By Gregor Brown
The 2018 Tour de France with its 5000-metre climbing stages and psychological stress could be one of the hardest editions in years, say riders in the three-week race.
The race features fewer summit finishes than normal, but has seen a large number of top sprinters abandon and others struggle simply to finish day to day.
"Because of the stress level, the hecticness, the tempo, the heat... There hasn't been one easy day.
"The Tours that I remember it was easier. These days every team has a big sprinter, in the beginning of the race it's full on. In the years before, 20 guys would go up the road, get 20 minutes and that's it. That doesn't happen, everyone now is fighting for the stage wins."
The list of top sprinters abandoning includes Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), André Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).
"Because it's so hard. Even those first nine days that were 'flat' it was still a normalised power of 300W or more every day," Haussler said. "You are tried and fatigued. The Greipels or Groenewegens can't carry those big muscles around over the mountains."
"When I first saw this route, I thought it was going to be hardest Tour," Daniel Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) explained.
"That's what makes the Tour interesting: out of the three Grand Tours, it's the most stressful psychologically, but route-wise it's the easiest. This year they seemed to ramped up the mountain stages and put it on par with the Giro.
"It's very rare you see stages with 5000 meters of climbing. We had two big days like that. I also think that those three days back to back in the Alps hurt a lot of guys, especially after the first nine days of stressful racing."
Kittel, Cavendish and Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data) finished outside the time limit in the stage to La Rosière. If the time limit did not get some riders, then the high stress and short recovery did for the next day. More pulled out on that day while Geraint Thomas (Sky) raced in yellow to an eventual stage win on the Alpe d'Huez.
Teams say that the smaller team size may play a part. This year, Grand Tour teams can only include eight men instead of nine. That means there are fewer men to share the work and more work for the men racing.
"The time cut was close in a couple of stages," Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) explained. "I don't think it has been [harder than usual] though. The general level is high, but the sport is developing and the level gets higher."
"It's about the same as the ones I've done before. Now we have more downhill than uphill finishes I reckon. Now we only have one in the Pyrénées when you normally see two. But that's not negative for sprinters."
"The Tour's always hard," Laurens Ten Dam (Sunweb) added. "This isn't particularly harder than the others years. And you remember Mario Cipollini? He never made it to Paris!"
Mathew Hayman (Mitchelton-Scott) only made his Tour de France debut when he was 36. He now rides his fourth one at age 40.
"All the routes just become a blur. This one at the moment feels harder because it's fresh in my memory," he said.
"It's definitely been two parts, flat for the first nine days and then hilly ever since. Some hard days. I don't know what's going on with the time limits, two were adjusted mid-stage. They all seem tight. No one is having fun, we are not trying to hold up traffic and we want to get to the finish as fast as possible".
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