If cycling has a big event that’s on par with the NBA draft or the drama deciding the brackets for Champions League, it’s Tuesday’s presentation of the 2018 Tour de France route.
It’s as glamorous and hyped as cycling gets.
More than 3,000 luminaries from cycling’s past and present file into the Palais des Congrès in Paris. Everyone’s dressed to the nines, and there’s a hint of anticipation. ASO’s big hitters are there, along with top Tour contenders of today and select stars from yesterday.
It’s not quite Oscar night, but it’s a full-blown multimedia event that comes as close as cycling is ever going to come to a red-carpet event.
The lights dim. Functionaries give their speeches and a highlight reel is played to get the emotions pumping. Then Tour director Christian Prudhomme steps to the dais and in what’s a highly polished multimedia show, each stage is fully revealed with swooping videos and engaging optics.
There used to be something quite mysterious and tantalizing about the official unveiling ceremony. Beyond a few whispers and insider gossip, much of the route was safely kept under wraps until the big show.
That’s changed dramatically over the past decade or so. Much of the element of surprise has been lost, thanks to the magic of the Internet and a growing legion of fans who track every hint and clue of where each year’s Tour route might go.
The best of these websites is Velowire, run by blogger Thomas Vergouwen. His site is usually fairly accurate, so much so that journalists and tour groups often book their hotels early based on some of these early reports. Stories from local French or foreign newspapers are curated to sketch a picture of what the route might look like. Hotel reservations are also tracked for key dates, providing another clue that the Tour is coming to town.
It’s fun detective work, and though it does take some of the wind out of ASO’s big show each October, the Tour brass usually manages to keep a few surprises tucked under its belt.
The big talking point next year will be Chris Froome’s attempt to join the Tour’s five-win club. So all eyes will be on what the Tour will deliver.
So, what can we expect for 2018?
What we know
The opening stages of the 105th Tour route are already well-known, with the Grand Depart in the Vendée region of western France. The remainder will be officially unveiled at Tuesday’s lavish presentation.
What’s already known is that the Tour will start July 7 and will end July 29 in Paris. That’s about one week later than normal, with the race bumped back so it limits the overlaps with soccer’s World Cup in Russia (June 14-July 15).
The Tour will open with a road stage from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte. Initially, the route was supposed to include a passage over the Passage du Gois, the infamous cobbles submerged under water during high tide. However, some reports suggest that the tide tables are not favorable with the Tour starting one week later.
And the Tour will end, per recent tradition, right at sunset on the Champs-Élysées in what is one of sport’s most dramatic settings.
Though the exact route details are still to come, we also know the start and finishes of the opening stages.
Stage 2 is another road stage, from Mouilleron-Saint Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon. Stage 3 is around Cholet, suggesting a team time trial could be back in the Tour. Stage 4 starts in La Baule, with the remainder of the route remaining a blank canvas.
What the rumor mill suggests
There’s been plenty of speculation and rumor-mongering over the past weeks and months leading up to Tuesday’s big show.
What seems sure is that the route will sweep clockwise around France, first heading north into Brittany and then east across northern France. That suggests that the Alps will come first, followed by the Pyrénées, before a transfer back up to Paris for the finale. That rough outline also hints at two major transfers (bad news for team bus drivers), with the first two weekends in northern France and the second half of the race between the Alps and Pyrénées.
Early stops could include Sarzeau, the hometown of recently elected UCI president David Lappartient, Point-du-Raz, a rugged promontory on France’s west coast, and the Mur de Bretagne. The big buzz at the end of week 1 will be a likely return of cobblestones, with a stage ending in Roubaix ahead of the first rest day. Just how many cobbles will be included remains to be seen, but reports suggest that the treacherous Carrefour de l’Arbre could be in the mix.
Week 2 should dip straight into the Alps for two or three mountain stages. Alpe d’Huez and La Grand-Bornand are names that keep popping up. The race is expected to slip into the Massif Central before going into the second weekend.
The latest media reports coming out of France suggest that the Pyrénées will be the main protagonist in the decisive final week. Pau could well be the center of attention, at least in terms of a base for team hotels. There should be at least three climbing stages in the Pyrénées in the final week.
The biggest question mark is over time trials.
With the race reverting to a road stage start and skipping an opening prologue, the first test against the clock should come in stage 3, most likely with a team time trial. There are some reports of a climbing time trial up Alpe d’Huez, which would certainly help the pure climbers against the likes of Froome. The latest reports suggest a rolling time trial course on the penultimate stage around France’s Basque Country.
What we’d love to see
ASO deserves kudos for spicing up what a Tour de France can look like. With the arrival of Prudhomme as race director in 2007 and Thierry Gouvenou as technical director, the Tour isn’t afraid of new ideas and innovation.
Yet, from first glance, this route remains firmly inside the blueprint of what a modern Tour can look like. The trend of fewer kilometers of time trials and more punchy, uphill finales seems intact. This will be a traditional Tour with a modern touch.
Last week at VeloNews, we offered a few suggestions of how to take the Tour to the next level.
The addition that everyone is waiting to see? Gravel. Everyone loves gravel these days, and the Giro d’Italia was the first major grand tour to get off the pavement when it included the Colle delle Finestre in 2005. There are rumors that this year’s route could take in some of the gravel roads — ribinoù — featured each spring in the Tro-Bro León. If they do, let’s hope they keep the tradition alive of giving the top-placed Breton rider the prize of a piglet.
The second: fewer TT kilometers. Nothing sucks the drama out of a modern grand tour more than a long time trial (or two). It appears the Tour won’t be delivering a course that would favor a TT duel between Froome and rising challenger Tom Dumoulin. The last Tour packed with kilometers against the clock came in 2012, with nearly 100km, a route that paved the way for Bradley Wiggins to win. The inclusion of a team time trial in the first week would mean there’s no opening prologue and possibly no other time trial until the penultimate day. Let’s hope so. That would certainly help keep the GC battle knotted up, give the climbers a real chance to take Froome, and set it up so that the final TT will have a major influence on the final outcome.
And finally, more shorter climbing stages. Experiments in shorter, more explosive climbing stages have proven very popular, not only in the Tour but stage races across the calendar. We’d love to see this become more of the norm than the novelty. Short is the new long. Riders seem more willing to attack from further away when they know they won’t run out of gas. Team strength is also diminished when it’s a free-for-all from the gun.