The high mountain finishes of the 2020 Tour de France look likely to see the return of mano-a-mano dogfights between isolated team leaders.
Forget the fleets of domestiques around a team leader as a summit finish enters the final few kilometers we’ve seen in recent Tours de France. 2020 is the year the Tour became the Vuelta, and we could see racing going down to the most select few in the Tour’s marquee mountain stages.
With the 21.5km Col de la Loze and 17.4km Grand Colombier packed into the final week, Tour masterminds Christian Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou have chosen two of the most selective ascents in France for their signature mountaintop finishes for 2020.
Along with an individual time trial on the penultimate stage to the top of La Planche des Belles Filles, these climbs will provide a literal and racing highpoint of the Tour’s unconventional and challenging route.
Rather than digging into the Tour’s traditional playbook for his summit finishes — there’s Alpe D’Huez or Mont Ventoux this year — route-master Gouvenou has selected largely undiscovered climbs to take the starring roles.
“We are entering a new world; a new way to climb high-altitude slopes, with crazy gradient,” he said when presenting the route last week.
Though they’re divided by several hundred kilometers, what unites the Loze and Colombier is their gnarled, untameable gradients and wild pitches – a symbol of a Tour that Mitchelton-Scott director Matt White said will favor aggression and dubbed “the hardest in years” by four-time winner Chris Froome.
Little is known of the character of the Col de la Loze, the high point of this year’s Tour, though two-time Tour winner Bernard Thévenet set tongues wagging with his claim that “I’ve never seen a climb so difficult in the Tour. Not only for its steepness, but for its change of rhythm. It’s a stage for a pure climber.”
Just how hard is the Loze?
VeloNews reached out to Adrian Hill, a Brit who operates Alpcycles cyclotours in nearby Bozel. He’s ridden the climb more times than he perhaps he wishes for.
“I’ve never ridden anything in France like it for difficulty and sheer steepness, and I’ve ridden nearly every climb in the French Alps and a lot in the Pyrenees,” said Hill, who guides his tour guests as well as has worked as the last rider on the road at the Haute Route cyclo-sportif for the past eight years.
“It ramps up and down, but never eases back. The top five kilometers turn from 25 percent-plus to what feels like ‘flat’ at around 10 percent. There’s a switchback that’s almost a dead-stop turn because you can hardly get around it.”
The Grand Colombier, just two stages before the Col De Loze, has appeared in the Tour a number of times, but never as the summit finish. Considering the very southern end of the Jura Mountains, the climb is like a slightly-smaller cousin of the Loze, with gradients haphazardly pitching up to 12 percent.
What makes these climbs so interesting for the Tour? Climbs with irregular ramps and extremely steep pitches make for uncontrollable racing, providing launchpads for attacks and exposing fatigued teammates.
Every year the announcement of the Tour’s route brings speculation as to whether ASO are trying to make life hard for Team Ineos. While there’s little the ASO can do when the team boasts both Egan Bernal, the strongest climber of 2019, and climbing ace Chris Froome, they have opened the door for attacking climbers from rival teams with less depth to have their fair shot.
Whether Ineos opt to take Froome, Bernal or both to the Tour (not to mention 2018 winner Geraint Thomas), it’s likely they’ll be left to fend for themselves on these centerpiece summits that will leave only the most talented climbers at the front of the race. If left isolated on a long climb, all it takes is an off-day or lost wheel for even the strongest GC rider to lose minutes. And that can win or lose races. At least that’s what Tour brass are hoping for.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ), Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) in particular are all relishing a route that gives them breathing space and opportunity.
Hill’s description of the Col de la Loze conjurers visions of a summit finish that could take on Ventoux-like legend status in its very first appearance.
“There’s nothing around there except mountains. As no cars are up there there’s nothing around, it’s an open expanse and feels bizarre. There’s nothing other than a black thread of tarmac winding through,” he says.
“Towards the top it’s long straight stretches, at one point there’s over 2km that are almost totally straight. You can see the top but never get there.”
The sparse moonscapes and never-ending final few kilometers of Ventoux have found their Alpine cousin. The Geant de Provence has made and broken many a Tour de France ambition. The Col de la Loze, along with the Grand Colombier, could do just that in 2020.