Times have changed. I have a map of the 1933 Tour mounted on my wall, and from the ride out of Paris, the line remains unbroken from day one till the exhausted peloton, or whatever remains of it, rides back into Paris, four weeks and 4,395k later. Scroll forward 80 years to the 100th edition and we are looking at quite a different beast. Shorter by more than 1000km but punchier; 2013 brings modern-day challenges. Four hilltop finishes and three time trials feature. Throw in an island start, the Pyrenees in the first week, Ventoux, and Alpe d’Huez twice in the last and you start to get the idea.
From the south-east corner of the island of Corsica to the finish in Paris, there’ll be two or three air transfers – depending on how the teams exit Corsica. The course curves and sweeps, traversing from east to west over the Pyrenees, and south to north through the Alps, somehow managing also to navigate around the Grand Massif Central along the way.
Maybe Brisbane took inspiration from France in the 82 Commonwealth Games, where Tasmania was left off the ‘people’ map in the opening ceremony. As looking at the 1933 Tour route, Corsica did not feature back then either although it makes up for it in 2013 of course, taking centre stage, hosting the start.
While it’s time to celebrate the 100th tour, it’s taken 110 years to achieve, allowing for time out during two world wars, and it is purposefully contained totally in France. A momentous achievement for ASO only to be presented in the harsh light, shed from the falling of Lance Armstrong. But still the show must go on. LA may have been responsible for the biggest drug scandal in sporting history, but it’s not the first and unlikely to be the last.
Lance Armstrong’s not only been struck off the winner’s list seven times but interestingly, totally removed from any mention on the official Tour de France website. A search for LA on letour.fr produces zero results, while google will gladly offer up over 84 million.
From the bike rider’s perspective, where they are geographically is not the important part. What is relevant is knowing what’s up the road today, and the remaining days of the whole three weeks. Leaving aside the fact that this is the only sporting event in the world where you’ll need to get a haircut somewhere in the duration, plans must be formulated well in advance. Sprinters need to know where their favoured stages lie, hill climbers the same. Roulers not chasing a GC result will finger stages that suit their talents, and riders chasing the overall will need to plan where to be at their best, where they may default to ‘limp home mode’ without loss and most importantly, where to recover. The importance of recovery cannot be underestimated for the GC riders. The more downtime achieved early in the tour with their legs up (after a massage of course), the better their legs will be in the third week. With the long transfers this year, helicopter transits may be making a more regular appearance, aiding the GC disciples, particularly when exiting Corsica.
To ease the logistical pressure of transporting their own race staff, the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) – the Tour de France race promoter – has chartered a ship for the Corsican stages to fully mobilise their race headquarters. With cleverly positioned start and finish locales, the ship can sail from port to port during stages, enabling staff to be present at sign on and stage finishes.
Now to the race
A quick look at the geographical lay of our start island of Corsica shows that it is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean. With the prologue removed for 2013 and the first stage running up the eastern coast, the sprinters not only get a shot at the glory of a win, it comes with the silver (or rather yellow) lining of the first leader’s jersey of the tour.
The traditional opening prologue combined with Le Tour’s lack of time bonuses has meant in recent years the sprinter’s chance of donning yellow is almost non-existent. The 100th tour offers a now rare prize for their ilk. May the sprinters make the most of it!
The second stage sees the peloton turn its back on the Mediterranean and move inland from the coast. While crossing the island the course hits a couple of peaks, but with little chance of a nose bleed – maximum elevation is just 1,164 metres – it shouldn’t disrupt a relatively fresh peloton. It’s 60km from the top of the final peak to the finish, so cross your fingers for another bunch sprint. That’s if the roads allow it. The inland routes of Corsica can be tight and winding, and this will play out on the day for a field of 180, maybe into the hands of a cut-throat breakaway.
Our third and final island stage profile shows five cols, of which only two are rated as Cat 3s. As we’ve started our three weeks with three different stages, it’s highly likely that we’ll have had as many different leaders before the transition to the mainland.
Corsica was formed through volcanic explosions, with its highest peak at 2,706 metres, and 20 other summits of more than 2,000 metres (Kosciusko barely rates in comparison at 2,228m). As mentioned it is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean with an area of 8,680 km², less than one fifth that of Tasmania, with a population of approximately 800,000 (Tasmania = 500,000). These Corsican stages will offer spectacular backdrops for the helicopter cameras; it should make for spectacular viewing for the fans at home.
The team time trial makes a short appearance in Nice, it’s just 25km and while that won’t allow for a tour winning performance, the opportunity to lose is always apparent. It’s not hard to recall the TTT of 2009, when Cadel’s then team (Silence Lotto) pulled a shocker in Montpellier, and opened up a crack that eventually wrote off his tour. His time on the day being more than a minute slower than Stuart O’Grady’s, who finished alone.
Three rather flattish stages now follow, designed to put some distance into the legs of the peloton, all the while not troubling the GC contenders. These will lead us westwards through the much loved sunflowers of Provence, into the heart of the Pyrenees.
This year’s foray into the Pyrenees does not tick off as many cols as perhaps it could, but it is quality fare. At the end of week one, Stage 8’s climb up Port de Pailheres, with a finish at the ski resort of Ax-3-Domaines gives us the first of this year’s four hilltop finishes, and should reveal the faces of those who’ll be fighting for the race lead over the remaining two weeks. On Sunday, Stage 9’s offerings of five cols, with a breadknife like profile, the middle of which is Col de Peyresourde, wraps up the Pyrenees neatly for 2013. From here we move north with a long transfer and into the first rest day.
Week two would be all about the sprinters, if it were not for stage 11’s 33km time trial that falls right on hump day in the middle of Le Tour. It’s not quite as long as last year’s stage nine ITT, which at 41.5km allowed Wiggins to wriggle into the yellow jersey, a place from where he was not dislodged for the remainder of the tour. But then again, it’s not much shorter. Last year we saw only one change of the race lead over the three weeks. Let’s all hope this TT is short enough so we don’t end up with that scenario two years in a row.
Week two ends with stage 15, the longest passage of 2013. Not only is it the longest, but it finishes atop the giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Add to that, it’s Bastille day, and you get the idea that if a local lad wins today, all celebratory hell could break loose, giving the nationalistic fireworks that sparkle far and wide that evening, a sporting aura.
After a rest day, the race makes it final turn and starts it climb north for the Champs Elysees. Climbing being the operative word, as this final week features not only three consecutive climbing stages in the alps, but another hump-day time trial, that is humpy in its own way. A similar distance to the previous week, going not only up but down in sections, and crossing Lake Serre-Ponçon. If the wind is up on the shores of the popular lake for sail-boarding, they could be going sideways too.
From Gap, stage 18’s parcours gives us the most widely anticipated stage finish in recent tour history, using Alpe d’Huez as not only the ultimate climb, but also the penultimate. Overall, for le grimpeur, the climbers, it’s no more challenging than the cols of Galibier or Glandon, but it makes a huge difference to one important part of the cycling world, albeit often neglected; the fans. We are all going to love it—even more so those fortunate enough to be lining the twenty-one hairpins climbing out of Bourg d’Oisans. From there to TV screens throughout the world, this is a stage for the cycling tifosi.
If navigating the switchbacks up the Alpe is not challenging enough, not to mention having to pass ‘dutch corner’ twice, the descent off the back side of Alpe d’Huez is narrow and tight and could have consequences for the daredevil descenders. There is also a dead flat 5km stretch on the return route that is likely to have a strong headwind in the afternoon. All this and more will add to the thrill of play on the day.
‘Dutch Corner’ is located just below the old township of Huez, about 6km from the top. Each year Le Tour features the climb of Alpe d’Huez, there is mass exodus from Holland, of Dutch cycling fans who begin camping on corner #7 up to two weeks before the race arrives. The Dutch riders have had much success here in the past, and being from a flat land their fans look fondly on the Alpe. It is so popular with the Dutch; the French locals often refer to it as the ‘Monte de Hollande’ (the Dutch mountain) as at almost any time of the year, there will be a Dutch cyclist climbing it.
After such a big day for the fans (and the riders) like Hannibal’s crossing, the expedition continues through the Alps the next day. It’s a classic alpine Tour stage, starting from Bourg d’Oisans. The first ten kilometres are the only flat ones as Cols du Glandon, Madeleine, Croix Fry and a couple of others are passed on the way to Le Grand Bornand.
Last time a stage finished in Le Grand Bornand was 2009 and for whatever reason, two intermediate sprints were hidden amongst the five cols en route. This was the impetus for Thor Hushovd to take off early in a solo break, earning both allocations of sprint points and therefore securing the sprinter’s green jersey for himself. Never mind that that year he only won one stage and ‘Black Cavendish’ won five! That’s a classic lesson in strategy for sprinters. NB: There are no intermediate sprints in stage 19 this year. (clarification, may need to check this again, before going to print, there’s none that I could find on 15/4/13)
Stage 20 is the last real race day, and dutifully farewells the peloton with the final hilltop finish. Starting from the lakeside town of Annecy, the riders will head out in a clockwise loop, covering more than 4,500 metres of ascent, and finish at Annecy Semnoz, the ski station above Annecy, from whence they started. A tough day to finish with and one where the remaining sprinters will be working hard on the bike, and brain, figuring out the time cut on the road. While the general classification will be almost finalised, time, and your race, could easily be lost if you were to have a bad day.
On the big mountain stages it is common for the sprinters and lower order riders to ride together in ‘limp home mode’ in what is known as the grupetto or ‘caboose’. Together they keep each other’s spirits up, all the while working out the time limit that they have to cross the finish line before, in order to stay in the race. The time limit is determined by a percentage added to the stage winner’s time.
Twilight arriving over the Eifel Tower the next evening will see the 3,342km race come to an end. Starting from the gardens of Versailles they roll into Paris for ten quick laps around the Elysee palace, the Louvre and the Champs Elysees, and also this year the Arc de Triomphe as well, the last chance for the sprinters to shine before the sun sets on the 2013 Tour de France.