Commentary: What we love (and hate) about the 2019 Tour route
Now that the ASO has unveiled the route of the 2019 Tour de France, we can stop dreaming about how next year’s race might look and start getting excited about the real deal. There are plenty of things to look forward to in what the ASO is billing as “the highest Tour in history.” With all the summit finishes and iconic terrain on the docket, we should get an exciting race with memorable moments.
That said, we’ve got a few gripes too.
Here’s what we love (and hate) about the route of next summer’s Tour de France.
Love: Classics callback
The 2019 edition of the Tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour de France win with a Grand Départ in Belgium and a visit to the classics heartland. The Tour of Flanders is one of the sport’s best events, and stage 1 will take on some of the same terrain that makes that race great. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, beloved by so many fans of cycling, will get some deserved international spotlight.
While the opening stage might end up as one for the sprinters, at least the road to the finish will be paved with a few cobblestones and the possibility of splits. Hopefully, the specialists will make the most of the opportunity to put their skills to good use a few months after the spring one-days have wrapped up. However it plays out, we’ll get a welcome reminder of classics season and the spectacle of grand tour guys outside of their element for at least a few hours.
Love: Early intrigue
Tours backloaded with all the good stuff risk turning fans off with a boring opening chapter — fortunately, we should get some GC action in the first stretch of stages in 2019. Stages 3 and 5 throw a few punchy climbs at the peloton, and La Planche des Belles Filles (more on that in a moment) awaits at the end of stage 6. A high-mountain finish in week one guarantees early action.
The hilly eighth and ninth stages are technically in the second week of the race, but they come before the first rest day so we’ll include them as well.
All in all, the Tour should offer some compelling racing even in the early goings, and that’s important to keep people tuned in before the racing really heats up in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
Love: A dirty summit finish
Stage 6 checks several of the boxes we laid out in our pre-announcement wishlist. Beyond being a week one GC day (see above) is the fact that it’s a summit finish. That may not sound like much, but last year’s Tour only featured three. A handful of downhill finishes can be exciting, but it’s the mountaintop finales that really get fans excited. The upcoming Tour is set to feature five of them.
What’s more, the organizers have spiced up the finale of the always-exciting climb of La Planche des Belles Filles.
After passing the point where the climb has finished in years past, the peloton will continue onto a steep gravel road, and then take on a paved 20-percent gradient near the summit. Sounds like chaos!
Chapeau to the ASO for giving it a try.
Hate: Where’s the balance?
As you go through the Tour route stage-by-stage, you start to wonder: What happened to time trials?
There are two on the menu for 2019, but one is a team time trial, this author’s least favorite kind of grand tour stage, guaranteed to crush the dreams of the Pro Continental riders while offering little in the spectacle department. The only other “chrono” day is stage 13, which runs 27 kilometers in full. Meanwhile, the Tour will feature around 30 categorized climbs. As Christian Prudhomme said at the route presentation, it will be “impossible to win this Tour unless you are a great climber.”
Don’t get us wrong, climbing stages are usually the best part of the Tour de France. But going all-in for the climbers is not the right move. Organizers seem to think that cutting the time trial mileage will lead to a better race. On the contrary, a route for the pure climbers risks seeing one rider dominate wire to wire, without the TT to bring a whole different set of riders into the equation.
That’s pretty much what happened in 2015, which featured only one short individual time trial, and in 2016, which featured one flat time trial and one uphill TT. If the organizers think that they can shake Sky’s confidence by getting away from the TTs, they must have missed Chris Froome’s five career mountain stage wins in their race, or Geraint Thomas’s Alpe d’Huez win last year.
Love: A Tourmalet test
Stage 14 of next year’s Tour will visit the iconic Tourmalet, and it should be a good one. For starters, it’s only 117 kilometers from start to finish, with an intriguing visit to the Col du Soulor around the halfway mark of the stage.
Coming just after the lone ITT in the race, short, hard mountain stages often have wacky effects on the peloton. Go too deep in the time trial and you risk an epic meltdown on the hectic climbing day that follows, a la Simon Yates at the Giro d’Italia this past May. This particular stage closes out with a 19-kilometer ascent at 7.4 percent, with an especially tough finale.
In short: Expect fireworks on the Col du Tourmalet …
Hate: Overlong sprint stages
We griped about it in our pre-announcement wishlist, but that didn’t stop the ASO from laying out a few sprint stages that will drag on far too long next summer.
Just as in this year’s Tour de France, which gave us a 231-kilometer snooze-fest for the sprinters, stage 7 could be the worst offender again next summer at 230 kilometers. For a day expected to go to the sprinters, that is just way too much. Even if a breakaway somehow stays away, it’s hard to imagine much action outside of the closing kilometers. Stage 10 at 218 kilometers might be a tough one to stay awake for as well.
Would 130-kilometer days have been so bad here? What do we get out of those extra hundred kilometers?
Love: Altitude action
The Tour will visit Europe’s highest paved mountain pass in stage 19 on the Col de l’Iseran, which rises to around 2,770 meters (9,088 feet). Following a descent, that stage finishes at Tignes at over 2,000 meters. It should be a firecracker of a day at just 123 kilometers. The next day, the Tour will arrive at its final mountaintop finish at Val Thorens, which sits at an altitude of 2,365 meters. Another short stage at 131 kilometers, it will be a fitting GC finale for the Tour de France before the sprinters’ showdown in Paris.
While the heavy skew in favor of the climbers at the upcoming Tour does have its drawbacks, it’s hard not to get excited about the higher-altitude action in the third week. Not everyone can handle racing up where the air gets thin. Colombian climbers like Nairo Quintana will be eyeing this Tour as a prime opportunity to snatch that first Tour de France win.