"It is impossible to win this Tour unless you are a great climber," Tour de France director Prudhomme says at the route unveiling.

PARIS (AFP) — Tour de France organizers threw down the gauntlet to the climbing specialists when they unveiled the “the highest Tour in history” that features a record 30 categorized climbs and five summit finishes. The 2019 Tour route was confirmed in Paris Thursday.

With a nod to Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, the 2019 Tour route begins in Brussels on July 6 and ends 3,460 kilometers later on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 28, and the opening and closing stages are about as flat as it gets on the 106th edition.

After Belgium, the Tour heads into the hilly Massif Central region of France, and then down to the Pyrénées before culminating with three consecutive days in the Alps for stages 18-20.

Fans with a taste for classic climbs will not be disappointed, with the Tourmalet, La Planche des Belles Filles, the Col d’Izoard, the Col du Galibier, and the Montee de Tignes all on a menu featuring a record 30 categorized climbs and five summit finishes.

“This is the highest Tour in history,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said Thursday.

Said four-time champion Chris Froome: “It’s going to be a tough, tough, tough race. I’m disappointed there isn’t more time trialing, I thought there would be, and those five summit finishes mark this out.

“But I can tell you Team Sky is celebrating its 10th anniversary and we really would like to win this Tour.”

Marketed as the Centenary of the official introduction of the yellow jersey in 1919, next year’s edition “is a way of paying homage to the yellow jersey,” added Prudhomme.

“Combining that with the grand depart in Brussels is a wonderful way to honor the man who best represents the image of the yellow jersey, cycling’s greatest ever champion, Eddy Merckx,” Prudhomme said.

Although featuring seven mountain and five hilly (or medium mountain) stages, there is also room for seven supposedly flat stages that are best suited to the sprinters.

“We are virtually guaranteed wind on one of those and confident there will be wind on a second one too,” said Prudhomme.

Asked where that left the sprinters, Prudhomme said cycling’s fast men were too proud to let a few hills stand in their way.

“Mark Cavendish, the greatest sprinter in Tour history, showed last year the attitude our sprinters have,” he said.

Cavendish last year was one of several sprinters to struggle through a difficult mountain stage only to be eliminated after missing the time cut, missing out on the chance to reach the final sprint stage in Paris.

“The Champs-Élysées is still the most mouth-watering sprint on the cycling calendar and they all want to get there,” Prudhomme explained.

Said Cavendish, who owns 30 Tour stage wins: “It might look harder but the 2019 Tour will be easier to finish than the 2018 one, which was virtually impossible for a sprinter like me.”

Only a ‘great climber’ can win

With an abundance of potentially decisive mountain stages, the scope for stealing time from rivals during long time trials has been limited.

Next year’s edition features a 27km team time trial on stage 2 around the city center of Brussels. Stage 13 will be a 27km individual time trial on undulating terrain around Pau.

“The planning here means it is impossible to win this Tour unless you are a great climber,” Prudhomme said.

“There are also time bonuses at strategic climb points to encourage riders to attack at key moments, with the hope that someone will make a bid for a stage win and even the yellow jersey where you might not expect that,” he said.

“Last year Geraint Thomas was the one who went chasing after the bonus seconds the most and he won the Tour. This was no accident,” Prudhomme said.

Defending champion Thomas said he was still just trying to enjoy the fact he is the reigning champion.

“It’s been crazy since Paris,” he said. “And it’s nice to be here to see this live presentation, but now I need to get back on the bike and get back on racing form.”

Route designer Thierry Gouvenou, however, said he felt Thomas’s teammate Froome may be stronger next year.

“Of the two of them I’d say Froome was better equipped on this type of route,” he said when pressed on the issue.

“Froome remains an iconic leader for Sky, and Thomas has found his Holy Grail.”

2019 Tour de France route

July 6
Stage 1, Brussels, 192km
July 7
Stage 2, Brussels, 27km TTT
July 8
Stage 3, Binche to Epernay, 214km
July 9
Stage 4, Reims to Nancy, 215km
July 10
Stage 5, Saint-Die-des-Voges to Colmar, 169km
July 11
Stage 6, Mulhouse to Planche des Belles Filles, 157km
July 12
Stage 7, Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saone, 230km
July 13
Stage 8, Macon to Saint-Etienne, 199km
July 14
Stage 9 Saint-Etienne to Brioude, 170km
July 15
Stage 10, Saint-Flour to Albi, 218km
July 16
Rest Day
July 17
Stage 11, Albi to Toulouse, 167km
July 18
Stage 12, Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, 202km
July 19
Stage 13, Pau, 27km TT
July 20
Stage 14, Tarbes to Tourmalet, 117km
July 21
Stage 15, Limoux to Foix, 185km
July 22
Rest Day
July 23
Stage 16, Nimes, 177km
July 24
Stage 17, Pont du Gard to Gap, 206km
July 25
Stage 18, Embrun to Valloire, 207km
July 26
Stage 19, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Tignes, 123km
July 27
Stage 20, Albertville to Val Thorens, 131km
July 28
Stage 21, Rambouillet to Paris, 127km