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2012 Tour de France route favours all-rounders over climbers

Two days after the official presentation of next year’s Giro d’Italia route, the parcours for the 2012 Tour de France (its 99th edition) was unveiled this morning in Paris. Already leaked last week, the race starts in Liège in Belgium on June 30th before tracing a clockwise path through the Alps and Pyrenees leading to the traditional concluding gallop on the Champs-Élysées on July 22nd.

A first week which offers something for everyone

Gilbert will target an early win on home soil

A long ten-day opening stint is bookended by a pair of individual time trials, a 6.1km prologue in Liège and stage nine’s first of two longer ITTs. Although there are no high mountain stages in the opening section, there is plenty of tough climbing scattered throughout the week which will require the yellow jersey contenders to be on their mettle rather than hide quietly in the anonymous mass of the peloton.

After the prologue, the following two stages will take the riders along many of the roads used in the Ardennes spring classics Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne. Stage one to Seraing finishes with a 2km climb with a maximum gradient of 14% which looks ideally suited for Philippe Gilbert to claim a win on home soil. Stage three to Boulogne-sur-Mer similarly favours the puncheurs with its hilly profile. In addition to Gilbert, watch out for Sylvain Chavanel and the omnipresent Thomas Voeckler.

Cavendish will return to defend his green jersey (image courtesy of TDWSport.com)

There are several opportunities for the sprinters such as defending green jersey Mark Cavendish to make their mark in the first week, with stages two, four, five and six all featuring flat finishes. However, stage four to Rouen features a 100km coastal stretch where crosswinds could easily split the pack and put both unwary sprinters and overall contenders into difficulties.

There is no chance of a sprinter winning either of the next two stages, however. Stage seven finishes with the climb to the ski station at La Planche des Belles Filles, a 5.9km ascent with an average gradient of 8.5%, which could expose any of the top riders who are short of form. The following day’s saw-tooth profile crosses into Switzerland and could well see a breakaway stay away all day ahead of a tired peloton, with the contenders conserving energy for the next day’s time trial. It will be an opportunity for an adventurous rider to stake an early claim to the polka dot jersey, at least for a few days.

Stage 8 profile

The final challenge before the rest day is a 38km individual time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon which should see all-rounders such as defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and – if he is eligible – Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) pull out a handy advantage over pure climbers like Andy Schleck which will force them to attack in the mountains to come.

From the Alps to the Pyrenees

It is straight down to business after the first rest day, as the Tour heads into the Alps to tackle the Col du Grand Colombier (17.4km, averaging 7.1%) for the first time. However, the final 20km is almost entirely downhill, so a decisive move is unlikely among the GC riders.

The first real selection of the race will take place the following day. Stage 11 sees the peloton break the 2,000m barrier twice with the climbs of the Madeleine and the Croix de Fer before finishing with the first of only two high mountain summit finishes at La Toussuire. Floyd Landis famously cracked here in 2006, while more recently Joaquim Rodríguez won the final stage of this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné at the ski resort. The general classification should really start to take shape by the end of this stage.

Stage 11 profile

The race then heads westwards towards the Pyrenees, with a medium mountain stage which looks tailor-made for a breakaway winner and a flat stage to Le Cap d’Agde where the sprinters will be wary of both the potentially disruptive Mont St-Clair climb and the crosswinds coming in off the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the inevitable mass of French attackers on Bastille Day.

The first Pyrenean stage to Foix climbs the difficult Port de Lers and Mur de Péguère – the latter includes sections of 18% – in its final third, but ends with a 39km downhill/flat run to the finish. The final rest day follows after a relatively straightforward flat stage to Pau.

The main event

Andy Schleck will return to the Port de Balès, site of 2010's 'Chain-gate'

The good news for the riders is that stage 16, the first of the final stretch, does not feature a summit finish. However, it nonetheless requires them to tackle four of the Pyrenees’ biggest names: the Tourmalet, Aubisque, Aspin and finally the Col de Peyresourde. The finish may be downhill, but many of the riders will be on their hands and knees to arrive within the time limit to avoid elimination.

For the survivors, the bad news is that stage 17 may well be the decisive day of the race, with a summit finish at Peyragudes which also takes in the Col de Menté, Col des Ares and the fearsome Port de Balès. It was on this final hors catégorie climb in 2010 that the ‘Chain-gate’ controversy occurred when Contador attacked after yellow jersey Andy Schleck had dropped his chain.

After negotiating a likely bunch sprint in Brive, the penultimate stage could be a nail-biter if the general classification remains as tight as it did this year. A sapping 52km time trial from Bonneval to Chartres could easily see the less proficient time-trialists lose three or four minutes to their rivals and the yellow jersey change hands for one final time.

The final stage is, of course, the procession to Paris and one final bunch gallop at the end of eight circuits of the Champs-Élysées, with the fate of the green jersey probably still at stake.

First impressions

At first glance the 3,479km course is balanced more in favour of all-rounders such as Evans, Contador and Wiggins. The team time trial has been sacrificed to allow a total of 96km of individual time trialling – the most since 2007 and more than double this year’s 41km.

The course should suit defending champion Evans

There are actually more second, first and HC category climbs on next year’s route than there have been for several years – 25 in all, two more than 2011 – which will provide the sternest possible test of stamina. However, with just three summit finishes – the medium-grade La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges (stage seven), La Toussuire in the Alps (stage 11) and finally Peyragudes in the Pyrenees (stage 17) – there is certainly a greater onus on the climbers to make the most of their limited opportunities to attack. This should prevent the kind of defensive riding which neutered this year’s Pyrenean stages, and result in a more exciting race overall.

Climbing purists will no doubt be unhappy at the relative dearth of summit finishes – and the absence of Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux and the Col du Galibier (which featured twice this year) – but there are certainly enough challenging climbs for them to make their mark. What next year’s parcours will not allow is for a pure climber to win with one well-placed attack to compensate for a lack of ability against the clock. And there are enough tough climbs to prevent a strong time-trialist from simply managing his losses in the mountains. The 2012 Tour will not tolerate such glaring weaknesses.

The sprinters will definitely be happy, with seven likely sprint stages scattered throughout the three weeks. However, as was the case this year, the presence of so many hilly stages in the opening section and some clever placement of intermediate sprints could allow the best classics riders such as Philippe Gilbert to be serious contenders here too.

Overall, I think it’s a good course. Christian Prudhomme talked of ‘novelty’ being a key theme for this year, and with six new climbs and a host of new stage towns, he has certainly delivered on that promise while ensuring enough of the race’s mythical climbs remain to satisfy the traditionalists.

Of course, what will really bring the route to life and turn this into a great race are the riders themselves. It will be they who will weave the narrative with their feats of strength, speed and stamina, hopefully producing a Tour which will live as long in the memory as the 2011 edition. Over to you, fellas.

2012 Tour de France stages:

June 30th: Prologue Liège, 6.1km individual time trial

July 1st: Stage 1 – Liège to Seraing, 198km

July 2nd: Stage 2 – Visé to Tournai, 207km

July 3rd: Stage 3 – Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer, 197km

July 4th: Stage 4 – Abbeville to Rouen, 214km

July 5th: Stage 5 – Rouen to Saint-Quentin, 197km

July 6th: Stage 6 – Épernay to Metz, 210km

July 7th: Stage 7 – Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles, 199km

July 8th: Stage 8 – Belfort to Porrentruy, 154 km

July 9th: Stage 9 – Arc-et-Senans to Besançon, 38km individual time trial

July 10th: Rest day

July 11th: Stage 10 – Mâcon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, 194km

July 12th: Stage 11 – Albertville to La Toussuire – Les Sybelles, 140km

July 13th: Stage 12 – Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay, 220km

July 14th: Stage 13 – Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Le Cap d’Agde, 215km

July 15th: Stage 14 – Limoux to Foix, 192km

July 16th: Stage 15 – Samatan to Pau, 160km

July 17th: Rest day

July 18th: Stage 16 – Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, 197km

July 19th: Stage 17 – Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, 144km

July 20th: Stage 18 – Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, 215km

July 21st: Stage 19 – Bonneval to Chartres, 52km individual time trial

July 22nd: Stage 20 – Rambouillet to Paris Champs-Élysées, 130km

Links: Tour de France official website, steephill.tv

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

6 Responses to 2012 Tour de France route favours all-rounders over climbers

  1. Sheree says:

    Now I’ve had a closer look, I’m beginning to regret my sweeping statement that I won’t attend next year’s Tour! Thanks for the run down as I missed the “live” presentation while out riding.

    • Tim says:

      Like this year, the first week’s stages look like a fabulous mix. We should get lots of different stage winners and quite possibly a surprise yellow jersey. Phil Gil has already said he likes the look of stage 1. And there will be a lot of tired legs dragging themselves round the time trial course before the first rest day.

  2. Tim, now all they need to do is to tweak it by moving the whole thing forward to November 2011. The Rugby World Cup will be over, and it would be nice to get it out of the way before the cricket season in Australia gets serious.

    I’ll have trouble waiting till mid-2012. Will go for a ride to fill in my morning.

    • Tim says:

      Ah, if only they could! Although some of the summits might be a bit snowy, and there are a couple of roads which they haven’t finished building yet apparently.

      Both the Giro and the Tour look nicely balanced. Fewer headline stages, but both extremely testing routes which will encourage lots of attacking races from all corners of the peloton. It’s something to cling on to during those long winter nights (or long summer days down under …)

      • Why shouldn’t they include some snowy summits and unfinished roads? It would suit those with mountain-bike experience, C.Evans in particular. Interested to see that the Australian press agrees with you that this course gives Wiggins the best chance he’ll ever have. Bring it on!

      • Tim says:

        Sadist!

        It’s a shame Wiggins got injured, as I genuinely believe he could have challenged Cadel this year – maybe not beat him, but the way the stages panned out he would have benefitted from the relative lack of attacks in the Pyrenees and been able to support Cadel in his chases both ways over the Galibier. And, of course, he would have taken chunks of time out of the Schlecks in the ITT. Yellow jersey? Maybe not. But I do firmly believe he could have finished second.

        Cadel will be formidable next season with an even stronger BMC team. Wiggins’ efforts may be compromised slightly by the arrival of Cav, but I would certainly consider him a reasonable bet for the podium. So much, of course, will depend on whether a certain A Contador is present …

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