Commentary: Seven things we want in the 2019 Tour route
The ASO will announce the route of the 2019 Tour de France route this Thursday, so we figured we would put in a few last-minute requests before things are finalized. Did organizers ask for our input? No, but that’s not going to stop us from giving it anyway.
Designing the perfect grand tour route is an immense challenge. First, there’s no one perfect collection of 21 stages that will please everybody. On top of that are the countless logistical problems that come with every kind of stage you might draw up.
Still, there are some goals that the Tour could strive for. Some of them might even cut down on the logistical nightmares. Others will pay dividends in fan interest.
Here are seven things we’d love to see from the 2019 Tour de France.
1. Spread out the good stuff
It’s technically a three-week race, but the Tour de France often comes down to one or two key days. Although a thrilling finale is always entertaining, that shouldn’t come at the expense of an exciting first week.
Even one or two days for the GC riders — whether those are tough mountain finishes, long TTs, or even just tricky stages on lumpy terrain along the coast — can make for a much more enjoyable start to the Tour.
You don’t have to visit the Alps or the Pyrenees for excitement. Northern and central France have plenty of smaller climbs, and a Mûr-de-Bretagne-style finish can go a long way toward spicing up the first few days of the Tour.
2. Up the chaos factor
Tour organizers have done an admirable job of mixing up the parcours of the last few Tours to liven up the race, with varying degrees of success. Cobblestones and even gravel are a great way to generate the kind of chaos that fans enjoy.
Last year’s stage 9 was a thriller, but the race doesn’t even need to visit the brutal Roubaix pavé to turn the chaos up a notch. The opening stage of the coming Tour is rumored to visit some of the classic climbs of the Tour of Flanders, which we wholly endorse. De Ronde is this author’s favorite race, and iconic climbs like the Muur van Geraardsbergen add plenty of suspense without quite as much risk of buzz-killing crashes like the ones you often see at Roubaix. The more hellingen, the better!
3. Finish on top of the mountains instead of at the bottom
Recent Tours have seen numerous stages finishing at the bottom of a tough climb rather than at the top — take stage 19 that went over the Aubisique before finishing in the valley below at Laruns. Race organizers have reasons for planning things that way, and we get it — but the Tour still needs a few of those mystical mountaintop finishes every year.
Setting up the finish line and all it entails on an Alpine summit is a logistical nightmare. Ski stations are the go-to locations for mountain stage finishes, because where else would you find that kind of infrastructure high above the clouds? It’s easier to go up and over a climb and finish a race in the quaint town at the bottom than it is to put the line a thousand meters up on the mountainside. Plus, throwing in a few downhill finishes is a great way to bring descending into play as a necessary skill to win the race.
Just the same, the mountaintop finishes are the stages that get everyone — fans and riders alike — talking. Splits are practically guaranteed on the slopes of a climb like the Alpe d’Huez, and everyone tunes in to see the action. They are not easy and they are not cheap, but high-mountain finishes are critical components for a memorable grand tour, and well worth the expense. Rumor has it we’ll get at least one on La Planche des Belles Filles next summer. Keep ’em coming!
4. Shorten the flat stages — or just add wind!
Long days on the bike have their place at the Tour de France, but that place is not on pancake-flat sprint stages.
The Tour should work hard to avoid a repeat of stage 7 of the 2018 Tour. Even Peter Sagan called it “boring” — 230 kilometers from the start in Fougères to the finish Chartres gave commentators ample time to detail the history of the Chartres cathedral, but nothing was going to change the fact that it was a day for the sprinters. The final five minutes were all you really needed to watch. Stage winner Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) may not have had any complaints, but the rest of us did. Why couldn’t that stage have been 120 kilometers?
If the ASO must give us long, flat days, they should be accompanied by the threat of crosswinds. Think stage 13 of the 2013 Tour de France; Alberto Contador, Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, and others left race leader Chris Froome behind in a particularly windy stretch that day, and rode into Saint-Amand-Montrond just over a minute ahead of the pack. That’s the kind of flat stage fans can sink their teeth into!
5. Axe the team time trial
Okay, it’s already more or less known that the second stage of the 2019 Tour will be a team time trial in Brussels, but is it too late to request a change of heart from the ASO?
The real answer is most certainly yes, it’s too late — but that won’t stop me from getting in a quick dig at the worst kind of competition road racing has to offer.
Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Sky had more chances to crush teams like EF and Groupama-FDJ?”
Me neither. Dear ASO, if you’re reading this, there’s still time to pull a fast one and axe the team time trial! Instead, why not replace it with an individual TT? Or, at the very least, throw teams a curveball and design a TTT featuring the Oude Kwaremont in Flanders, or La Redoute in Wallonia! Anything but the snooze-fest of a flat TTT bound to crush the dreams of all of the lower-budget teams in the race.
6. Throw in more circuit races
Stages that take on a single circuit multiple times are flush with benefits.
For one, the fans win big. Instead of packing your friends into the RV at dawn and heading up the mountain for a coveted spot at the roadside only to see the pack fly by for 15 seconds, you get to enjoy the passing of the peloton numerous times in a circuit race. Considering the waves of casual fans that show up for a race like the Tour, that goes a long way to generating interest in the sport.
Circuit stages also provide both riders and viewers the opportunity to learn the roads and prepare for the main challenges of the course. It’s always interesting watching a race develop as the contenders feel out a route.
And, of course, circuit races mean that the exhausted journalists covering the race gets at least one afternoon off from a long drive from race start to finish. Spare a thought for the press corps!
7. Balance, above all
A grand tour with too many days for the pure climbers, or too much time trial mileage, is usually doomed to see one rider snatch an early lead and never look back. Fortunately, in this day and age of intense specialization within the peloton, a route that features a healthy mix of challenges is a great way to keep things interesting throughout the three weeks of racing. Balance is the key to an exciting Tour de France.
What might that look like? How about a tough mountaintop finish in week one quickly followed by a flat but technical time trial? Throw in some tricky terrain (Gravel? Cobblestones?) and a few punchier climbs and you’re practically guaranteed to have a Tour with multiple lead changes before the always-difficult final week.
Grand tour organizers sometimes fall into the trap of planning routes that go overboard on the grueling climbs, but that doesn’t always lead to great GC battles. Balance is better.