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Tour route: Five ways the race will be won — or lost

The 2016 Tour de France route is exceptionally difficult in unexpected ways. Andrew Hood considers the perils of the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux, the Alps, and time trials.

Make no mistake about it. The 2016 edition is the hardest route the Tour de France has served up in a long time.

The old saying goes that every Tour is hard, but don’t get misled by the fact there are “only” four summit finales. This Tour packs more punch than any route in recent history, with the mountains coming early in stage 7, leaving barely any breathing room all the way to Paris. With Sky’s Chris Froome, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador lining up as five-star favorites, the course should deliver a wildly unpredictable race worthy of such a deep GC field.

Froome put it best when he said, “The winner will need to be able to do a little bit of everything.”

[pullquote align=”left”]This will be a dynamic, engaging Tour route that will require the absolute best from the GC contenders.[/pullquote]

A few things to consider: First, there is no prologue, individual time trial, or a team time trial in the first week, so there will be no major differences among the GC favorites until the peloton hits mountains. Unless, of course, someone crashes, and that means an even more stressful first week as GC riders fight for position and the sprinters try to get their wins. Fans will love it, the racers won’t.

Second, the mountains come early, and hang around all the way to Paris. If you don’t count the Massif Central, the first major climbs hit in stage 7, early compared to Tour tradition. And with Mont Ventoux sandwiched in between three stages in the Pyrénées and five in the Alps, there is almost no time for recovery. The climbers know this is their best chance to win the Tour.

And third, the time trials don’t favor the specialists, meaning the lumpy course in stage 13 and the mountain course in stage 18 will tip the balance away from Froome, and toward the climbers who will be desperate to limit their losses.

And finally, just to add another twist to an intriguing route, a few of the key mountain stages end with descents.

The upshot? This will be a dynamic, engaging Tour route that will require the absolute best from the GC contenders.

So what is the best tactic? Attack early, like Froome did in 2015, and hold on? Or keep the powder dry for the brutal final week, and pin everything on late-race aggression, much like Quintana tried at Alpe d’Huez? Teams will need to improvise as well as have a strategy in mind on such a dynamic course.

Here are the key moments when the 2016 Tour de France will be won (and lost):

Stress test

The 2016 Tour opens with a real road stage, and unfolds in the first week in a series of classics-like stages that will present plenty of traps for the GC favorites. There is not one particular stage where the booby trap could be waiting. Instead, the whole first week is something to survive for the podium contenders. And the worse part is that disaster can strike at any moment — a touch of a wheel mid-stage, the clash of bodies in the bunch sprint, or an echelon in the crosswinds. Sprinters will have their opportunities, but there are some punchy finales where positioning and strength will create some fractures in the bunch. The verdict? A stressful first week.

“No way will all the GC favorites arrive to the Pyrénées on the same time,” said Trek – Segafredo’s Markel Irizar. “The first week is so stressful, and everyone will be at the front, trying to keep their GC leaders in good position. There will be crashes, and leaders will get caught out. It’s even worse because there are no time trials before the mountains.”

Pyrénées, a chance to attack early

The first major climb in the 2016 Tour comes early, with the Col d’Aspin in stage 7. From there, three days across the Pyrénées simply get harder with each passing kilometer. Stage 8 to Bagnères de Luchon features two first-category climbs as well as the HC Tourmalet mid-stage, while stage 9 dips into Andorra, ending atop the HC Arcalis climb for the Tour’s first summit finish. Will Sky repeat its successful tactic from last year’s Tour, when Froome blew everyone out of the water on the first uphill finale? It can try, but the stages unfold differently this year, with downhill finales in both stages 7 and 8, meaning the stages will be harder to control, especially with riders attacking over the top of the climbs onto the descents. The uphill finale to Arcalis will be the first real test of the GC contenders, and anyone with good legs will want to take advantage if they can. Though not decisive this year, three days across the Pyrénées will certainly set the tone among the GC contenders. Will it put the kibosh on the race like last year? Probably not.

“I like the mountains in this year’s Tour, especially the summit finales,” Quintana said. “Andorra will already be hard, and there will be some gaps.”

2013 Tour de France - Bastille Day on the Ventoux

Ventoux, TT combo: important turning point

What a nasty combo Tour organizers have thrown at the peloton with stages 12 and 13. At least the peloton will have a few days to blow out the cobwebs coming off the first rest day before sweating up Mont Ventoux in stage 12. With a few bumps along the way, the peloton will head straight up the Géant de Provence at full speed. In 2013, Froome and Quintana had an epic battle on the flanks of the Tour’s most famous mountain. With the time trial on tap the next day, the climbers will be under pressure to crack Froome. The Tour’s first of two TTs immediately follows with the 37.5km challenging test. It opens with a 360-meter climb in the first 7km, and tackles another 180 meters in the final part of the course, meaning riders like Contador, Quintana, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) should limit their losses to Froome.

If Froome can come out of the Ventoux-TT combo with a firm grip on the yellow jersey, the race could be on for the podium. If it’s still close, of if someone else is in the maillot jaune, the final week has the makings of a classic.

“The time trial after Ventoux will be very tough,” said Tinkoff sport director Stephen De Jongh. “All the mountains are hard in the Tour, so it’s hard to say which ones will be decisive. The final week will be very challenging.”

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Kingmaker in the Alps

Five brutal days across the Alps will decide the 2016 Tour. Two summit finales, a climbing time trial, and two more trap-laden stages set the stage for a potentially explosive battle for yellow. Stage 15 delivers the HC Grand Colombier, one of France’s most deceptively difficult climbs, and then the first-category Lacets du Grand Colombier before a wild descent to the line. Two stages later, the HC summit finale to Finaut-Emisson will see a brutal fight among the GC contenders, likely thinning the yellow jersey candidates to just two or three riders.

The 17km climbing time trial to Megève, at more than 600 vertical meters, will favor the strong, but likely won’t deliver major differences unless someone is completely cooked. Two more days across the Alps should put a punctuation mark on the GC fight. Stage 19 ends atop the first-category Le Bettex, while the penultimate stage crests the HC Joux Plane before a descent into Morzine.

“The back-ended nature of the Tour favors his [Pierre Rolland] qualities perfectly,” said Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters. “He might not be the most explosive rider, but in the final week of the Tour, he will surprise a few folks.”

Perhaps that’s what this Tour will be about — holding on, and then making some pointed attacks in the third week. Such a hard course could tempt some to hold back, wait, and simply try to out-grind their rivals. With so much climbing, it’s doubtful anyone will have enough in the tank to attack every day, so riders and teams will need to gauge their efforts, dole out effective attacks to take gains, and then ride defensively to protect a lead. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. With ambitious riders like Quintana and Fabio Aru (Astana), and old-warrior Contador knowing this could be his best last chance, the attacks will come. And there are another half-dozen favorites waiting in the wings to step up if the GC stars tumble.

It will be a wild, three-week ride, and whoever stands on the top spot in Paris will be a worthy winner.