Tour de France 2012: stage by stage analysis of next year’s route
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tour de France 2012: stage by stage analysis of next year’s route

by Shane Stokes at 5:01 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
Experimentation sees some traditional climbs dropped in favour of new discoveries

Tour de France 2012It’s a Tour de France which has a somewhat unfamiliar feel to it, a route where some of the best known finishes are absent and where the number of summit battles is muted. No Alpe d’Huez, no Mont Ventoux, just three mountain top finishes; instead of the familiar, there’s a number of new locations and climbs to be discovered.

And yet, in ways, the route should be the most familiar of all in the race’s long history. As race director Christian Prudhomme conceded with a smile in Paris this morning, the same route was inadvertently revealed last week due to an error on the part of someone – still unknown – who caused the details to appear briefly on the Tour’s website.

The boo boo was unique and unheard of, at least until the same thing happened with the 2012 Giro d’Italia details hours afterwards. One leak looked careless; two appeared something else altogether, and there’s understandably some questions being asked about possible hacking.

Whatever the cause, Prudhomme emphasised that there was still much left to learn. “We didn’t reveal everything, we didn’t give all the necessary information,” he said, his words leading up to the stage-by-stage details of next year’s race.

Before that, though, his time at the microphone was preceded by the man who is effectively his boss, namely Jean Etienne Amaury, head of the Tour owners ASO.

He looked back at the 2011 edition, reflecting on what had been a stirring contest and issuing words of praise for the competitors in that edition of the race. “They gave us a demonstration of courage, tenacity and sporting performance,” he enthused. “They wrote some of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Tour.

“Cycling, when it is faithful to its values, grabs the enthusiasm and emotion of the population at large,” Amaury continued, saying that performances by overall winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), double stage winner and yellow jersey wearer Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) and longtime race leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) inspired those in Australia, Norway and the Vendee region of France.

The latter location had a quantifiable measurement of the benefits of the Tour, although its difficult to split what came from Voeckler’s performance and what was derived from the actual start of the Tour de France in the region. Whatever the split between the two, the net effect of the Tour was a threefold increase in the signings at the Essarts cycling school, a grassroots explosion which should bring benefits in the years ahead. That’s the kind of boost which Liège, the location of next year’s Grand Depart, will also hope to see.

Tour de France director Prudhomme was the person charged with unveiling the 2012 event and, following a glitzy video summary of last year’s action, he launched into the specifics, fleshing out the skeleton of the route, adding detail to the outline which was leaked last week.

Route analysis:

Next year’s Tour de France will start in Liège in Belgium, as it did in 2004 when Fabian Cancellara won his first stage in beating Lance Armstrong to the prologue win. The first day is once again a prologue, with a flat 6.1 kilometres testing the riders.

“The 99th Tour will take off from a land with a deep cycling culture,” said Prudhomme. “The province of Liège likes the Tour de France and 2004 confirmed that with fervour. It will be 100 years after the first victor y of a Belgian rider in 1912.”

The best possible outcome for the country is if a Belgian rider leads the race on home soil. Philippe Gilbert reportedly considered not competing in the event if the opening stages were too flat to enable him to race prominently, and there were suggestions that ASO may have made changes to ensure he’d be there. Whether or not those rumours are true, he will have his opportunities, with lumpy parcours enabling him to go on the attack. Stage wins are a possibility, while it remains to be seen if he can recoup enough time after the prologue to once again lead the race.

Stage one will cover 198 kilometres from Liège to Seraing and Pruhomme predicts that the explosive riders (like Gilbert) should shine. “As with Brittany in 2008 and in Vendée in 2011, the finish of the first online stage of the Tour will be judged at the top of a hill after an ascent of 2.5 km,” he stated in his assessment. “‘Puncheurs’ will be expected to perform better here than pure sprinters. At a time when the riders will still have lots of energy, their performances promise to be spectacular.”

Stage two from Visé to Tournai will have lumpy roads but the 207 kilometre course may not provide enough difficulties for breakaway riders. “As the route goes through Belgium, it will offer possibilities to fighters but it is highly likely that there will be a massive sprint finish at the end of the stage,” said the Tour director, who notes that the late Leopard Trek rider Wouter Weylandt will be remembered as he clocked up his last victory in Tournai during the 2010 Circuit Franco-Belge.

Stage three will see the race back in France for a 197 kilometre leg from Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer. This one appears tailor-made for the rouleurs and Gilbert will be licking his lips. At the start, the departure town is one well known from Paris-Roubaix, but it is the five hills of the Monts du Boulonnais which, with their slopes of approximately ten percent will provide a springboard to those in an aggressive mood. “The ‘puncheurs’ will have the opportunity, as they did in Seraing, to provide the spectators and viewers with an outstanding performance,” Prudhomme states, adding that the finish comes at the end of a 700 metre long climb. Gilbert, again, will be happy.

The following day travels 214 kilometres from Abbeville to Rouen, the birthplace of Jacques Anquetil. The first five-time winner of the Tour both lived and was buried in Quincampoix, and it is possible the route could pass through that town. As is the case with many of the stages, the full details won’t be revealed until closer to the start.

Prudhomme warned riders to be on their guard, saying that the stage is expected to be a windy one, particularly early on. Those adept in echelon riding will have opportunity to try to gain time, although that will depend on both the strength of the wind and also on the element of surprise.

“The favourite riders in the race will have to be extremely careful, as they know how hard it is to make up for lost time caused by their carelessness at the beginning of the Tour,” he said.

The route veers left on July 5th, with stage five taking the riders 197 kilometres from Rouen to Saint-Quentin, a city renowned for its sporting connections. It is regarded as a day for the sprinters and, coincidentally, an Avenue de Champs-Élysées features during the finale.

Another gallop is expected at the end of the next day’s race from Epernay to Metz. Passing through the Champagne region famed as the origin of the world-famous drink, the riders will battle it out over 210 kilometres and most likely sprint it out at the end.

The mountains begin:

The first mountain stage of the race comes exactly one week after the start and while it doesn’t feature huge climbs, it will give a pointer as to which riders are in form and which are not. The 199 kilometre stage starts in Tomblaine and scales the Col de Grosse Pierre and Col du Mont de Fourche prior to racing on towards the final climb, La Planche des Belles Filles. This is 1035 metres in height, almost six kilometres long and averages 8.5 percent.

“The Tour’s favourites will definitely be successful there,” said Prudhomme. “It’s time for attackers and climbers. The course will be hilly, with the Planche des Belles Filles giving great TV footage. The finish is a very difficult climb.”

That final ascent heads up through a forested section before opening out near the top. The final 300 metres are particularly tough, averaging 14 percent and including pitches of 20 percent.

The medium mountain theme continues on stage eight, which once again is in the Vosges and which passes into Switzerland. The riders will slug it out over a number of climbs, including the Côte de Maison Rouge, the Côte de Saignelégier, the Côte de Saulcy, the Côte de la Caquerelle and the Col de la Croix. The finish town comes after a 15.5 kilometre descent and flat run into Porrentruy, and Prudhomme expects there to be a lot of aggressive racing.

“It is a short stage, with a series of hills and climbs. There are seven climbs including five of at least second category. After the Swiss border there are three very difficult mountains, then down to Porrentruy where Tour de Romandie has finished in the past.”

Riders will do what they can to steal second there, but the gaps will be a lot bigger on the next day’s stage, a 38 kilometre time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon. “It is flat at the beginning and then hilly,” said the Tour director, who knows that the GC will likely be reshuffled as a result of the all-out individual effort.

Tour enters phase two:

The first rest day of the race will then take place on Tuesday July 10th. The riders will use the free time to relax and also to get in light training sessions which will keep their muscles supple and systems moving. Some will also give press conferences, while ASO will use the day to hold a conference in relation to the Tour de l’Aenir.

Prudhomme used this moment in today’s presentation to reveal that ASO plans to sign an agreement with the French federation to help young French riders. Another initiative to boost their chances and development is to hold daily races for juniors over the final thirty kilometres of each Tour stage, a measure which will give those riders considerable attention from the spectators and which will also give the same race supporters the chance to see some action prior to the passing of the professionals.

The action restarts on July 11th with a tough 194 kilometre race from Mâcon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. This includes two categorised climbs, although a third tough ascent is shown and appears also deserving of categorisation. The first two are the Côte de Corlier and the Col du Grand Colombier, with the third being the Col de Richemond. This tops out precisely 20 kilometres from the finish, with a downwards swoop to the line following.

“The first climb of the Côte de Corlier is a simple taste of what will come, then a very impressive mountain shows up,” said Prudhomme. “The Tour will climb up the Col du Grand Colombier for the first time in its history – there’s some very steep parts there.”

The Alps continue the following day with a 140 kilometres stage from Albertville to La Toussuire – Les Sybelles. It’s the second summit finish of the race and that final climb is sure to cause ruptures, but the pressure will come on far earlier than that point.

“There will be 25 kilometres climbing the Col de la Madeleine,” said Prudhomme. “The riders will take on the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Mollard, drop down to Saint Jean de Maurienne, then up to the Sybelles.”

The stage should be one of the most decisive of the race and will demand that the GC riders are fully attentive. They will be able to ease back somewhat on stage 12 from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Annonay, a location featuring for the first time, as the 220 kilometre route is more conducive to breakaways than the overall battle. The Col du Grand Cucheron and the Col du Granier rear up in the first eighty kilometres, providing a perfect springboard for an escape to go clear and try to foil the sprinters.

If a breakaway move is successful, the gallopers should have another chance on stage 13. However both they and the GC contenders will have to be attentive; the 215 kilometre race from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Le Cap d’Agde travels along the Mediterranean coast and is exposed to winds. As the Montpellier to La Grande-Motte stage during the 2009 Tour showed, these days can be very risky and GC riders can lose time.

Whatever happens that day, the next stages will have a major effect on the overall standings. The first of the Pyrenean mountain legs takes place on Sun July 15th with a 192 kilometre race between Limoux and Foix. It includes the categorised climbs of Col du Portel, the Port de Lers and the Mur de Péguère, but the summit of the latter comes a fully 39 kilometres from the line and so it remains to be seen how decisive this particular stage will be.

One issue with recent Tours has been stages like these, where the climbs come some way from the finish. There’s a twofold problem; the first is the favourites don’t necessary believe that big differences can be made and maintained, and so they are more passive than if the last climb either ends at the finish line or is followed by a short descent. The second issue is that even if things break up, there’s time enough for a regrouping to happen.

The final climb does feature some very steep sections, though, and so fans will hope that the racing proves more aggressive than the profile suggests. Prudhomme certainly bigs up the expectations. “The Pyrenees start at Limoux for the second consecutive year…we really enjoyed the welcome last time. This stage is a lot more mountainous after Tarascon sur Ariège. The toughest part will be the Mur de Péguère, with slopes up to 18 percent and with an average of 10 percent in the final 3,500 metres.”

Although the Pyrenees will have officially begun at that point, the following day is curiously a very flat one. The 160 kilometre stretch between Samatan and Pau is deemed likely to finish with a big bunch. “The day will not present any major difficulties, and the sprinters’ teams will be impatient to fight it out to win the stage,” said Prudhomme.

The race’s second rest day will then follow, giving the riders time to regain a little energy prior to the final phase of the race.

Final showdown in battle for yellow:

After some rest, press conferences, a short ride and time spent unwinding mentally, the riders will have to face the final five days of the 2012 Tour de France. The most fatigued will be thinking only about reaching Paris, while the sprinters, breakaway riders and those who still have some oomph in their legs will be looking to see what they can take out from the race.

Whomever is left in contention will also have plenty to aim for, of course, and the first of three big GC battles will occur on Wednesday July 18th. This stage covers 197 kilometres from Paul to Bagnères-de-Luchon and while it doesn’t finish with a climb, Prudhomme is convinced that it will have a major effect.

“The layout of the stage and the future stakes may well upset the order at the top of general classification, four days before the end of the race,” he said. “No matter what the gap is, the major stage in the Pyrénées will be dreaded by the wearer of the Yellow Jersey, who will have to defend his position while climbing towards the Tourmalet, the Aubisque, the Aspin and the Peyresourde.” The descent to the finish is just 15 kilometres in length, short enough for gaps to remain to the line.

For Andy and Frank Schleck plus any other climbers seeking to make up time or to build a buffer over others, the final chance will come on stage 17 from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes. It’s just 144 kilometres in length, but is packed with both opportunity and risk. They simply have to make a move there.

“No-one will be feeling out of danger in the morning of a stage that is just as difficult,” Prudhomme said. “There will be no slack period, with, on the agenda, the Col de Menté, whose steepest slope will be climbed by the riders, and the Col des Ares. From the start of the Port de Balès all the way to the red kite there won’t be any flat ground.”

The climbers will need to give everything on the stage as once to the line, their chance to advance in the GC will be done. The following day is a 215 kilometre race from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde – “a stage for attackers and sprinters, while the favourites will already be focussing on the final time trial,” predicts Prudhomme.

That final time trial will then take place one day before the end of the Tour, and will see the riders battle it out between Bonneval and Chartres. The stage is 52 kilometres in length, with flat, potentially windy sections at the start and then some more undulating roads near the end.

After that, it’s the final stage of the race; nothing much tends to happen as regards the general classification, even if things are tight, but the breakaway riders and the sprinters will be chomping at the bit to fight for the win. An hour or so of relaxed pace and high jinx will allow the riders to celebrate completing the race, but from then on the pace will gradually ramp up until hitting warp speed on eight laps of the Champs Elysées circuit.

Once they round the corner of the Place de La Concorde for the final time, the gallop up the paved straight will bring the 99th Tour de France to a close. At that point we’ll know if the experiment worked, if a Tour lacking some of the familiar finishes, tackling some new climbs and giving opportunity to the time trial riders at the possible expense of the pure uphill specialists has paid off.

There’s a range of feelings about the route, but what’s clear is that Prudhomme and his team are willing to stir things up, shake things around and to try something new. After years of relative conservatism under Jean Marie Leblanc, that marks a change and one which fans, riders and journalists alike will hope will produce some very dramatic racing next July.

(Note: race layout graphics are limited, no profiles as yet available after stage 14)

2012 Tour de France:

P, Prologue : Sat 30 June, Liège - Liège 6.1 km
1, Road stage: Sun 1 July, Liège - Seraing 198 km; flat
2, Road stage: Mon 2 July, Visé - Tournai 207 km; flat
3, Road stage: Tues 3 July, Orchies - Boulogne-sur-Mer 197 km; medium mountains
4, Road stage: Weds 4 July, Abbeville - Rouen 214 km; flat
5, Road stage: Thurs 5 July, Rouen - Saint-Quentin 197 km; flat
6, Road stage: Fri 6 July, Épernay - Metz 210 km; flat
7, Road stage: Sat 7 July, Tomblaine - La Planche des Belles Filles 199 km; medium mountains
8, Road stage: Sun 8 July, Belfort - Porrentruy 154 km; medium mountains
9, Time trial: Mon 9 July, Arc-et-Senans - Besançon 38 km; individual time trial
10, Road stage: Weds 11 July, Mâcon - Bellegarde-sur-Valserine 194 km; high mountains
11, Mountains : Thurs 12 July, Albertville - La Toussuire – Les Sybelles 140 km; high mountains
12, Mountains : Fri 13 July, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne - Annonay 220 km; medium mountains
13, Road stage: Sat 14 July, Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux - Le Cap d’Agde 215 km; flat
14, Road stage: Sun 15 July, Limoux - Foix 192 km; high mountains
15, Road stage: Mon 16 July, Samatan - Pau 160 km; flat
16, Mountains: Weds 18 July, Pau - Bagnères-de-Luchon 197 km; high mountains
17, Mountains: Thurs 19 July, Bagnères-de-Luchon - Peyragudes 144 km; high mountains
18, Road stage: Fri 20 July, Blagnac - Brive-la-Gaillarde 215 km; flat
19, Time trial: Sat 21 July, Bonneval - Chartres 52 km; time trial
20, Road stage: Sun 22 July, Rambouillet - Paris Champs-Élysées 130 km; flat


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