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Tour de France 2021: A return to tradition

‘There will be plenty of opportunities for riders to attack and create surprises. And that is our hope,’ said race director Christian Prudhomme.

The much-anticipated 2021 Tour de France route was announced this Sunday evening. And at first glance it appears to be a sort of return to tradition, with a long opening week over northern France, stages of nearly 250 kilometers, and two time trials.

But as Christian Prudhomme was quick to point out on Stade 2, the weekly sports program on France 3 television that hosted the Tour presentation this year, “Almost no two stages are the same as there is a steady mix of sprint stages, puncher stages, time trials and climbing stages. There will be plenty of opportunities for riders to attack and create surprises. And that is our hope.”

This year’s race was originally slated to start in Denmark but was forced to shift the start in Brittany to 2021—the long-term effects of the many calendar changes forced by the coronavirus crisis.

The opening stages will provide plenty of suspense with the two first stages being tailor-made for puncheurs instead of sprinters, with an uphill finish to Landerneau on stage one and a double ascension up the Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage two. The two flat stages that follow will finally give the sprinters their first real opportunities before the race hits its first time trial, a 27-kilometer individual effort from Change to Laval.

The following stage, a 144-kilometer affair to Châteauroux will give sprinters another opportunity, but the following day could provide real surprise as the stage seven — from Vierzon to Le Creusot, which clocks in at 248 kilometers — is the longest stage in 20 years, and includes a steep climb with 18 percent pitches in the final 20 kilometers. And finally, on stage eight, the race hits the high mountains for the first time, climbing the Col de la Colombière before finishing in le Grand Bornand. It was here where Julian Alaphilippe won three years ago, and it is here where the overall riders will have their first opportunities in the high mountains. The climbs continue the following stage as they finish in Tignes, where mudslides forced the stage to be halted in 2019.

While the Tour will only spend two days in the Alps, they are not done with climbing, and just two days later the riders will tackle the infamous Mont Ventoux, not once but twice, before skirting across southern France and towards the Pyrénées.

The mountains on the southern border of France and Spain will be featured heavily in 2021 with no less than three high mountain stages, first into Andorra and then with two mountain-top finishes to the Col de Portet on stage 17 and Luz-Ardiden on stage 18.

Once out of the mountains, anyone hoping to win the Tour will still have one more significant challenge to negotiate with the stage 20 time trial through the wine vineyards of Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion, a 31-kilometer affair coming after nearly three weeks of racing.

A quick trip to Andorra is in store on the second rest day.

“Sure it is going to take us longer to reach the mountains than it did last year,” race director Christian Prudhomme said on the Stade 2 broadcast. “That’s normal because, well, it is easier to get to the mountain when you start in Nice than it is when you start in Brittany. But it is also the first time we have ever started with two stages designed for punchers. We have tried to vary the thing to the maximum, there’s no dogma. We went for maximum change.”

“My first reaction is that it looks pretty traditional, with nervous stages in the beginning, then two sprint stages and then a TT,” UAE Team Emirates sports direct Allan Peiper told VeloNews after the route was unveiled on Sunday evening. Peiper, a longtime professional, played a key role in guiding Slovenian Tadej Pogačar to victory in the 2020 race. “On paper [this] seems like more sprint stages, and the mountains stages are more spread apart than in the past couple of years. And then there are two time trials and there are more stages that could be affected by wind. It doesn’t look like there is any really decisive stage like the Col de la Loze this year, or the final time trial up to La Planche des Belles Filles. I’m not seeing that this next year, not now at least.”

“At first glance, there is not a big series of mountains. They are more spread apart,” French climber Romain Bardet said on Stade 2. “And with two time trials, it favors climbers less.”

Prudhomme, however, responded quickly to Bardet, “Let me remind you that the last time there were two time trials you finished on the podium!”

While Prudhomme laughed gently, he was essentially reminding Bardet and those watching that, in the end, it is not the race route that determines the race, but the opportunities the riders make to get an advantage.

“It’s going to be interesting Pieper added. “What will GC teams do? Will they take a sprinter? Will they take more rouleurs to get through the windy stages? It is going to be interesting to see how the teams put their rosters together.”