The Tour de France is just a week away. After dominating the run-up to the Tour, all eyes are on Team Sky’s Chris Froome and what his rivals can throw at him.
Everyone’s talking about Mont Ventoux, two passages up L’Alpe d’Huez, and the harrowing descent of the Col de Sarenne as the decisive moments of this year’s Tour.
And rightly so. The final week of the centenary Tour looks epic by any measure. But as everyone knows, getting there in one piece is easier said than done.
The first week of the Tour is always full of landmines. Every year, at least one or two big, pre-race favorites succumb to maladies, crashes, illnesses, or just simple, plain bad luck.
Ask Ryder Hesjedal, who arrived at last year’s Tour in what he described as better shape than when he won the Giro d’Italia. He crashed out in stage 6, through no real fault of his own.
The same goes for Bradley Wiggins. In 2012, everything went perfectly. But in 2011, he crashed out in the first week, victim of a cracked clavicle.
The adage is that the strongest always wins the Tour. But the strongest also needs to arrive safe and sound to the decisive moments of the race to duke it out for the yellow jersey.
For 2013, the Tour’s first week is perhaps the most challenging in years. Starting on the mountainous Mediterranean island of Corsica, which holds the distinction as the only part of France never to have hosted a Tour stage, the opening three days are full of traps.
In fact, Tour technical director Jean-Francois Peschaux calls the grand départ of the centenary Tour the most difficult since 1992’s start in San Sebastián.
And once the entourage reaches mainland France, the road from Nice to the Pyrénées holds pitfalls for the unlucky and inattentive — perhaps something totally unexpected as breakaway riders getting wiped out by a TV car.
This Tour is as difficult as last year’s was “easy.” No Tour is ever a walk in the park, but last year’s time trial-heavy route was more about control and execution against the clock. This year’s Tour is full of surprises, and some of the biggest are bound to come in the first week.
Here are five traps the favorites will have to avoid on the road to Paris:
1. Corsican roads
Extremely narrow and sometimes rough, three days of racing on the roads of the Mediterranean island of Corisca will make for some nerve-wracking and dangerous racing.
Stage 1 has the closest semblance of a “straight” road, but anyone’s who’s been on the scenic island knows there is no such thing. That will set the stage for several problems.
Key to surviving the first week is to be at the front, and it’s often the ensuing fight for position that provokes the costly, late-race high-speed crashes that can wipe out the peloton.
Roads over the first three stages will also have thin to almost none-existent shoulders, meaning that riders will be fighting not only for position, but also to simply stay on the road. In fact, the roads are more akin to what the peloton sees at the Giro d’Italia, narrower, with sometimes-dangerous drops and rock and concrete guardrails.
Tour officials will have their hands full to protect the peloton on dangerous sections, especially with endless up-and-down course profiles in stage 2 and 3.
Those narrow roads will also make it much more difficult to organize effective chases. Anyone who gets away, especially in the final two days on Corsica, could very well stay away.
2. Corsican climbs
After officials nixed a prologue, stage 1 is all but assured of delivering a mass-sprint finale, giving the likes of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) a chance to snag yellow.
Stages 2 and 3, however, are dramatically different. Coupled with narrow roads and short, but steep climbs, the opening weekend of racing is all but sure to expose any riders hoping to come into the Tour hoping to ride into form.
Riders such as Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), who has been on the back foot all season, could bleed minutes in the opening stages.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who has been less-than-explosive all season and is looking to peak in the French Alps, cannot afford to miss any moves in these opening critical days.
The hilly profiles across the heart of the Corsican mountains will provide serious challenge for the GC favorites to control. Stage-hunters and opportunists will be on the march, throwing chaos into an already tense bunch.
Riders such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), who both thrive on short, steep climbs, are sure to be on the march. Ever-steady climbers, such as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Chris Froome (Sky), will need to be on top of their game right from the gun to keep the peloton on a short leash in Corsica.
3. Team time trial
The short, flat team time trial course around Nice in stage 4 shouldn’t produce huge, race-breaking differences between the top teams. The differences between Sky and others, such as Garmin-Sharp, Movistar, BMC, and RadioShack-Leopard, should be seconds, not minutes.
But some teams are simply not wired for team time trials. Whether they don’t work on it, or lack the right kind of riders, every year one or two riders are all but forced to throw in the towel in the TTT. Euskaltel-Euskadi and Lotto-Belisol are notoriously weak in the discipline. For riders who are already weak in the individual time trials, such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), it will be vital to not fold so early in the race.
4. Winds, heat and crashes
The peloton will take a collective breath for stages 5-7, a trio of “transition” stages from the Cote d’Azur west toward Albi.
On paper, the sprint teams such as Omega Pharma, Argos-Shimano, Cannondale, and Lotto-Belisol should assume control of the pack, chasing down breakaways to set up their fast men. With a deep sprinter field and an equally thick fight for the green jersey, these three stages should see a real dogfight for the intermediate sprints and the stage victories.
That doesn’t mean the GC favorites will be on holiday. Far from it. The opening-week sprint stages are among the most nerve-racking of the entire Tour.
The peloton is at full strength, and the GC is just getting started, so everyone believes they can win, both in the sprints and in the GC. That usually adds up to disaster as riders are jostling for position throughout the entire stage. The safest place to be in these stages is in a breakaway, and the terrain will certainly see stage-hunters on the march.
Another trap are the high winds that come howling down the Rhone, especially in stage 6 from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier across the wide-open expanses of the Camargue. The finale is similar to the same route in 2009 when Lance Armstrong caught out Astana teammate Contador in heavy crosswinds in the closing kilometers.
Depending on how the weather is holding up, temperatures can push well into the 90Fs around Marseille in stage 5. Crashes are the most dangerous element for the GC contenders, and these are the stages riders will be most worried about.
Most pros agree the most harrowing thing in the Tour is the final 30km of a sprint stage. The peloton is rocking at 60kph on the flats, elbows are flying, nerves are on edge, and the peloton resembles a rugby match. It’s a relief to see the “safe zone” flag at 3km to go, yet no one’s fully safe until they cross the tape.
5. Forgotten Pyrénées
With everyone focused on the final week, there is danger in overlooking the two stages across the Pyrénées that close out the first full week of racing.
The hors-categorie summit of the Col de Pailhères, which is harrowing both going up and coming down, is the first major test of the 100th Tour. The Spanish mountain goats such as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Rodríguez, and the entire Euskaltel-Euskadi team are all but sure to go on the attack.
A tricky descent brings the pack to the base of the Tour’s first summit finish at Aix-3-Domaines. There is sure to be at least one major GC candidate who simply cannot hold the pace. These climbs are especially tough on steady diesels, such as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) or anyone still a touch off top form.
This will be the first major test for Froome and Sky. He will want to drop the hammer to let everyone know he’s up to the task. If he’s not, well, things could be very interesting.