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Tour de Hoody: Time trials will shuffle deck in 2021 Tour de France

With two individual time trials back in the mix, how much of a factor will they be in the 2021 Tour de France?

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored in detail the route of the 2021 Tour de France. Today, we take a deep dive into how the Tour’s time trials will have a major impact on the GC in July.

After a few explosive editions of the Tour de France that favored the climbers and attackers, the 2021 route returns to a more traditional blueprint. There could be up to eight sprints in this year’s Tour, the most in several editions. Though there is some spice in the opening week, the route returns to the vision of how a modern Tour unfolds. There are only three summit finales — and a unique double-passage over Mont Ventoux in the second week — meaning the pure climbers are going to have a harder go this summer in France.

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Back in the frame are time trials. Though there is not a prologue time trial, nor a team time trial, two relatively long individual time trials — at least by modern standards — are sure to dictate the dynamics throughout the race. In 2021, there are a total of 58km time trial kilometers in the roadbook — the most since 2013.

What’s significant about the two tests against the clock is that both are contested on flat or rolling terrain, favoring the rouleurs and specialists. Stage favorites will include the likes of Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert, and Rohan Dennis (if they race), while the GC contenders will slot in behind them.

It’s unlikely the race will see a repeat of last year’s thrilling mountaintop reversal at La Planche des Belles Filles, but the two stages will certainly set up a dynamic tug-of-war between the yellow jersey contenders.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s on tap.

Stage 5, Changé to Laval Espace Mayenne (27km)

Parked right in the middle of the first week, this 27km time trial should impose some hierarchy into the GC and likely see one of the time trial specialists ride into the yellow jersey. Laval will be hosting only its second Tour stage finish, with Deceuninck-Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels winning back in 1999 when it was the third stage of that year’s edition.

At 27km, the stage is actually the longest individual time trial stage featured in the Tour’s first week since 2008. That anecdote reveals who much time trials have been steadily reduced in the Tour de France blueprint over the past decade. Most Tour routes over the past few decades consistently featured around 100km of time trials — with a mix of prologues, team and individual time trials — added into the menu of stages. Over the past decade, time trials have been diminished in large part to tighten the GC action and keep suspense packed into the race until the final weekend. In fact, the 2012 Tour was the last route to pop north of 100km for time trial kilometers.

The stage route is pretty straight forward, with no major hills or technical challenges. Looping around the farm country of the Mayenne valley, some narrow farm roads, and the chance of afternoon winds kicking up will be the principal difficulties.

This one is a chance for the time trial specialists to shine ahead of an Olympic bid — assuming Tokyo is a go — and for the better time trialists among the GC contenders to gain a bit of an edge on the pure climbers ahead of the Alps. The likes of Tom Dumoulin, Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas should, on paper, see an edge. It should also provide the best glimpse of how Chris Froome might perform across the ensuing stages.

Stage 20, Libourne to Saint-Émilion (31km)

Wine lovers will enjoy this stage, with a route that loops around some of the best vineyards of the Bordeaux region. Someone will certainly have the champagne on tap at this point, but will there be a final-hour reversal like in 2020?

With only three summit finales spread across the entire Tour route, the GC could still be very tightly packed coming into this decisive penultimate stage.

This year, the time trials are placed before the Alps, and after the Pyrénées. That dynamic sets up a bit of a back-and-forth between the TT specialists and the pure climbers. The relatively short distances, however, means any GC rider will need to have strong climbing legs if they’re going to be counting on the TT’s to win the race.

Saint-Émilion has twice hosted Tour stage finishes, both of them time trials. Bernard Hinault won there in stage 8 in 1978 in what would be his first of five Tour victories. The distance? A whopping 58km — equal to the sum of the distances of both time trials in 2021.

The other stop in Saint-Émilion came in 1996, with rising German talent Jan Ullrich winning the stage on that year’s penultimate stage to secure second overall. Ullrich, who would win the next year’s Tour, beat back Spanish legend Miguel Indurain into second place by 56 seconds. Indurain fell short of a stage win in his final Tour, and rode to Paris in 11th overall. Despite giving up 2:18 to his Telekom teammate, Bjarne Riis finished fourth on the stage to secure his lone Tour victory (he later admitted he used the banned blood-booster EPO).

The time trial route is largely flat, with some narrower farm roads mixed into the course. Winds howling up or down the Dordogne valley can be a factor, and it’s often stinking hot in late July.

The 2021 Tour route is largely bookended by time trials, a discipline which returns to the forefront of the race. Will a rider have such an advantage that the stage will be merely a question of reshuffling the podium deck, or will the final TT turn the race on its head? We’ll have to wait six months to find out.