Tour de France 2020

Early schedule French races offer no easy start for Tour contenders

Route d'Occitanie, Tour de l'Ain and Criterium du Dauphine pack serious climbing test for those targeting the yellow jersey.

A trio of French stage races next month — the Route d’Occitanie, Tour de l’Ain and Critérium du Dauphiné — will not give the peloton an easy return to racing.

Racers coming out of lockdown to follow a French schedule in advance of the Tour de France will be heading to the high mountains throughout August in what promises to be a tough return to competition. With organizers of lower-tier French races the Route d’Occitanie and Tour de l’Ain bolstering their typically mountainous courses with yet more climbing to draw yellow jersey contenders, and the shortened Dauphiné dropping its typical time trial, the French program will test who’s who ahead of an explosive and climb-heavy Tour.

While the Vuelta a Burgos offers an earlier return to racing with its July 28 start and is drawing a packed start sheet, the simple logistics and opportunity to acclimatize to racing in France has drawn many to get the wheels turning again at the Route d’Occitanie, August 1-4.

Set in the heart of southern France, the race is slated to see Ineos trio Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Egan Bernal at the start along with Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) as a total of eight WorldTour teams participate. Though three of the four stages are built for a bunch finish or breakaway, the ever-hilly parcours will be far from straightforward for riders testing their race legs for the first time in five months. The first real climbing showdown between Tour contenders will come on stage 3, a slog through the Pyrènèes featuring three high mountains.

Jumbo-Visma is looking set to get its leadership trio into action at the Tour de l’Ain, August 7-9. The Dutch team is likely to be sending Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk into the race, with Ineos likewise packing its start sheet with Bernal, Froome and Thomas. The likes of Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) are also on the start sheet of the race set in western France.

A total of 12 WorldTour teams and American team Hagens Berman Axeon are all targeting the typically-off radar Tour de l’Ain. With the final stage of the three-day race following the route of stage 15 of the Tour through the peaks of the northern Alps, sport directors and GC leaders will be taking notes for the Grande Boucle later in summer.

The Critérium du Dauphiné will prove to be the ultimate Tour showdown however. Preserved in its position as the go-to Tour warm-up race in the new-look post-COVID calendar, the WorldTour event has had to make some adaptions for the UCI’s much-condensed second half of the season.

Reduced from its traditional eight-stage format to five days from August 12-16, the Dauphiné has been shorn of its typical time trial and instead opted to pack in the climbing, with four consecutive Alpine stages that organizers promise are “guaranteed to push the peloton to its limit.”

With all the top Tour contenders set to be lining up for the Dauphiné’s opening stage, and consecutive days of climbing on tap, the race could provide a telling insight of which riders found the right balance of work and play during their lockdown.

With the Dauphiné wrapping up August 16, the peloton will have 13 days and a short trip through the Alps to Nice before the Tour’s Grand Départ August 29. With just four weeks of racing in the legs after a five-month hibernation, expect the unexpected.