Snoozer or bruiser? Unique Tour route could deliver surprises

DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — Will an atypical Tour de France course produce an extraordinary race? Everyone is hoping so.

With only three mountaintop finales and time trials limited to 36.5km, the 2017 Tour de France route could deliver unexpected fireworks, or it could be a real snoozer. The jury is out.

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There is potential for a real GC dogfight. With the way the climbs are spread out, riders cannot simply spin their wheels and wait for attack in the few climbing opportunities. If someone wants to win the Tour, they will have to create opportunities.

“I think it will be on the tightest GC races we’ve seen in a long time,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “It’s an interesting course. There should be some interesting tactics over the next three weeks. You can’t just wait for the big climbs.”

Every Tour course design is different, and each year, the organizer looks for a compelling hook to help drive the narrative. For 2017, the plot lines are built around bringing the Tour to all five of France’s major mountain groups. That means stages in the French Ardennes, the Jura Mountains and Massif Central, as well as the Pyrénées and Alps.

Yet despite that heavy geologic focus, it’s relatively light in terms of vertical. On paper, there are only three mountaintop finales — stage 5 to Planche des Belles Filles, stage 12 on Peyragudes, and stage 18 to the Col d’Izoard. There are two other challenging mountain stages finishing with descents. In total, 23 climbs are rated as category 2 or harder.

While logic might suggest otherwise, that relative lack of climbing could mean a much more explosive race. When there is too much climbing, the Tour can devolve into a race of attrition. Demanding, yes. Exciting? Rarely.

“With less mountaintop finishes, and less time trial kilometers, it leaves less opportunities for the GC contenders,” said three-time winner Chris Froome (Sky). “I think this year is going to be a race that favors more aggressive riders, so I am certainly going to be looking for those opportunities.”

There was plenty of speculation among teams and riders as they piled into Düsseldorf ahead of Saturday’s 14km time trial.

Does the relative lack of traditional opportunities mean that GC favorites will try to create opportunities? Or will it simply mean that the peloton’s top GC teams will keep their powder dry until the few climbing stages, leaving the rest of the stages to sprinters and opportunists?

“The right things are there to make it interesting,” said Cannondale-Drapac sport director Charly Wegelius. “You never really know with the Tour. The stakes are so high at the Tour, people often race conservative and negative. And when all the other competitions get layered on top, it can often be sewn up tight.”

Some are fearful that the lack of mountaintop finales coupled with the return of several sprint-friendly stages — at least seven, perhaps even a few more — could mean the GC battle will remain stifled until the few decisive climbing stages late in the race.

That might mean the GC battle remains close until deep into the third week, but under a heavily controlled pace.

Riders, however, anticipate fireworks will fly.

“I don’t expect it to be an easy lap around France,” said BMC Racing’s Richie Porte. “I think it will be a free-for-all. There will be some good battles even in those stages that don’t finish on top of a mountain. It’s not a perfect parcours, but I still think it will deliver a worthy winner.”

The fact that the Tour route changes year to year is, of course, one the most fascinating aspects of the event. No Tour is ever the same.

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