Are you bored of Team Sky’s grand tour domination yet? It’s only been seven years. The relentless mountain trains strangling the life out of the race. The inevitable attack to the stage finish and eventual victory, merely confirming what we already knew would happen. The dominance in the team and individual time trials – those dullest of disciplines… It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
We’ve seen it again and again. First from Sir Wiggo, then The Froome Dog, and now ‘G’. All following the same formula. Well, granted Froome’s Giro victory earlier this year was a bit different – the tried and trusted Team Sky blueprint probably didn’t have an 80km solo jaunt up the Finestre built into it when it was constructed, presumably somewhere in the bowels of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester back in 2010.
But still, come the Tour and that opening day in Noirmoutier-en-I’Île we all knew what was going to happen over the coming three weeks, didn’t we? Even if it did eventually play out with a different man in the starring role.
Romain, aren’t you tired of flailing attacks past five riders clad in black and blue, shut down metres later by Sky Mountain Droid 1463 (codename: Michał Kwiatkowski), winking at you as you fall back into line? Nairo, my old friend, I know it’s not Contador vs Rasmussen up there but there’s no need to drop back and admire the scenery.
But enough of the Tour and its more conservative racing and formula-following. Look either side of July and you find that each Grand Tour is different. There’s the Giro, with its scenery and risk-taking and Vuelta’s last chance saloons, quirky results and countless walls. But in a way they’re all the same – there are stages for the sprinters and puncheurs, and then there are mountain stages and time trials for the GC contenders.
So what if one was truly different? What if those puncheurs and rouleurs had a Grand Tour to themselves for once? Why don’t we have a Tour de France for the Sagans, Kwiatkowskis, Van Avermaets and Alaphilippes of the peloton?
And by that I mean no Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet or Ventoux, no transition stages and no Pau! The big mountain stages are gone for a year in our Fantasy Tour. Instead let’s head to the hills of the Basque borderlands, the Jura and Vosges (both visited in the 2017 Tour), the Ardèche, the Massif Central and so on.
We start off in Bordeaux – it’s convenient, the Tour has only visited four times in the past 20 years, and this Fantasy Tour can borrow from the Giro and have a team ‘wine trial’. In recent years, Italy’s Grand Tour has seen riders race through the regions where Barolo, Chianti and Sagrantino wines are produced, so why not the Tour too.
A quick blast along the Garonne river and through the city centre should do it – just enough to show off the riders, rather than unnecessarily distort the general classification.
Heading south, there’s a lot to pack in. After an early sprint tussle in Gascony, perhaps ending in Bayonne, stage 3 could explore the Basque Country on both sides, a lesser-sighted region on the Tour de France – likely due to its proximity to the Pyrenees. With steep hills dotting the borderlands, passionate orange-clad fans and at times unpredictable weather, this early stage could be one of the more memorable of the race.
Both the Jaizkibel (famed for its inclusion in the Clásica San Sebastián) and fearsome Alto de Aia (used in Itzulia País Vasco) are within striking distance of the border, setting up an early thriller – a showdown for the puncheurs.
With a couple of transitional stages neatly skirting the high peaks of the Pyrenees next on the menu, a stage start in Béziers or Montpellier would set up a trip to the mid-mountains of the Occitanie and the climbs of the Tour de Gévaudan Languedoc-Roussillon, with a possible finish at Mende – hey, we have to keep something from the ‘regular’ Tour, don’t we?
After that, a gentler day in the Ardèche would follow, with shallower climbs such as the Croix Bauzon, Mézilhac and Chamberon providing a change of pace to the sharper tests we’ve seen so far.
A rest day follows, before more climbing, this time in the Alpine foothills. Carefully avoiding the traditional monsters, a stage like this one to Culoz in 2016 look ideal – it’s where Jarlison Pantano beat Rafał Majka from the break. The Jura – recently visited in 2010 and 2017 – follow, and then we can throw in a time trial too.
The fearsome Mont du Chat would be the setting, with the start in Le Bourget-du-Lac ahead of the 14.3km climb, which averages 8.9%. There looks to be just about enough room for a time trial finish up there, though it’s possible that such a tough climb could negate the point of this race. If that’s the case then the gentler Le Bouchet could step in as a replacement MTT.
A somewhat arduous transfer could follow if the race heads to Besançon and the Vosges to race the climbs that an emotional Heinrich Haussler tamed in 2009. Holding the time trial early in the day would make that 200km+ trip a bit easier to stomach though.
Rounding off week two is a trip to Belgium, with a rearranged Spring Classics season seeing the hills – yes, more hills – of the Ardennes precede the muurs of Flanders. The latter haven’t been featured in any recent Tour de France, while the race has visited the Ardennes seven times in the last two decades – most recently 2017.
A rest day in glamorous Lille would follow, and it’d certainly be a necessary one, both because of what has come before and what lies ahead. You all know what’s coming next, don’t you?
Yes, it’s the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and a stage from Valenciennes to Roubaix, featuring more cobbles than the 21.7km of the 2018 Tour, but fewer than the 54.5km in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix – 35-40km would strike a nice balance, and sort out a GC we really can’t predict at this point.
After the furious race on the cobbles, there’s a chance to wind down over the next two days as the race heads west to Brittany and the final tests of the fantasy Tour. A dull stage now and then is unavoidable due to the geography of France, and stage 16 from Lens to Rouen looks to be just that – a long flat one for the sprinters.
The next day should be a bit more interesting though, hugging the coast and hopefully battling the Channel crosswinds as the peloton reaches Brittany. Replacing the mammoth mountain tests usually found in the final weekend, we’re sticking in a hilly stage not unlike this year’s Mûr-de-Bretagne offering.
Another time trial follows, this time a flat individual test in Finistère (taken from the Latin for ‘the end of the world’), taking in the camera-friendly Crozon Peninsula and Armorica Natural Park. Next up, and the penultimate stage of our Tour, is a short trip north to the criminally underutilised rough farm roads of the Tro-Bro Léon.
It’s a fun, underrated race held on the same day as the Amstel Gold Race, usually contested among French teams and various Continental squads. The 200km race usually features 22 sectors of dirt roads, but it can be toughened up further for the WorldTour boys. Finally, to round things off there’s the traditional Champs-Élysées sprint stage.
Go on, admit it – it sounds fun, doesn’t it? By our count that’s three time trials, six sprints, three cobble/dirt stages, four semi-mountainous days and five hilly stages. All pretty well-balanced, if perhaps a bit on the brutal side.
Best of all though, we’d have no real idea of how it would be raced, and the yellow jersey in Paris isn’t a foregone conclusion. Sure, Sagan is the odds-on favourite at the time of writing, but with opportunities to gain time day after day, it could really be anyone’s. It’s something that Lotto-Soudal rider Adam Hansen pondered in his pre-Tour interview with us.
“There’s three Grand Tours a year and all of them pretty much suit the same profile of rider,” he said. “Sure some are based on more climbing, or more time trialling, and they’ll chuck in the odd Roubaix stage. But why not make it so a sprinter could win one year?”
That’s a feeling we share, with the Tour de France – and each of the other two Grand Tours to varying degrees – are currently races for ‘all-rounders’. That is, if your idea of an all-rounder is a man who can climb, time trial, and stay out of trouble the rest of the time.
Our reimagined Tour is one for the true all-rounders. If you can sprint, time trial, deal with rough roads, survive mid-mountain stages and climb hills then this is the race for you.
For decades we’ve seen Tours de France raced on the same roads, up the same climbs, and contested by the same types of rider – climbers, time trialists or a mix of the two. So come on, Christian, take a year off from the formula and give us something crazy, just this once. Sky might win again, but hey, it’ll at least be different.