“Magnificent” and “incredible” were the first words heard just moments after the Tour de France organizers unveiled their race route for 2018. And in the Palais des Congrés in Paris, there was little doubt that next year’s Tour will be one of the most original to date—Tour director Christian Prudhomme unveiled a course that includes 15 cobblestone sectors in the North, gravel roads in the Alps and a 65-kilometer stage in the Pyrénées with no less that three major climbs!
Words: James Startt | Images: Startt and A.S.O.
“It seems as though the organizers wanted to make a race with all of the traps possible,” said AG2R La Mondiale team manager Vincent Lavenu, director to French favorite Romain Bardet.
“It’s fantastic! They’ve tried to cram every element of a bike race into this Tour,” said Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford. “You’ve got crosswinds. You’ve got cobbles. You’ve got a team time trial and an individual time trial.”
Indeed, Brailsford’s four-time winner Chris Froome could face his toughest Tour de France challenge so far in 2018 after organizers on Tuesday revealed a route and format that is potentially unfavorable to the reigning champion. But if it does not favor Froome, it favors none of his challengers in particular.
The race, which starts on the island of Noirmoutier off the Vendée coast on July 7, lacks a long, flat individual time trial where four-time winner Froome often pulverises opponents. Six mountain stages and four hilly stages are packed into the latter part of the Tour before it ends on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 29. And, indeed, as the race makes its clockwise trip around the country, crucial stages can be found all along the way.
Already in the first week, stage 1 down the Atlantic coast will likely be battered by crosswinds, stage 3 is a 35-kilometer team time trial, and stage 6 climbs the spectacular Mûr-de-Bretagne “wall” not once, but twice. And on stage 9, the final stage in the northern part of the country, the riders will tackle no less than 15 cobblestone sectors on the roads between Arras and Roubaix. And that’s even before the race hits the mountains!
After a rest day, the race then combines three mountain-packed days in the Alps that includes a 1.8-kilometer gravel section of road after a 6-kilometer 11-percent climb to the Plateau des Glières during stage 10, which also crosses two more mountain climbs before finishing at Le Grand-Bornand. And while gravel roads have become frequent in races like the Giro d’Italia, such a challenge is unprecedented in modern Tour history.
“It’s different every year and it’s difficult every year,” Froome said. “The first week is going to be very difficult in the north of France, with the wind and a stage of cobbles. I wasn’t planning to do Paris–Roubaix this year, but there you go! And then we drop down to the mountains. I like the look of the Alpe d’Huez stage. For me, that’s the queen stage on this Tour,” he added, referring to the potentially decisive stage that includes over 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) of climbing.
But if Froome considers the stage to Alpe d’Huez—a stage that also includes the infamous Madeleine and Croix-de-Fer climbs—as the toughest stage, he should not underestimate the remaining 10 days of racing. And in particular he should be wary of the final five stages in and around the Pyrénées, that not only includes classic climbs like the Tourmalet and Aubisque, but also an unprecedented 65-kilometer stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan, a stage that includes nearly 40 kilometers of climbing and virtually no room to recover.
And if that is not enough, Tour organizers reserved the only individual time trial for the penultimate day, where they have planned a brutal 31-kilometer climbing time trial to Espelette in the heart of the French Basque Country.
Such relentless hills and mountain terrain may well grind down Froome’s protective entourage that has so successfully snuffed out attacks in recent Tours, especially since teams will start with only eight riders next year instead of nine.
But Sky chief Brailsford appeared unbothered. “Let’s get it on!” he said enthusiastically. “You know, the great thing about the Tour is that it presents a different problem every year. That’s what makes it great. Some years you think, ‘Okay, lets get on with it,’ and then some year’s you say, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great race!’ And this year is one of those years. I like everything about it!”