Only the toughest and strongest of riders can win the Tour de France. That maxim will be pushed to its limit in 2020.
With cycling’s unprecedented mid-season race stoppage, and the rescheduled Tour looming early on the new-look calendar, this year’s race is sure to throw up one surprise after another.
Does the Tour’s new placement on the calendar, set to run August 29 to September 20, favor some over others? Insiders say an unanimous yes.
“This new calendar suits a certain type of rider,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “It’s a rider who can train very, very hard.”
That might be stating the obvious, because any pro at the WorldTour level must train hard. But there is a big difference between riders who need racing to hit top shape, and riders who can push themselves and have the self-discipline to train just as hard as racing.
And because there hasn’t been racing since Paris-Nice in mid-March, those racers who have the experience and self-drive might have an advantage in 2020’s compact racing calendar.
“It will favor the older guys, who have that foundation, who’ve raced 10 or 15 grand tours, who have the ability to go away and hurt and push themselves,” White said. “I’m curious to see how it affects the younger guys, like [Egan] Bernal, who’s only raced two grand tours. Compare that to a Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas, they’ve been doing this, year-in, year-out, for more than a decade.
“Their bodies are harder,” White said. “The older guys who can push themselves in training have a bit of an advantage.”
With the WorldTour calendar resuming in August, less than one month before the Tour, the implications are clear: riders who are more adept at pushing their limits in training will have an advantage over those who prefer more racing.
Riders like Chris Froome (Ineos) are renowned for their self-discipline and focus during training, while others, like Italian star Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), admit they prefer the intensity of racing instead of long solo sessions.
“It will play in the favor of the guys who can actually really train,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Michael Mørkøv. “Some guys, they can’t really reach the higher level with just training, and some can. Some guys need to have a lot of races to get that rhythm going.”
Today’s approach to the Tour is so planned and calibrated that there is little left to surprise, except for crashes and illness. The world pandemic and three-month lockdown across Europe has turned that blueprint upside down. Some riders, like Tom Dumoulin or Primoz Roglic, haven’t raced since 2019.
The Tour favorites typically follow the same general roadmap, featuring some early season racing, a major spring race, usually Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, then several stints at altitude, before a final tune-up at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
With limited racing on the docket, especially ahead of the Tour, riders who prefer to race into shape will be on the back foot. And simply having the Tour as the first grand tour in the recalibrated season will throw some off-balance.
“All the big guys know exactly what they should do before they start,” Mørkøv said. “I think it’s going to be one of the most exciting Tours in many years. There are so many question marks.”
With Europe still in the early stages of transitioning out of quarantine, many of the popular altitude training destinations such as Teide remain largely off-limits. And in the best-case scenario, there won’t be any racing until late July.
That adds up to what will be one of the most unorthodox approaches to the grand tours in modern cycling history.
Riders living in Spain, Italy, France and Andorra were in lockdown conditions for about eight to 12 weeks, from early March into late May. There’s been no racing since Paris-Nice, and everyone is waiting to see if the Vuelta a Burgos, on the schedule for late July in northern Spain, will be everyone’s first chance to race again if government authorities approve it.
White said even if the new calendar is far from ideal, there could be just enough time for riders to be in top condition before the season’s grand tours. He added that the race stoppage and long periods without training outdoors will play out in uncertain ways during the races.
“We might see some surprises in the first week, especially in the Tour, because some guys haven’t even raced yet this year,” White said in a telephone interview. “Or we might see it in the third week, when fatigue starts to set in. It’s going to be different than a usual Tour.”
Health conditions have steadily improved across Europe, with restaurants, businesses, parks and beaches slowly re-opening. So far, there has not been the feared second wave or spikes in infections, and European officials hope to have borders open across the Eurozone by late June.
In general, that bodes well for a return to racing, with the men’s WorldTour calendar opening with Strade Bianche on August 1. Everyone is expecting surprises.
“It’s going to be a bit strange, after so much time away from racing, no one knows how the body is going to react,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde last week. “What will be true is that everyone will show up very motivated. No one knows where the weakness will be revealed, at the beginning or the end of a grand tour, but what’s sure is that this will be a grand tour season unlike any we’ve ever seen.”
Most agree the grand tour that will be most affected by the disruption and disarray so far in 2020 will be the Tour.
Now scheduled to run August 29 to September 20, of the three grand tours, the Tour is the one that the peloton will hit with the fewest race days or training camps in its collective legs. There is more of a runway for riders racing the Giro d’Italia, slated for October 3-25, and the Vuelta a España, October 20 to November 8.
And with some top stars shifting their calendars to target the Tour, coupled with scores of riders on contract years and the threat that racing might be disrupted later in the fall, everyone will be hitting the Tour with an even high sense of urgency to try to salvage something from 2020.
“Pretty much every year, we have the same picture of who is best,” Mørkøv said. “I think it’s going to be really exciting because we’re not going to see the same guys.
“It’s going to be like you put all the numbers down in a big pot, and then you pick out one, because nobody has prepared so long before the Tour without racing.”