Analysis
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Analysis: The 2020 Tour de France route mimics the Vuelta a España

Our grand-parents would not recognize the unconventional and surprising Tour route revealed Tuesday in Paris

Short is the new long. Explosiveness is the new endurance. Undulating is the new queen stage.

Tour de France officials unveiled an unconventional and challenging route for the 2020 grande boucle that would leave traditionalists spinning in their graves. The route looks quite unlike the peloton’s seen before. Wait — check that. We have seen it, just not in the Tour.

Welcome to the Vuelta a España, held next summer in the country north of the Pyrénées otherwise known as France. Just call it the “Tour d’Espagne en France.”

Here are the takeaways: Only one stage longer than 200km. Only one time trial, and it ends on top of a mountain. No team time trial, no flat individual time trial. The accent is on short, sharp shock, not long torturous hours in the saddle. It appears ASO has been listening to the fans — boring is out, unpredictability and fireworks are in.

What organizers revealed Tuesday in Paris is fascinating at many levels. It all but guarantees tension and drama right until the penultimate stage. Chapeaux to Thierry Gouvenou and Christian Prudhomme for pushing the boundaries. It’s one of the most creative Tour routes we’ve ever seen.

What it isn’t is a Tour de France that the sport had long grown accustomed to seeing every July.

The race’s transformation from old-school Tour endurance test to Vuelta-style explosiveness has been slowly unfolding before our eyes over the past decade.

When he took over the reins at the Tour in 2008, Prudhomme revealed he wasn’t afraid to shake up traditions, doing away with such things as the prologue and time bonuses — often with mixed results. In the meantime, the Tour director was watching with interest at what the Vuelta and Giro d’Italia were doing to spice up their respective races. The rival grand tours were incorporating short walls and “impossible” beyond-steep summits such as the Monte Zoncolan and the Alto de d’Angliru, with smashing success.

The inclusion of short mountain stages and explosive finales — like the 109km in stage 19 and the “wall” finish at the Mur de Bretagne, both in 2011 — revealed the Tour was poised to go full-Vuelta. By 2018, cycling’s latest course-design trends were fully integrated the Tour’s repertoire, including a stage with gravel and another mountain stage of only 65km. The Tour had changed.

The 65km stage in 2018 also experimented with a grid start. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Next year’s Tour is nothing like what your grand-father watched decades ago.

In fact, this year’s Tour course in many ways represents a consecration of modern grand tour course design, and the death of the old-school mentality. For many years, it really didn’t matter what the peloton raced on, so long as there was a start and a finish, and the pack rode past a few old castles. In today’s shortened attention span and ever-competitive media space, grand tour organizers know they need to deliver surprise, suspense, and innovation to stay relevant.

The Tour has certainly delivered with this year’s demanding and innovative course.

Its distance of 3,470km is actually a bit longer than the past two editions of the Tour, but it’s not the distance that matters. The route is packed with interesting twists and turns that should assure a largely undecided GC right up until the final time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles. Looping the route east to west and back again, nipping along the edges of the Massif Central in each direction, sets the stage for mid-Tour surprises.

What’s missing? Time trials, for one. This year’s route has even fewer KMs against the clock that last year’s already light TT menu. There’s no prologue and no flattish, power individual test against the clock for the Tom Dumoulins of the bunch. The notion that time trials suck the life out of stage racing — rightly or wrongly — is on full display in this route. The Pyrénées are reduced to almost cameo-status this year, with only two stages in the venerable mountain range that separates France from Spain (and perhaps, figuratively, to the Vuelta).

What’s new? Hot hits right from the start, with some spicy stages in the first few days — Vuelta-style. Five mountain summits and no flat TTs clearly set this up for the climbers. The lack of old-school, five-climb stages stacked up in the final week tilt this in favor of all-rounders who can do a bit of everything. Julian Alaphilippe left Paris a very happy camper.

The only time trial of the race will feature the steep Planche des Belles Filles as a summit finish. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s almost ironic that as the Tour has finally fully embraced the “short-is-the-new-long” mentality, just as both the Vuelta, and even more so, the Giro have stepped back. This year’s throw-back Giro route was so hard and brutal in the final week it left everyone on their collective knees.

Almost everyone agrees it’s not the route or the distance that makes a race exciting — it’s the racers themselves. Is it better to have the bunch race all-out for four-and-a-half hours? Or measure their efforts and save their matches to be strong in the final decisive week? What’s more interesting to watch is perhaps a personal choice. This Tour won’t leave anyone with an option — it starts fast, and doesn’t let up until Paris.

Prudhomme and Gouvenou say they’re not prisoners to the past, and this course is their public embrace of that perspective. Traditionalists who respect the endurance and determination required to win a grand tour aren’t happy with these tendencies.

About the only thing that remains the same is the closing-stage sprint finale on the Champs-Élysées. After all, the French cannot completely do away with pageantry and tradition.