UTRECHT, Netherlands (AFP) — In recent years, a lot of focus on cycling — and in particular the Tour de France — has been about how things have changed in a new, cleaner era.
While no one believes doping has been completely eradicated, so to a large extent it has at least been reduced and what remains is perhaps less effective.
The worry now is about hard-to-detect micro-doping rather than the game-changing blood doping brought on by EPO and blood transfusions.
The effect on the peloton has not gone unnoticed with the winning gaps, particularly on high mountain stages, greatly reduced.
It has changed slightly the way riders race but there is also another thing responsible for that — the course.
These last few years, Tour organizers Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) and Tour director Christian Prudhomme in particular have gone to great lengths to create exciting, unpredictable stages.
Gone are the days when the Tour would amble through the first 10-14 days of carbon-copy flat stages with a breakaway followed by a chase and usually a bunch sprint finish. The true race would begin in a handful of mountain stages in which a powerful team would ride at a leg-burning tempo until its leader attacked on the final climb, decimating the competition.
Prudhomme has created a Tour route in which no two days are alike and therefore no two challenges equal — although there are still appetizing tidbits both for sprinters and climbers.
Right from the start, there will be a complete examination of a rider’s cycling capabilities, and indeed intelligence.
The race begins with a short individual time trial before a team race against the clock on stage 9, but again relatively short at 28km — no rider should lose the Tour because either he or his team are weak at time trialling.
Stage 2 is flat and ideal for a sprint finish but there is the possibility of crosswinds coming off the North Sea and causing splits in the peloton, meaning everyone will be fighting for a place near the front, driving up the pace, increasing the tension and provoking probable crashes.
Stage 3 ends on the short, brutal climb called the Mur du Huy which is also the finish of La Fleche Wallonne, one of the three Ardennes classics. The puncheurs will be out in force on that day, as well as stages 6 to Le Havre and 8 to the Mur de Bretagne, which have similar short, sharp climbs to the finish.
Before then you have stage 4 with its seven cobbled sections totaling 13.4km that make the stage a mini Paris-Roubaix, which should catch the attention of the cobbled classics specialists.
By the time the peloton reaches the first mountain stage on the 10th day of racing, there will have already been several opportunities not only for the favorites to put time into each other, but also for other riders to perhaps stoke interest in the race by also being involved in the business end.
Stage 10 finishes with an hors category climb at the end of a lumpy but relatively gentle stage.
It’s followed by a far more brutal mountain stage with six categorized climbs but with a long descent off the hors category Col du Tourmalet before a short third category climb to the finish, favoring either a breakaway or a specialist descender.
The variety continues the next day with a category 2 climb, two first category ascents, and then an hors category to the finish at Plateau de Beille — perfect for a specialist climber in a breakaway but also sure to set the fireworks going amongst the contenders.
The first three mountain stages provide very different challenges and the theme continues with the lumpy finish to an otherwise flat stage 14 and then the long descent and short climb to the finish of stage 17.
Stages 16 and 18 are far from flat but could favor a polyvalent sprinter determined to stick with the pace on the climbs.
Stage 19 has a regular feel to it, with four categorized climbs — including the first category finish at La Toussuire.
Stage 20 then throws a little surprise at an unusually short and punchy 110.5km, but it does include two punishing hors category climbs, including the finish on the mythical Alpe d’Huez.
The organizers have done everything to provide drama, spectacle, challenge and uncertainty to the route; now it is just up to the riders to live up to it and put on a show.