Tour de France 2013 Preview: Climber’s Party
By: Jen See
On Wednesday in Paris, the Tour de France organizers unveiled the 100th edition of the race. The event came two days after the UCI decision to confirm Lance Armstrong’s ban and strip his seven Tour titles. The show must go on, the race organizers seemed to be saying. The riders and assembled media were encouraged to avoid talk of doping, and so while cycling’s storm continued unabated outside the presentation, the unveiling of next year’s course went forward as if nothing at all was the matter.
Set against the context of the Tour’s history, a doping scandal, even the massive many-headed monster currently chewing its way through the sport, isn’t much. And the Tour has always had a wider significance in France than the simple question of who won. “What’s important to remember is that it’s a Tour of France,” historian Christopher Thompson told me in an interview last summer. “Identity is in the itinerary.”
As if to emphasize the point, for the first time in ten years this year’s course takes place entirely within French borders. The first three stages take place on the island of Corsica. “The Grand Départ, which will be organized there, will set the tone for an edition dedicated to the majesty of the French territory as much as to sporting exploits,” says the official website. Don’t mind the doping, we have a lovely countryside to show you.
Let’s play along for a moment. Let’s ignore the monsters banging on the windows, and take a look at the 100th edition of the Tour. Relative to the 2012 edition, next year’s Tour should have the climbers smiling. The route includes six mountain stages and four summit finishes. Mont Ventoux and the Alpe d’Huez are the big names on the mountains front.
The time trials add up to just over 60 kilometers, down from the nearly 100 kilometers of time trial bike action in 2012. Though the first time trial suits the specialists, the second one includes significant climb. The Tour is smiling upon the climbers this time around. A team time trial in Nice during the first week is short enough to provide a spectacle for the sponsors without blowing apart the yellow jersey race.
The final week departs from the familiar pattern of a time trial just before Paris. Mountains, including a double ascent of the Alpe d’Huez, finish the race this time around. A night circuit on the Champs Elysées should make for a dramatic finale.
The course runs clockwise, and the riders face the Pyrénées first. For the 100th edition, the Tour abandons this year’s pattern of placing the major climbs at a distance from the finish. The downhill finishes place the finish line within reach of the final summit. The first summit finish comes on stage 8 at Ax-3-Domaines. With only two climbs, this stage will be a sitting war, as everyone waits for the harder climbs to come.
It’s a wise choice to wait, because the following day is a five-col death march of a stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It’s short at 165 kilometers and it has a downhill finish, but neither of those things will make this second day in the Pyrénées any easier. A stage like this one makes it hard to ignore the monster outside banging on the windows. Hard courses do not necessarily lead to doping, it’s true, but I’m not sure they help the cause. In any case, we can expect mostly negative racing among the favorites in these opening mountain stages.
This Tour saves the hardest mountain stages for last, and among the summit finishes in the final week are two icons of the Tour, Mont Ventoux and the Alpe d’Huez. The race climbs Ventoux, then heads to the Alps for three hard stages ahead of the final day in Paris. The final time trial is place the farthest from Paris since 1975, and the Tour tears a page out of the Giro’s playbook here in sending the riders to the mountains for the final stages of racing.
The race hits Mont Ventoux on stage 15, and it will be the first visit to Provence’s limestone pile since 2009 when Juan Manuel Gárate won the stage. “You never climb the same Ventoux twice,” writes French writer Paul Fournel in his book, Vélo. The climb is exposed to the wind, the limestone is blinding, the gradient is unrelenting. “The Ventoux has no it-self,” continues Fournel. “It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.”
The 2013 Tour loves the Alpe d’Huez so much, it is climbing it twice. Double the trouble, double the fun. The three stages in the alps begin with this shenanigan running from Gap to the summit of the Alpe d’Huez. The riders descend down the col de Sarenne, which like the Alpe d’Huez has a bunch of crazy switchbacks. Then, they flip it around and climb the Alpe d’Huez again. If you like bike racing and partying like a crazy person, go ahead and book your plane ticket now. I feel certain you will not be disappointed.
And, it’s still not over yet. Two more stages in the Alps stand between the riders and the finish in Paris. The day after the Alpe d’Huez double, there’s another five-pass grinder on the menu. The stage starts with the Glandon and the Madeleine, two Alpine giants. It gets a bit easier after all that hot mess. There are three more climbs, but they’re not especially gigantic, and a descending finish.
The final road stage of the 100th Tour looks straightforward on paper with only two climbs. The stage finishes high above Lake Annecy, and the view should be amazing. But the final grind up to Semnoz is nobody’s idea of a good time. It is unlikely that a horde of dudes will arrive at the finish together. If all goes according to the race organizers’ hopes, the yellow jersey should remain in play until this final climb. Of couse, you know what they say about best-laid plans. Still, there aren’t too many opportunities for a rider to run away with this race early on. It should come down to the final mountain stages.
The course for 2013 tilts the advantage toward the climbers. This year’s winner Bradley Wiggins has already declared that he will head to the Giro d’Italia instead. In an unusual twist, next year’s Giro includes a long, flat time trial. Cadel Evans, meanwhile, has said that he thinks this course suits him better than 2012. Chris Froome, Andy Schleck, and Alberto Contador should also enjoy the climber-friendly route of next year’s Tour.
Outside, the storm meanwhile continues to rage. The Tours between 1999 and 2005 have no winner. Thursday, it was Bobby Julich’s turn to confess. He finished on the podium in 1998, the year of the Festina scandal. Who will be next? It’s clear that cycling will need to do something about its corrupt and shambolic institutions.
But whatever else happens, the Tour will go on, just as it has for 100 editions now. Sometimes, the race means more than the winner.