventoux on stage 12. Known as the Giant of Provence, the Mont Ventoux rises from near sea level to 1,912 meters and often produces surprises all of its own.
By this point in the Tour presentation, Chris Froome could really start smiling. After all, it was here on the Ventoux that the Team Sky rider built his first Tour victory in 2013 when he won on the steep, windswept pitches that finish at the foot of the towering weather station on the summit.
And the Brit’s mood could only get better as he examined the final week of the Tour. Not one, but two individual time trials, as well as four grueling road stages in the Alps will offer ample opportunity for a powerful all-arounder like Froome to defend his Tour title.
“It’s a parcours that tests every aspect of professional cycling,” Froome analyzed in the Tour presentation press conference. “You’re going to have to be able to time trial, climb extremely well and descend properly.”
Froome’s Team Sky manager David Brailsford appeared even more upbeat about his riders chances. “He could definitely be licking his lips,” Brailsford said of his rider’s chances. Yeh, I think the race suits Chris better than last year. There isn’t the first tens days of carnage to get through like in the last years. There are no cobblestones and there are definitive sprint stages where I think the sprint teams will really control things. And then we get into the real climbing into the race. And that will split things up. And the final, finishing bloc is going to be hard, really hard. That final time trial is going to be really hard. A rider will have to finish strongly because he won’t be able to use his teammates in the final time trial. I think Chris can be excited about it!”
But while the 2016 edition of the Tour may appear perfect for Froome, race director Gouvenou was quick to caution. “There are going to be surprises, and all of the new climbs will only help. Take the Montée de Bisanne before the finish at Saint Gervais on stage 19. It is as hard as the Mont Ventoux for 12 kilometers. It is the type of climb that can upset the Tour. This year the first real climbing starts on stage 5. As a result the riders really need be able to go the distance. In 2014 Chris Froome faded a bit in the last week. Perhaps he came to the race a little too good. The same situation could provide different results next year. The rider that wins next year will really have to be in the best condition over three entire weeks.”