The Tour de France is on a slow burn in 2021.
Following back-to-back editions in 2019 and 2020 that looked more and more like its three-week cousin in Spain, traditionalists will be happy with how the 2021 edition sees a return to historic form with a balanced (some would say more boring) route.
- Sprinters will see their chances in 2021 Tour de France
- Alps ‘light’ still packing a punch
- Mont Ventoux back with double-climb stage
And part of that old-school narrative — that also includes two individual time trials as well as plenty of chances for the sprinters — is a final, perhaps decisive romp across the mountains that packs a punch in the Tour’s third week.
This year’s “grande boucle” sweeps first across the Alps before arriving at the Pyrénées. And following the second rest day in the principality of Andorra, the climbers will take center stage in the third week in a final gasp to tighten their grip on the yellow jersey before the final time trial in Bordeaux’s wine country.
On paper, with two of the Tour’s only three summit finales in the Pyrénées in 2021, the route sets up a tug-of-war between the pure climbers and the all-rounders going into the final time trial. Will it be a dud? Or is there enough vertical to truly tilt the race in favor of the climbers?
Let’s dive into the closing stages to see who might end up in Paris in yellow:
Stage 16, July 13 — Pas de la Casa to Saint Gaudens, 169km
Coming a day after the Tour’s second and final rest day, the Tour’s baroudeurs will be happy with this hilly profile that descends out of the Pyrénées and traces along its deeply forested foothills. There’s enough lumpy terrain for the stage-hunters to have a good chance to drop the sprinters, as well as to gap the GC challengers who will be cooling their legs for the looming stages.
Saint Gaudens has seen 15 previous Tour stages loop through town, but it’s been more than 20 years since it hosted a Tour finale. Dimitri Konyshev, one of the top stars to ride out of the former Soviet Union to forge their fortunes on the Tour, was the winner the last time the town hosted a stage in 1999.
Stage 17, July 14 — Muret to Saint Lary Soulan (Col du Portet), 178km
This is a stage of two faces. The first is nearly 100km of rolling farm country, ideal terrain for a break to form. The second is where it counts for anyone hoping to win the Tour. In what’s only the second of three uphill finales in this Tour, the three final climbs — the Peyresourde, Val Louron-Azet and the brutal Col du Portet — come stacked in ruthless succession.
The grimaces of pain will be omnipresent in the bunch, and the final climb up Portet (16km at 8.7 percent) will be ample terrain to turn the screws.
The Portet was introduced for the first time with much success in 2018, in a Vuelta-like short stage of only 65km. In fact, this year’s route traces the same approaches across the three summits as two years ago, but tacks on 100km of flats to broaden the drama.
Nairo Quintana won here in 2018, when he managed to salvage a disappointing GC campaign with a stage victory. If he’s anywhere close to the top of the leaderboard, no one will be giving the Colombian climber any room to move in 2021.
It’s a stage that will require big efforts, with organizers hoping for an equally engaging result.
Stage 18, July 15 — Pau to Luz Ardiden, 130km
With a time trial looming in 72 hours, this is the last chance for the climbers to widen their gap to the time trialists. Starting in Pau — the regional capital is hosting its 74th Tour stage — and ending atop the Pyrénéen answer to Alpe d’Huez with the switchbacks up Luz Ardiden (13.3km at 7,4 percent), this stage all but requires movement from the climbers.
With the massive presence of the hors categorie Col du Tourmalet midway through the stage, the entire race could hinge on who can get up Luz Ardiden the fastest.
Since its introduction in 1985, Luz Ardiden has been the scene for some epic Tour moments in eight previous visits. Its debut edition saw Greg LeMond called out of an attack, won by Pedro Delgado, to defend the lead of a struggling Bernard Hinault, setting up the pair’s famous tussle in 1986. Dag-Otto Lauritzen won in 1987, and Delgado finished third there in 1988 to secure his overall victory that year.
In 1990, Miguel Indurain beat LeMond at the top, but the American won what would be his third and final Tour before the dawning of the Indurain era the following year. In 1994, Richard Virenque won a solo victory, while Roberto Laiseka rode through a sea of Basque fans to win in 2001.
In 2003, Luz Ardiden was also the scene of one of the most dramatic moments in the Lance Armstrong era. Then nursing a narrow 15-second lead, Armstrong crashed on the final ascent when his handlebar was wrapped up in a fan’s musette, also bringing down rival Iban Mayo with him. The others slowed ahead and allowed Armstrong to regain contact, only to see him attack to win the stage. That stage victory and the seven straight yellow jerseys were later officially removed from the historic record, and no overall winner’s prize was awarded from 1999 to 2005.
The last Tour stage came in 2011, with Samuel Sánchez winning out of the GC group. Thomas Voeckler defended his yellow jersey that day, but eventually succumbed to Andy Schleck and later eventual winner Cadel Evans in the Alps.
Stage 19, July 16 — Mourenx to Libourne, 203km
A long, mostly flat stage at the end of three weeks of racing, just what the peloton would want, right? Hosting just its third Tour finish, Libourne, nestled along the Dordogne River, is in the heart of France’s Bordeaux wine country. Chances are it will be a sprinter hoisting the champagne by stage’s end, but will the extra miles flame out a GC contender ahead of the final time trial? Organizers hope so.
Check back to this space for a full review of the Tour’s two individual time trials, and how they could end up deciding the 2021 Tour winner.