Innovative mountain stages, cobbles, crosswinds, time bonuses and very little time-trialling: Richard Moore explains why 2015's Tour route continues a recent theme of thrilling breaks from tradition
Words by Richard Moore
Announcing the 2015 Tour de France, race director Christian Prudhomme described it as “un parcours atypique” – an untypical route.
Which, you could argue, makes it a typical Prudhomme route.
It will be the 102nd Tour but a more significant milestone is that it will be Prudhomme’s tenth in charge. After sharing the job with Jean-Marie Leblanc in 2005, he took over in 2006, but was initially more concerned with negotiating stormy seas as doping scandals threatened to sink the whole thing.
Route innovations, and the idea of leaving his imprint on the race, became secondary to steering the ship to calmer waters. But, when the 2008 and 2010 races began with hilltop finishes rather than prologues, the 2009 and 2014 races visited the Vosges and Jura mountains, and this year’s featured a classic stage over the cobbles, there have been clues about what Prudhomme’s fantasy Tour might look like (the difference being that he is in a position to make it a reality).
It is one in which time trials are not decisive – there has been only one Prudhomme Tour, 2012, in which the winner, Bradley Wiggins, owed his success to his strength against the clock.
It seems a safe prediction that time trials will not be decisive in 2015. There is only one, over 14km in Utrecht on the opening day, if we exclude the stage nine team time trial over 28km: an unprecedented move that will be popular with Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana, less so with Chris Froome, who within minutes of the official presentation responded by hinting that he might skip the Tour and target the Giro-Vuelta double instead.
Prudhomme makes no apology. “The general trend is to decrease the number of kilometers against the clock,” he said, reasoning that fewer time trials and more mountains should encourage more “offensive tactics.”
As for Froome’s description of the race as a Tour for climbers, Prudhomme cited another anniversary: 2015 will be 40 years since the introduction of the polka-dot jersey.
One feature of Prudhomme Tours is that they tend not to be formulaic when it comes to the mountains, with no guarantee of the standard M-shaped profile, where the two major ranges, the Alps and Pyrenees, supply the only battlegrounds. Prudhomme has introduced new climbs, put more emphasis on the minor ranges, introduced shorter, more explosive mountain stages, and generally sought to undermine the idea that the fight for yellow must take place at 2,000 metres.
The 2015 Tour does see a return to the M-profile, with the Pyrenees and Alps providing most of the seven summit finishes. But there is also Mende in the Massif Central, a finish that has traditionally encouraged thrilling racing, including, in 2010, a stage that many riders agreed was the hardest of the race.
And as well as the headline-grabbing penultimate stage finish at l’Alpe d’Huez, there are lesser-climbed mountains in the Alps and the quirky Lacets de Montvernier, only 3.8km but with 18 hairpins.
Away from the Alps and Pyrenees there are another couple of hilltop finishes which – especially with the re-introduction of time bonuses – will keep the overall contenders on their toes while providing opportunities for the likes of Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde – all stage winners on similar finishes in previous Prudhomme Tours – and Dan Martin.
The Mur de Huy at the end of stage three is the one that stands out – a bit like the ferociously steep Mur itself, which of course provides the finish to Flêche Wallonne. Not quite in the same league, the Mûr-de-Bretagne, at the end of an eighth stage that could be preceded by crosswinds, is another that tantalises.
Prudhomme has perhaps acquired a new taste after this year’s Tour, for pavé. Stage five of the 2014 race, with 13km of cobbles after a couple of sections were lost thanks to the weather, was an instant classic. And so they return in 2015, on stage four this time, with 13km on the road from Seraing to Cambrai.
If they could include cobbles in consecutive years in 1979 and 1980, reasons Prudhomme, they can do so in 2014 and 2015.
As we saw this year, the cobbles can have a decisive influence, and next year especially so, with the team time trial coming so late. It is almost certain that riders will crash out of the Tour on stage four, and so their teams will be under-strength on stage nine.
Ultimately, though, as Prudhomme said, “If you do not climb, you will not win the Tour in 2015.” As he also added: “But that’s true almost every year.”