2016 Tour de France: Balanced is better

Although the Tour lacks the bombastic mountains of recent tours of Spain or Italy, its balanced approach should showcase exciting racing.

Cobblestones, an extraordinary dearth of individual time trial kilometers, and the one-two punch of the Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez on the final high-mountain stage — the 2015 Tour de France route had plenty of spicy ingredients to set up a wire-to-wire thriller. Except that’s not how it turned out. Sky’s Chris Froome took the lead early and never looked back, arguably only challenged on the final stage because he had so much breathing room to play with.

Not everyone likes TTs, but when last year’s route eschewed even a medium-length individual time trial in pursuit of more excitement, plenty of fans expressed boredom with the result anyway. Cobblestones present the threat of headline-grabbing crashes, but in practice that means that fan favorites like Nairo Quintana risk being eliminated from contention before the racing even heats up. Alternatively, cobbled stages can end in bunch sprints. Is either outcome really ideal in terms of excitement?

The newly announced 2016 Tour route has been described as “balanced.” And that’s a good thing.

There are nearly four times as many total kilometers of individual time trialing compared to last year’s race. And while both chrono stages involve climbing, neither one is a purely uphill test. Unlike the 2015 Tour de France, the 2016 Tour will actually require some skill against the clock.

The climbs are challenging and numerous, but there is no Galibier, no Alpe d’Huez, and no stage that reaches the difficulty level of the 11th stage of the 2015 Vuelta, deemed by some the hardest grand tour stage ever. The 2016 Tour is visiting several classic climbs in the second week, but the Col du Tourmalet comes early in stage 8, and will be therefore unlikely to play a decisive role, and Mont Ventoux is the only climb on the profile of stage 12. While the Giro and Vuelta constantly engage in a war for the most intense parcours of the season, the Tour is avoiding extremes.

The race is not going all-out in celebration of its most challenging classic climbs — there is no double ascent of Alpe d’Huez — nor is it wildly experimenting with new monsters. Instead, the 2016 Tour will showcase a few reliable climbs while trying out some promising new ones, especially in the final week. It’s a race that should be consistently difficult throughout, without one marquee day of suffering. The total count of individual time trial kilometers is not that high, but it’s not extremely low. There are no cobblestones to strike fear in the hearts of the lightweight yellow jersey hopefuls. What’s it all mean? Hopefully, a close race.

Without any one clear-cut opportunity to build an insurmountable lead on the climbs and 54 total ITT kilometers, the contenders will have to focus on multiple objectives across three weeks of racing.

Chris Froome said he likes this balanced route more than last year’s route, but he dominated the very climber-friendly 2015 Tour from early on, just as he dominated the first high-mountain stage of the 2013 Tour. On the other hand, since crashing out of the 2014 Tour, Froome hasn’t placed higher than 10th in an ITT.

Meanwhile, Alberto Contador has been lighting it up against the clock recently, and Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru have improved dramatically in the discipline. This route may appear to suit Froome, but he has a lot of work to do if he wants to return to his ITT form of years past. Otherwise, the battle for time against the clock could be actually much closer than many are expecting, hopefully setting up a fight for a more tightly contested yellow jersey. Indeed, It wasn’t the insane climbs of the 2015 Vuelta that set up a showdown for the ages; it was the 38.7km ITT that forced the climbers to reckon with TT specialist Tom Dumoulin.

The top contenders for the 2016 Tour won’t be able to put all their offseason efforts into preparing for a pure climbers’ race or a pure TT specialist’s race. They can’t circle one stage on the roadbook and expect to win the race with a single herculean effort. Instead, they’ll need to fine-tune both their climbing legs and their chrono legs, and hope to maintain their form through 21 days on the bike.

A more “balanced” route that lacks many of the extremes of 2015 — or indeed the obsession with extremes espoused by the Giro and the Vuelta — might actually make this Tour de France a close race from start to finish. That’s good for fans.