Today in Paris, A.S.O boss Christian Prudhomme presented the route of the 2018 Tour de France. The route was designed as a series of traps to catch out defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky).
With Chris Froome going for his legend-tying fifth victory, the Tour threw everything at him: cobblestones, gravel, windy Brittany stages, short, explosive climbing stages and the whole mountain of Alp d’Huez. And oh by the way, Chris, you’ll have to do all that with one less teammate, thanks to new rule cutting back team size.
Their succinct message for Froome: you’re going to suffer, we’re trying to break you, we’re using every weapon in our arsenal. Bonne chance, Monsieur Froome. If you want to earn that fifth victory, if you want you drink champagne with the likes of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, you better start the training and reconnaissance next week.
The worst of the worst, the 15 sectors and 21.7km of Paris-Roubaix cobbles on stage 9. While all-rounders like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will be chomping at the bit to ride those cobblestones, the skin and bones Froome will not be excited about the prospect. Nibali built his Tour de France victory on the cobblestones back in the 2014 Tour de France. He gained over two minutes on his rivals and that was 9, not 15 sectors of pavé.
The opening week in the Vendee region and Brittany promises high winds and high nerves. The potential for chaos and crashes — always a factor in the first seven days — will ratchet up. That’s not counting two ascents of the Mûr de Bretagne on stage six that will immediately reveal the short list of podium contenders. This year, more than ever, getting out of the opening week in one piece will be critical.
Wind and cobblestones, perhaps rain and miserable roads — that’s the setup up for week two of the Stop Froome route planning. Stage 10 will throw up four categorized climbs including a new ascent of the Montée du Plateau des Glières. Prudhomme calls the climb “Extremely harsh,” with six kilometers at an average grade of 11%.
But that wasn’t quite enough for A.S.O’s mission to, shall we say, physically dissuade Froome from joining the Five Tour Wins club. So they take Froome off-road again with two kilometers of unpaved roads just to make sure his bike handling skills are on point. Should Froome puncture there, will his rivals decide to attack? Will he suddenly insist he has to take a nature break?
The three climbing days in the Alps are stacked with misery and exhaustion with Alpe d’Huez the final insult. How will Froome reach the Alpe? Well, first he’ll have to crawl his way up the Col de la Madeleine and the Col de la Croix de Fer. That’s a tour record with 5000 metres of uphills. Even Romain Bardet’s eyes are starting to pop out.
That brings the tired bodies to the Pyrenees. Shorted in last year’s Tour, the rocky and unpredictable Pyrenees now get everyone’s full attention. In particular, Stage 17 showcases an explosive new format: a 65 kilometer route from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan. The three climbs on tap: Montée de Peyregudes, Col de Val Louron-Azet and Col de Portet. The expectation is multiple attacks from the gun and a day that’s almost impossible to control regardless of team strength. Who isn’t running on fumes at this point?
The final act of the Anybody But Froome Tour de France is a 31 kilometre individual time trial from Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette. Prudhomme could not help himself with the obvious play on words here. “It is a time trial for puncheurs,” said Prudhomme. “We all dream of a spicy finish in Espelette, the world capital of chilli peppers.” The hilly profile is another challenge and perhaps an ideal place for Tom Dumoulin to make his mark.
A day or two ago, Romain Bardet said he hoped of an unpredictable Tour de France route, one that did not follow the “status quo.” He got his wish. For Chris Froome, this will not be a smooth and controlled precession to Paris for his fifth coronation. The 2018 Tour de France is throwing every rock and stone at him.