Cobbles, just 31km of time trialling and the shortest stage ever; is the 2018 Tour route the one to stop Sky's dominance of the race?
They say Grand Tour routes are never built with one rider in mind, but every year the Tour de France route seems to try and find a new way to make life a little bit more difficult for Chris Froome and Team Sky.
In 2017, the sparse quantities of time-trialling kilometres and mountain top finishes only saw Sky hold their grip over their rivals even tighter to deliver a fourth victory for Froome. It worked, and despite some minor hiccups, Froome was able to use the mere 32km of time trialling to effectively win the race.
If this year felt more like a classic Tour route, 2018 paints the prospect of a more chaotic style of racing like 2015 and perhaps, less controllable. An early 35km team time trial will be the first point of separation between the majority of the GC contenders, but an opening week or so peppered with Classics-esque profiles is likely to unstick some.
Froome’s 2017 band of climbers that dominated the mountain passes would probably have a handle of stage five’s up and down affair from Lorient to Quimper and stage six’s finish to the Mûr de Bretagne, but some tricky flat stages through Brittany, the team time trial and a brutal looking ride over the cobbles on stage nine to Roubaix will probably demand a much more rounded team than 2017 did.
With Grand Tour teams down to just eight riders as well, teams will certainly need at least two out-and-out Classics/flats riders in the team to negotiate the first week, and particularly, in Sky’s case, if all-rounders like Geraint Thomas aren’t available through chasing their own ambitions.
Though Froome succeeded with flying colours in conquering the cobbles in 2015, the near 22km of pavé in 2018 will still pose a significant danger and could be a more unpredictable affair than his most recent Grand Tour wins have perhaps featured.
If those elements of the early part of the race were somewhat expected, the short 65km stage 17 with three climbs from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the Col de Portet certainly wasn’t.
The 101km stage to Foix in this year’s race showed these short, mountainous routes are fruitful in stopping a team from dominating the bunch. Froome still found himself with one team-mate in Michal Kwiatkowski and had Mikel Landa up the road on that particular day, but the organisers succeeded in pulling the race apart with early attacks and that is surely the ploy implemented again this year.
The same is likely to happen early in the second week as the Tour passes through the Alps, with a 108km summit finish stage 11 that would probably be more talked about if it wasn’t for the shortest stage in a generation making its appearance at the business end of the race.
One plus point for Froome will certainly be the second consecutive year of a penultimate day time trial, which sets a new standard as the lowest time trialling distance in a Tour route.
At 31km though, stage 20’s time trial can present some real problems for less chrono-inclined of the GC contenders, with a steep climb towards the end of the route in the Basque country looking like the kind of sordid punishment most would have been wishing to avoid at the end of next year’s edition. It will surely be a prospect Froome might relish though, and would create a particularly dramatic end if fans could see him face off with Tom Dumoulin in a grand finale.
Without doubt, the route on paper presents a more complex challenge for Froome, who faces more rivals than ever if he’s to win a fifth Tour title.
He has, however, been constantly adaptable in recent year’s during moments that the organisers may have hoped would even out the competition.
His memorable attack on the descent from the Peyresourde in 2016 stamped his authority on that edition, while he’s made gains in consecutive years in stages battered by crosswinds towards the finish.
Unlike his early wins, Froome hasn’t looked like riding away up a climb to victory in the first mountains of the race in recent editions, particularly with an eye on the Vuelta. In fact, Froome’s worst day in 2017 came in the second week’s early summit finish to Peyragudes and the 2018 route poses a similar difficulty soon after the first rest day with back to back mountain-top finishes to La Rosière and Alpe d’Huez on stages 11 and 12.
All these ingredients certainly make it feel like much less of a forgone conclusion than this year’s Tour did when we kicked off in Düsseldorf.
Anything that evens up the race against Sky is surely a positive for the racing as a spectacle and increases the prospect of gaining new fans.
Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Chris Froome might just do it again.