The real star of the Tour is always the route, and while it’s not as initially intimidating in 2016 as it was last year, it’s going to be tricky to plot a course to victory through it. Comparatively subtle the route may be but the effect of this is to raise the tension and intensity. There’s an uphill finish on stage 2, a mountain summit finish on stage 5, and the Pyrenees begin on stage 7.
2015 was a series of four clearly-defined phases: Classics opening week, Pyrenees, Massif Central, Alps. 2016 is far more complex, less regular, more a piece of free-form jazz than a traditionally-constructed symphony in four movements. There’s a flat stage, a hilly stage, and two more flat stages in the first four days, and then the uphill finish at Le Lioran in the Massif Central, followed by one more flat stage. At this point, the sprinters will have had four of their seven chances for a stage win. Meanwhile, the GC contenders will have had to manage the Cherbourg hill finish, and the very hard route to Le Lioran.
Mont St-Michel, stage 1
None of the Massif Central climbs of stage 5 are particularly hard – there are two third-cat climbs and two second-cats, before the final third-cat ascent and a short downhill to the finish. It’s ambush territory, and the final 50km look intense, without being outrageously hard – the kind of territory, in other words, on which the best bike racing happens. The Tour peloton is still getting used to the idea that hilly stages can be as good a place to win the yellow jersey as the high mountains but the 2016 route, and stages like this, are an ideal place to continue working on this project.
There are three nicely varied Pyrenean stages to follow: an easy one, and two more difficult ones. Stage 7 ‘only’ includes the Col d’Aspin, near the finish.Meanwhile, stage 8 is an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern – the classic Pau-to-Luchon stage is a Tour staple. But instead of running over the normal Aubisque-Tourmalet-Aspin-Peyresourde route on the D918 – the Pyrenean ‘Circle of Death’ – the parcours has been tweaked to run along a parallel road to the south. Tourmalet-Hourquette d’Ancizan-Val Louron Azet-Peyresourde is not quite as hard, because the Aubisque has been sacrificed, but the Hourquette d’Ancizan, a minor-road alternative to the Aspin, is hard. Either way, it’s still one of the toughest stages of the entire race, followed the next day by the high point of the Tour, the summit finish at Andorra Arcalis, at 2,240m. This, finally, is a more traditional challenge – the first true summit finish of the 2016 Tour.
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If there is a theme for the middle week, it’s that there is no theme. There’s a stage for the baroudeurs – the finish in Revel loops over the Côte de St-Ferréol, which in the past has been enough to kill the chances of the sprinters’ teams, although admittedly this was before Peter Sagan came along. Then a flat stage to Montpellier. After that comes the Bastille Day ascent of Ventoux, possibly the crux of the entire Tour.
Gorges de l'Ardèche, stage 13
The stage 13 time trial is another key stage. The parcours tracks the scenic route along the sunbaked Gorges de l’Ardèche. The Tour went through the Tarn Gorges last year, and the helicopter shots were spectacular. However, the D290 road which runs along the Gorge is not just a scenic Tour treat. The road through the Tarn Gorges is cut along the bottom, beside the river, but the D290 follows the cliffs at the top. It climbs a lot, and is extremely twisty. As the road leaves the gorges to pass the Pont d’Arc, a huge limestone archway cut by the river, there is a steep 2km descent, including tunnels, with a hairpin bend towards the bottom. Any riders distracted by the beautiful scenery are going to come a cropper here.
Then two more flattish stages sandwich another television highlight of the 2016 Tour, the climb of the Grand Colombier, one of France’s most scenic climbs, on the stage to Culoz. While some stages look more intimidating on paper, this one, the 15th, looks very hard to control. There are six categorised climbs, including one HC ascent, but the profile shows countless more significant uncategorised climbs along the way. The stage only breaches 1,000m once but it makes up in intensity what it lacks in altitude.
Mègeve, stage 20
The final week is more traditional Tour fare – three mountain stages and a tough uphill time trial to Megève. The new HC summit finish at Finhaut-Emosson in Switzerland on stage 17 will see the beginning of the final battle and the St Gervais summit finish two days later will probably reinforce what we’ve already learned. But ASO have one final trick up their sleeve on stage 20, with the final mountain of the race, the Col de Joux-Plane. It’s not just a very tough climb, but there’s a 2km false flat at the top and a very steep, twisting descent to Morzine.
The Tour organisers appear to be saying that the biggest mountains might make for the hardest challenge, but that the smaller mountains of the 2016 race might make for a more interesting one.
This is an extract from an article originally published in Procycling magazine, which brings you the colour, action and drama of cycling every month. Subscribe and get five issues for £5.