Oct 22, 2015 – A close study of the 2016 Tour de France route—which was announced in Paris on Tuesday—points to a race full of suspense and surprises that could be played out in unexpected places. Every Tour is tough and challenging, of course, but next year’s 103rd edition is also unusually rider- and team staff-friendly, with shorter transfers that equate to earlier dinners and more time for rest and recovery. It’s also a spectator-friendly course, with close concentrations of mountain stages in both the Pyrénées and the Alps.

Words by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada and James Startt

It’s been written this week that this is an untraditional Tour, but in many respects it’s a Tour that is returning to its roots. The shorter transfers are one factor. Until the 1980s, most Tour stages finished and started in the same town, with only occasional post-stage transfers. Since then, transfers have become longer and more frequent, particularly in the past decade when the Tour has been stretched by Grand Départ locations in the Netherlands (twice), Great Britain (twice), Corsica and Monaco, along with mid-race transfers that needed chartered planes for riders (or six-hour drives for staff members).

In comparison, next year’s Tour features only one long transfer—and that’s the flight on the final morning prior to the ceremonial stage around the Champs-Élysées. No big deal. As for the rest of the route, there are three days with no transfers, seven days with transfers shorter than 40 kilometers (25 miles), seven between 40 and 80 kilometers (25 to 50 miles), and only four longer than that—with the longest only 105 kilometers (or about one hour in the team bus). That represents a huge time saving and is in sharp contrast to recent grand tours, and notably last month’s Vuelta a España, which had 20 lengthy transfers and some so long that riders weren’t eating dinner until 10 or 11 at night.

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The 2016 Tour is also spectator-friendly. The first two mountain stage finishes in the Pyrénées are only a short bike ride apart, the stage in the Jura ends on a circuit and the four stage finishes in the Alps are within a 30-kilometer (20-mile) radius of each other. Such close proximity of so many finishes has never happened before at any grand tour.

One reason for the fan-friendly course and shorter transfers is that the main course designer is Thierry Gouvenou, the assistant race director to Tour boss Christian Prudhomme at ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation). Gouvenou, 46, is a lifelong cyclist who grew up at his parents’ bike shop in Normandy, began bike racing at age seven, raced as a pro for 12 years, riding seven Tours as a domestique, and joined ASO 11 years ago. He has been in his current position for two years, so this is the first Tour route that has his full fingerprints on it.

So what have Gouvenou and Prudhomme come up with for 2016? And will it be a Tour filled with suspense, surprises and action in unexpected places? Well, here’s the scoop….

A WELL-BALANCED COURSE

The 103rd Tour de France really does have something for everyone. For starters, the flatland sprinters such as Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel can look forward to racing for the stage victory at least seven times—stage 1 at Utah Beach, stages 3 and 4 at Angers and Limoges, stage 6 at Montauban, stage 11 at Montpellier, stage 14 at Villars-les-Dombes and stage 21 in Paris. They might also have a shot at stage 10 at Revel and stage 16 in Bern, Switzerland, though those uphill finales and the hilltop finish at Cherbourg on stage 2 are more suited to more flexible finishers like John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet.

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Virtually every media outlet this week has made defending champ Chris Froome the out-and-out race favorite, but the Team Sky leader will face much stronger opposition next year and with some different teammates. Froome based his 2013 Tour victory on winning the first two mountaintop stage finishes (at Ax 3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux), while last year his victory margin was based on just the opening mountaintop finish (at La Pierre-Saint-Martin). In each of those stages Froome made his winning solo attack after teammate Richie Porte burned off likely challengers with a sustained surge. Next year, Porte is teaming up with Tejay van Garderen as BMC Racing’s co-leader, and it will be up to Sky’s other climbing specialists (perhaps including new signing Mikel Landa) to set things up for Froome.

Also, instead of climbs like Ax 3 Domaines or La Pierre-Saint-Martin, which were on the Tour’s very first mountain stage, the 2016 Tour has three earlier climbing stages before reaching the first mountaintop finish. Those are stages 5, 7 and 8.

Stage 5 ends with 36 kilometers or steep climbs and descents in the Massif Central over the Puy Mary and Col du Perthus (both with 11-percent grades) and the less difficult Col de Font de Cère before a short 6-percent uphill to the finish line in Le Lioran. It’s a perfect course for French climber Romain Bardet whose hometown is only an hour from the stage finish. Two days later, the 12-kilometer Col d’Aspin will play a significant role for the first time in any Tour because it’s normally mid-stage, but this time the summit is only a 6-kilometer descent and 1-kilometer climb away from the finish at Lac de Payolle. The Tour will come through Payolle again 24 hours later at the start of the second of stage 8’s four Pyrenean climbs: the Tourmalet, Hourquette d’Ancizan, Val Louron-Azet and Peyresourde—with the 14-kilometer descent to the finish at Luchon probably deciding the day’s outcome.

Because of these preceding climbing stages (and no danger-fraught opening week of cobblestones and echelons!), an early GC hierarchy will be established and Froome’s likely contenders—including Alberto Contador, Tom Dumoulin, Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, Vincenzo Nibali, Porte, Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and van Garderen—will have far more time to get adjusted to climbing the high mountain passes before tackling the Arcalis summit finish in Andorra on stage 9.

2015 tour de france chris froome maillot jaune team sky alpe d'huez

Furthermore, this 184-kilometer Pyrenean stage opens with two lengthy but gradual climbs (both 19 kilometers long) in Spain, and has two much shorter, but steeper ascents in Andorra before reaching the not overly difficult climb to Arcalis (10.5 kilometers at 7.2 percent)—which was last used in 2009 when eventual Tour winner Contador attacked the favorites but gained only 21 seconds over an 11-strong group that contained time trialist Tony Martin. It’s not the sort of climb where Froome can expect to gain a couple of minutes. And because of the day’s multiple climbs, it’s a stage much more suited to Team Astana’s Nibali or Fabio Aru.

Arcalis is the first of just four mountaintop finishes next year. That’s a lot less than the number of finishing climbs in the other two grand tours, and is in fact the same number that were included in the Tours de France of 1986 and 1976, three and four decades ago. That’s another sign that the world’s biggest bike race is returning to its roots.

The second summit finish, four days later on Mont Ventoux (15.7 kilometers at 8.8 percent), is much more to Froome’s liking. It’s where he put the Tour to bed in 2013 by adding 29 seconds to his lead over eventual runner-up Quintana and gaining 1:40 on Contador. But with Porte as a rival not his lead-out man, and with the Tour more than halfway over, the situation is likely to be far more complicated for the Kenyan-born Brit in 2016. The other two mountaintop finishes both come in the final days of the Tour, when typically Froome has shown signs of fatigue—as he did in conceding significant time to Quintana last year at La Toussuire and L’Alpe d’Huez and in 2013 at L’Alpe d’Huez and Le Semnoz.

2015 tour de france nairo quintana chris froome maillot jaune white jersey

And the two final summit finishes next year are nasty ones, not used in any previous Tour—though both have been climbed in recent editions of the Critérium du Dauphiné. The first, to a hydroelectric dam at Finhaut-Emosson in the Swiss Alps, is in effect a double climb: first comes the Col de la Forclaz (13 kilometers at 7.9 percent), then a 7-kilometer (or a roughly 6-minute) decent, before starting the 10.4-kilometer, 8.4-percent haul to the remote finish, which rears up at 12 percent for the final kilometer. In the 2014 Dauphiné, Froome faltered on that last steep stretch and conceded 20 seconds (and lost the yellow jersey) to Contador.

The final mountaintop finish comes two days later at Le Bettex, a ski station above the town of Saint-Gervais. This 9.8-kilometer climb averages 8 percent, with an 11.2-percent grade for first 2.7 kilometer and more double-digit pitches in the final 4 kilometers. It was here earlier this year in the Dauphiné that Froome fought a two-man battle with van Garderen: the Brit won the stage by 17 seconds, while the American took the yellow jersey. The other main challengers were a minute (Rodriguez), two minutes (Valverde) and four minutes (Nibali) behind. It could be a very different result at the Tour next year.

TIME TRIALS, ETC.

The 2016 Tour’s final outcome may not be decided on those four summit finishes, because the climbing specialists also have to contend with two individual time trials (no TTT next year). Both of these races against the clock come the day after tough stages. The first is stage 13, 24 hours after the Ventoux finish; the other, stage 18, comes right after the finish at Le Bettex. Both time trials feature significant climbing, but if they all perform at a high level the intrinsically better time trialists Contador, Dumoulin, Froome, Nibali, Porte and van Garderen could gain more time in the TTs than they lose in the mountains.

9 September 2015 70th Vuelta a Espana Stage 17 : Burgos - Burgos ITT 1st : DUMOULIN Tom (NED) Giant - Alpecin Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Stage 13 from Bourg-Saint-Andéol to La Caverne du Pont-d’Arc is 37 kilometers long and so it’s long enough for a top-form Froome or Porte to put two minutes or more into men such as Aru, Mollema or Rodriguez. It opens with 5 kilometers of steady climbing out of the Rhône Valley, then heads for 15 flat kilometers across the Plateau des Gras before dropping 800 vertical feet into the spectacular, limestone Ardèche Gorge and past the Pont d’Arc, a natural stone arch spanning the river. The course then winds along the valley floor to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc before climbing back up to the plateau and the finish at the prehistoric cave center of La Caverne du Pont-d’Arc.

The other time trial, 17 kilometers in length, is mostly uphill between Sallanches and Megève. It open with 4 kilometers of flat valley roads before climbing the steep hill at Domancy (2.5 kilometers at 9.4 percent)—as used in the 1980 road worlds won by Bernard Hinault—and continues climbing at less than 5 percent for 4 kilometers on main roads to the foot of the closing climb, Les Choseaux, which is almost 4 kilometers long with a couple of 8- to 9-percent sections. The TT’s last 2 kilometers descend straight into the finish at the ski resort of Megève. Though this stage includes 11 kilometers of uphill work it’s not a course for a specialist climber, so Froome and company will again be at an advantage.

Besides putting those two time trials and the two alpine summit finishes in the final 10 days, the organizers have also included two other potentially explosive mountain stages—which should greatly add suspense to the 2016 Tour. In fact, the race might well be decided on stages 15 and 20.

Stage 15 from Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz features no less than 10 significant climbs (four of them categorized) in 159 kilometers of racing through the mountains of the Jura. The early climbs will wear everyone down before they reach a finale based on the mighty Grand Colombier—which will be climbed from two different directions. The first one starts with 60 kilometers to go on a narrow 13-kilometer ascent that includes 14-percent pitches early and late, and goes to the very top of the mountain before plunging down a winding 15-kilometer descent with double-digit gradients to the valley floor at Anglefort. Eight flat kilometers will take the riders through the finish line at Culoz, where they’ll begin a closing 24-kilometer circuit that goes back up the Grand Colombier for 8 kilometers, with long stretches of 9 and 10 percent, before rejoining the descent to Anglefort and the 8-kilometer run-in to the finish. Pinot—who first came to prominence in 2010 by winning a stage of the Tour de l’Ain on the Grand Colombier—will be eager to do well here, but the long technical downhills will be more to the liking of riders such as Nibali or Valverde should they reach this final week of the Tour in good shape.

22 July 2015 102nd Tour de France Stage 17 : Digne-les-Bains - Pra Loup VALVERDE Alejandro (ESP) Movistar, at Pra Loup Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

The other stage that perhaps holds an unexpected outcome is the final one in the Alps between Megève and Morzine. Less than 150 kilometers long, it’s crammed with four major climbs: the Col des Aravis and Col de la Colombière in the first 50 kilometers, and the Col de la Ramaz and Col de Joux-Plane in the last 50 kilometers. Some are calling this potentially the hardest stage of the Tour, coming as it does at the end of a very grueling three weeks of racing. With its 9-, 10- and 11-percent grades, the 11.6-kilometer Joux-Plane is regarded as one of most difficult in the Alps and has seen many a potential challenger wilt. And the subsequent 8-kilometer-long descent into the finish at Morzine has often seen riders crash on the tight switchbacks before the bottom.

As they say, “It’s never over till it’s over.” And just as Messrs. Gouvenou and Prudhomme hope, the surprises and the suspense should continue to the very last kilometer of that penultimate stage.

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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.