But some good news: The cobbles return and they’ll climb Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate stage of the Tour. This year the race starts outside France once more; this time in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, with short 15km time-trial…the only individual time trial of the entire race – barely long enough to avoid being classified as a prologue -- making this very much a tour for the climbers.
No coincidence then that the year after a couple of French climbers crack the podium that they should limit time-trialing to the bare minimum and go full bore in the mountains? And Vincenzo Nibali should be delighted. Chris Froome isn’t so happy saying he might skip it, which is strange because despite the time-trial being to his advantage, he’s also a decent climber when he puts his mind to it.
Of course, before they even get to the mountains they’ll have Belgium and northern-France to deal with. Returning this year is time-bonuses: ten, six and four seconds to the first three over the line meaning that a sprinter who puts in a good shift in the time-trial can still, in true Cipollini like style in the 90’s, conceivably snatch the yellow jersey for a few days before the mountains.
That said, the sprinters won’t have it that easy and may only have a single day to get close to yellow, but stage two has the chance for echelons, stage three finishes on the infamous Mur de Huy in the Belgian Ardennes, and on stage four the pave returns once more. This opening week is tailor made for someone like Fabian Cancellara, or even Peter Sagan, to take and hold the yellow jersey for the entire week.
Last year’s stage five across the cobbles was a huge hit with the fans, if not all the riders, and so the race organisors have come to accept that if they do the mountains in the south of France every year, why not do the cobbles in the north. Both are roads in France; both should be considered a challenge to overcome. Once again, Nibali will be delighted, for it was on those cobbles in 2014 that he set up his overall victory.
Beyond that on the northern-half of this Tour, the sprinters will get a few days in the sunshine, before another uphill finish on the Mur de Bretagne on stage eight. Cadel Evans won here in 2011 just ahead of Alberto Contador, on his way to winning his one and only Tour de France. Can we expect to see the 2015 winner taking a stage victory once again here?
The northern half finishes with a 28km team-time-trial. A chance for the strong teams to give their leaders one last time boost ahead of the mountains which will begin following a rest day down in the southern half of the country, and race.
That trip into the Pyrenees will begin on Bastille Day; a day for the French to show their hand…a day for Pinot, Bardet or Peraud to stake their claim? Three days they’ll toil in the Pyrenees before transitioning their way across to the Alps, and if the Tour isn't already won by here, and I suspect it won’t be, then this will be where everyone lays their cards on the table.
Stage 17 to Pra Loup will bring back memories, for the older generation, of the slowing Eddy Merckx’s reign coming to an end at the hands of Bernard Thevenet in 1975. What will it do to the current crop dreaming of GC glory? Will another Frenchman use it as a staging post to glory? Or will Nibali once more put down the hammer?
Stage 19 and 20, the final two days in the Alps will be the most dramatic and are the two shortest road-race stages. 138km one day, but crossing three mountains, and 110km the next finishing a-top L’Alpe d’Huez will make for fascinating viewing. We’ll be able to watch from the very start with no transitional section before the real racing begins. On these two stages it should be all out from the proverbial gun as everyone sniffs a chance to win and the contenders sense their last chance to make their move.
By the time they wind their way to the top of the Alpe and through the throngs of fans awaiting them…expected to be huge given the lack of a stage length with which to spread them over, we’ll know who has won this race. We can only hope the GC battle is still in the balance coming into stage 20, but even if it isn’t, the stage itself should be fantastic to watch.
Then it’s the usual jaunt into Paris, a procession where riders chit-chat up and down the peloton and the winner is captured clinking glasses of champagne with his team-mates before that famous high-speed crit up and down the Champs Elysees.
And so, 3,350km after they took turns rolling down the starting ramp in Utrecht, the tour will be won and lost for another year and all that will remain is for the winner to make his victory speech and spend the following weeks fighting off all sorts of doping allegations.