The premier event for any cycling season, the Tour de France is perhaps the only race that can steal the headlines a whole nine months ahead of its first stage. With the release of the route though, now’s the time to take a note, and start whetting your appetite for world cycling's biggest showdown. With this in mind, we’ve decided to take a sneak preview of the 2018 route, and get a taste for the racing we have in store.
With 21 days of racing and 3329 kilometres of French soil to cover, race director Christian Prudhomme has truly set the cat amongst the pigeons with 2018’s route. Rather than punctuating the race with a smattering of low contention flat sprinter stages at regular intervals, next year’s race is set to offer high stakes racing from the get-go, with the first 9 stages set to decide green early on. Mountains litter to the second half of the race, when tensions and tempo are sure to rise to a crescendo in the Pyrenees. Throwing in some cobbles, gravel, a time trial, and even a team time trial along the way, we can be sure to see some high-drama antics along the road to the Champs-Elysées.
The Grand Départ
Sticking resolutely within the confines of France’s border, this edition, unlike many in recent years, doesn’t feature a foreign Grand Départ, instead, seeing riders roll out in western France’s largest cycling hotbed. The Vendée, formerly the home department of Team Europcar, will set the scenery for the La Grande Boucle’s opening days. Sitting within the Pays de la Loire region, racing here will be fairly flat but spiced up significantly by the prospect of a team time trial on stage 3 around the town of Cholet. An agricultural town with some wide boulevards as well as tight, narrow lumps, Cholet could prove crucial to any GC contender's chances for overall victory.
Snaking up the coast into Brittany, for stages 4, 5 and 6, the first tentative test of the GC rider's legs on the infamous Mur de Bretagne. A steep but short 2-kilometre climb that will be used twice on stage 6, this may give us a small insight into who has the legs to go the distance in the mountains to come. Attention shifting quickly back to the race for green thereafter, only the pomp and circumstance scheduled for stage 8’s Bastille Day blitz to Amiens will distract from some bread and butter lunges at the line. Stage 9, however, is sure to be the first to have everyone gripped to their televisions.
Shaking things up on Stage 9
With racing largely processional until a couple of kilometres to go, you might be thinking of sitting out the early stages. Stage 9, though, is set to pull you straight back into the fray. Racing out of the town of Arras and steaming towards Roubaix, this 154-kilometre stage really throws things into the air. In essence a second running of Paris-Roubaix, this stage will set the Tour de France peloton loose on 15 full sectors of cobbled roads.
Unpredictability is the only certainty when tackling the pavé, so we can look forward to a day of cagey climbers nursing themselves to the finish outside Roubaix’s velodrome - yes, some things truly are sacred. With the general classification certainly up in the air at this point, the only thing we can be sure about at this stage is that one untimely puncture or one slippery cobble could be the loose thread that causes one of the yellow jersey contenders chances to unravel.
Rest up - mountains ahead
So, with one day to settle the weary bones, calm the rattled cages and nurse any bruises that might have resulted from a tumble on the roads to Roubaix, riders might be hoping for a nice simple return to the bike after their day by Lake Annecy. Well, it’s sadly not to be. Instead, Tuesday the 17th of July brings perhaps one of the biggest revelations in modern Tour history. Cited as a day in homage to the bravery of the French resistance, this 159-kilometre stage goes straight uphill to tick off the Montée du Plateau des Glières. The treat for making it to the top? That would be a 2 kilometre rough and gravel rutted plateau, and 100 kilometres of racing to go to the finish. Mirroring the modern trend for gravel and adventure riding, and certainly placing the peloton on some of the most precarious roads since the earliest editions of the Tour, we’re surely set for some spectacular racing.
Normal service is resumed on stage 11, as we move on to traditional cornerstones, an Alpine assault. Stage 12 providing a particularly tough day on the bike, riders will be confronted with 175 kilometres of racing in which they will climb nearly 5000 metres over the Col de la Madeleine, the Lacets de Montvernier, the Col de la Croix de Fer and finally, Alpe d’Huez. Perhaps one of the steepest and most scintillating stages to ever to grace the Tour, stage 12 is one you will not want to miss.
Back on the flat
Steadily wiggling south-west over the next three stages, the last meat on the bones for sprinters comes in the form of some of the longest days of the Tour. A long road to Valence on stage 13, a slight lump at the end of stage 14, before another flat day into Carcassonne, site of the 2018 edition's second and final rest day.
Prospects in the Pyrenees
Legs sufficiently rested, things start to ramp up once more, with three days in the Pyrenees set to sort the wheat from the chaff once and for all. One glaring oddity in the race guide is the 65-kilometre stage 17 mountain finish on the Col de Portet. This stage is sure to see a blistering pace and all-out action from the off. Designed to be short and sweet, this innovative stage might cause offence to traditionalists but is sure to add another dimension to the race.
Stage 19’s headline climbs include the Col du Tourmalet, Col des Borderes, the Col du Soulor, and finally, the Col d’Aubisque. At 200 kilometres in length, this stage is sure to be the target of riders going for a momentous all day long breakaway or perhaps to offer an opportunity to snatch something from an otherwise fruitless Tour de France. With this the end of the 2018 Tour de France’s mountain escapades, we should by this point have a neat whittling down of contenders.
The final stage before the traditional laps of the Champs Elysées could well decide the overall winner. An individual race against the clock, this 31-kilometre time trial covers a range of lumpy French Basque Country roads, offering the frisson to what should be a fantastic race, and a really rather interesting route.
Who are the hopefuls?
Clearly, Chris Froome’s name is going to be bandied about, and as a proven all-rounder, he’s a sound choice, but not a certainty. With last year’s Tour de France seeing him crack on occasion, victory in 2018 is far from a certainty. A smattering of short stages and diverse terrain at this year's Tour will surely go some way to disturb the Team Sky dynamic. Further denting Froome's challenge is the loss of bastions such as Mikel Landa to Movistar. Froome will, however, take some confidence in the final time trial. With the 31-kilometre stage featuring a climb, he can be sure to close some gaps late on and make up for any time lost on previous stages.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana is looking to shrug off some relatively muted showings in recent Tours. The heavy weighting of mountains in the latter half of the 2018 Tour de France is sure to please the Colombian, but, with such a long way to get there on the flat, his team will have to offer him far better protection and show much greater awareness than they’ve displayed on such days previously.
Fabio Aru’s decision to break with Astana and pursue glory with UAE Team Emirates could see the Italian’s quest for yellow come to fruition, as he finally fills that team’s GC contender gap. He’s not the only Italian climber though. Former winner Vincenzo Nibali is sure to have a pop at the title, with perhaps a little rivalry springing up between the Sicilian and the Sardinian en route to Paris.
French interest and hopes resting on the shoulders of last year’s revelation Romain Bardet, the climbing specialist and podium finisher will be hoping to take AG2R La Mondiale to victory at last on home soil. British interest should spur on Simon Yates, as he has already stated his intention on taking a podium place.
Not gunning for yellow but going for green, Peter Sagan is sure to be back with a vengeance after last year’s disqualification for the now infamous errant elbow incident that sent Cavendish into the barriers. Taking to the roads wearing the World Champion’s colours, green is sure to be the Slovak’s main goal next year. He’ll face tough competition though, most likely in the shape of Marcel Kittel. Crashing out of the 2017 Tour, Kittel will be sure to be firing on all cylinders come June.
The Waiting Game
So - what can we conclude from the 2018 edition? Well, certainly, it’s a Tour unlike any other. With the face or racing seemingly changing at a fair rate, we can be sure of a treat with some scintillating racing over some of the world’s most revered climbs. All the biggest names are already eyeing up the race with a keen curiosity. We can safely say, the 2018 Tour is sure to witness some battle royales, and that, is a prospect that will have us salivating right through to June...