2014 Tour de France course will favor strong climbers
Paris • Tracing a route that could limit the strengths of defending champion Chris Froome, the 2014 Tour de France will rattle over bone-jarring cobblestones, pay homage to World War I battlefields, climb unfamiliar ascents in eastern France and have only one time trial.
Starting in Leeds, England, on July 5, the 101st Tour ends 22 days later, as is traditional, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. With 25 ascents, the same as the 2012 edition won by Bradley Wiggins and only three fewer than this year's centennial dominated by Froome, the 2014 race will again suit strong climbers perhaps even more so than in previous years because of the reduced emphasis on time-trialing.
There will be only 33 miles of time-trialing in 2014 all on a penultimate stage through foie gras country in southwest France on July 26. That is the smallest time-trial total since the specialist discipline was introduced at the 1934 Tour. The reduction wanted by race organizers to limit the decisiveness of time-trialing could be a disadvantage for Froome, a powerful time-trial rider who won one of two clock-races at the 2013 Tour and placed second in the other.
"Yes and no," Froome said when asked Wednesday whether the lessened emphasis on time-trialing in 2014 could work against him.
"The pure climbers will certainly be up there with that amount of climbing. But the pure climbers have got to get over the cobblestones. They've got to battle through any crosswinds that we have on the way to the mountains and they've also got to be able to time trial at the end of it. So it's a pretty well-balanced Tour."
In winning this year, Froome gained big time on his main rivals in the first, flatter individual clock-race to Mont-Saint-Michel. Alberto Contador was more than 2 minutes slower and Nairo Quintana more than 3 minutes off Froome's pace that day. And that was over a comparatively short 20 miles.
In theory, Froome could therefore inflict even greater damage on next year's longer and also largely flat time-trial from Bergerac to Perigueux. After that, the holder of the race leader's yellow jersey needs only to cross the finish line in Paris the next day to seal victory.
"You can just imagine what the time gaps are going to be like on a 54-kilometer time trial. That could be quite substantial," Froome said.
After two days in northern England the northernmost point ever visited by the Tour the riders go south from Cambridge to London before crossing over to France and then to Ypres in Belgium. More than half a million soldiers perished in the killing fields around that town, the site of several battles involving lethal gas attacks in World War I.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, the 2014 Tour will also visit the Chemin des Dames ridge in northeastern France where unexploded shells are still unearthed a century later and pass through the Verdun battlefields where 700,000 were killed or wounded in 10 months of intense combat.
Stage 5 from Ypres will hurtle over the dusty and potentially treacherous cobblestoned paths of northeastern France that are used by the famed Paris-Roubaix one-day race. Riders will cross their fingers that they don't puncture a tire on the irregular surface. They'll also have to fight for space and position on the narrow paths that, like for Paris-Roubaix, will be hemmed in by dense crowds of screaming fans.
A fall or other mishap on this stage could ruin the Tour for a race favorite before it has really begun. Nine cobbled sections will be negotiated. The total of nine miles is the most on cobbled paths since 1983. The Tour last bumped across the cobbles in 2010.
"It's a risk, more of a risk having cobbles in. Anything can wrong on the cobbles: crashes, punctures, mechanicals," said Froome, who has started but not finished Paris-Roubaix. "It's something we're going to have to train specifically for, get out there, see the cobbles, ride the cobbles."
Tour director Christian Prudhomme defended the choice of cobbles, saying they're "clearly part of cycling." He said organizers want to maintain suspense at the Tour and don't want a predictable race "where everything is dictated in advance."
As always, the mountains will be decisive, because their steep gradients allow the best climbers to pry open big time gaps on rivals. Instead of just climbing the Alps and Pyrenees, riders in 2014 will also have to negotiate tricky ascents in the Vosges range on France's eastern border with Germany. Stage 10, in particular, could surprise riders who underestimate those mountains that the Tour doesn't visit as regularly as the more imposing and famous Alps and Pyrenees.
Froome said he expects the "first real battle" that day between the Tour favorites.
Race organizers hope the succession of six ascents on Stage 10 will exhaust all but the strongest riders, isolating them from their teammates and forcing them to duel alone on the fiercely steep final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles. It was first scaled in 2012, with Froome collecting his first stage win that day.
"It's a real mountain stage," Prudhomme said.
There will also be two stages in the Alps followed by a crescendo of climbing over three days in the Pyrenees. In all, five of the 21 stages in 2014 will have mountain-top finishes. In all, the riders will cover 2,271 miles.
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.