One of the most interesting things about the Tour de France, apart from the fascinating education about geography, history, culture and gastronomy that the race provides as a free service, is watching how the riders and the route interact to make an exciting race. When I first glanced at the 2017 parcours, I was underwhelmed. However, when you look more closely at what lies between the start and finish towns, there is a lot of interesting detail. It looks as if the Tour organisers are tiring of the race being settled on the summit finishes and time trials and daring the riders to find another way of winning the yellow jersey.
The Tour is an evolving series of challenges which the riders master over time. The long time trials used to define the race in the 1990s and 2000s. But riders like Indurain gained so much time in these that the racing was dull. So ASO have all but killed them in recent years. The summit finishes used to be the big set pieces, but again, the strong teams, first US Postal then Sky, squeezed the life out of the race, setting an asphyxiating pace and crushing the opposition. It now looks as if ASO are looking at reducing the impact of these stages – there’s only one HC summit finish this year, and it comes on stage 18. I used to dislike downhill finishes in mountain stages, but after Chris Froome’s exploit in Luchon last year, I’m looking for the best racing to happen on these days.
There are plenty of mid-stage climbs in this year’s Tour, and some very grippy stage starts where the climbing begins very soon after kilometre zero – stage 9 is particularly brutal in this respect. The Formigal stage of last year’s Vuelta showed us what is possible with enterprising teams and early tough terrain. Perhaps summit starts are the new summit finishes.
Either way, I’m anticipating an exciting Tour, and I hope you enjoy our guide to it.