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Tour de Hoody: 2021 route delivers challenging opening weekend

Peloton's 'puncheurs' and GC riders will be challenged right from ‘grand départ’ at 2021 Tour de France.

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Throughout the next few weeks, we will be digging into the route of the 2021 Tour de France. Last week, we looked at the last time the Tour featured an opening prologue and examined why the short opener lost favor with Tour organizers. This week, we focus on the 2021 opening weekend in France’s Brittany region. 

Much has been made about a return to tradition for the 2021 Tour de France route.

After back-to-back Tours in 2018 and 2019 packed with climbing, shorter stages, and other modern touches, the 108th edition certainly brings the race back to its roots.

A few things stand out. First, the parcours features two individual time trials, totaling 58km, marking the most kilometers against the clock since 2013.

Second, there are only three summit finales. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of vertical. There is, including a unique two-climb assault of Mont Ventoux that ends at the base of the “Géant of Provence.” But the 2021 Tour route isn’t packed with the climbing fireworks that were part of the race during the past few editions.

Balance and tradition were the key buzzwords coming out of the virtual Tour course presentation earlier this month.

The opening weekend in France’s blustery Brittany region, however, will set the tone for the 2021 Tour. And even if next year’s route sees a more traditional tilt, it certainly doesn’t mean that the 2021 Tour will be easy.

Tour officials rescheduled the opening stages for Brittany after the planned start of the 2021 edition set for Copenhagen was postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Regional officials in cycling-crazy Brittany saw an opening and stepped up to host the first four stages across the hilly region of northwest France.

The start of the 2021 Tour is also being bumped up one week due to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, set to begin in late July. And with the men’s road race set for the first day of competition, the earlier start means the Tour will wrap up in Paris on July 18, less than one week before the start of the Olympics.

The first two of four stages in Bretagne in the Tour’s “grand départ” will favor the puncheurs and challenge the GC riders right from the start.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the 2021 Tour’s opening weekend.

Stage 1, June 26: Brest to Landerneau, 187km

Starting in Brest, the 187km opening stage dives straight into racing with a difficult route that loops across the green hills of Brittany with an endless string of narrow roads, twisting turns, and serves up what will be a tense, day-long fight for positioning on the rolling terrain.

The endless tension and stress will come down to a thrilling boil, and the first yellow jersey to be delivered on the short but steep finishing climb at Côte de la Fosse aux Loup above Landerneau.

The 3km hump averages 5.7 percent but kicks up with ramps as steep as 14 percent at its base. It staircases up to the finish line, meaning that timing and brute strength will deliver the victory.

The stage will be ideal for explosive puncheurs like Peter Sagan or Wout Van Aert, with the GC riders under pressure right from the start.

Stage 2, June 27: Perros-Guirec to Mûr-de-Bretagne, 182km

Dan Martin won on the Mur de Bretagne in 2018. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Though the exact road maps are not yet finalized, the general course outline reveals that the second stage will be a spectacular day on the bike.

The stage will trace along sections of Brittany’s northern coast, opening the peloton to crosswinds, before tackling the emblematic Mûr-de-Bretagne two times. The first ascent comes on a closing circuit course that will surely see the peloton under pressure.

The GC riders will need to be on full alert in what will be the fourth time the Tour returns to the so-called “Wall of Brittany.”

At just 2km, the climb seems a real pinch at an average grade of 6.9 percent. Cadel Evans won there in 2011 in its Tour debut, setting a marker for what would be Australia’s first Tour victory. Alexis Vuillermoz won in 2015, and Dan Martin took the last win there, in 2018.

The explosive nature of the climb can see some splits in the GC group, and any late-race complications can prove costly. In 2018, Tom Dumoulin punctured with 6km to go and ended up losing 53 seconds, putting him on the back foot as he battled against eventual winner Geraint Thomas and then Sky teammate Chris Froome.

Conclusions …

The opening weekend is sure to satisfy at many levels.

There hasn’t been an opening prologue at the Tour since 2012, and Tour director Christian Prudhomme delivers an exciting and challenging road stage to open the 2021 Tour. Anyone wanting to see a “real” stage to open the Tour de France will be happy.

Two sharp uphill finales in the first two stages could also see one of the GC contenders take yellow in the opening weekend. Riders such as Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar both pack the punch to win out of a reduced bunch.

The inevitable crashes and splits will also leave their collective mark in the first 48 hours of the 2021 Tour.