Blazin' Saddles: The 2019 Tour de France route broken down
Starting in Brussels on Saturday 6th July and finishing in Paris on Sunday 28th July, the 106th edition of the Tour de France includes five altitude finishes, 54 time-trial kilometres and a record 30 climbs of second-category or higher. We run through the mountainous route and ask who it will suit…
In the presence of French chou-chou Raymond Poulidor and five-time Tour winners Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel 'Blue Jeans' Indurain, the route of the 2019 Tour de France was unveiled at the Palais de Congres convention centre in Paris back in December 2018 – with Poulidor, the Eternal Second, making the inevitable quip that perhaps further endeared himself to the French public.
If it was harsh to roll out Poulidor, a man who never wore yellow, on such a day, he has admittedly made this quirk of his palmares something of a calling card, so it was all above the ever-expanding belt.
The subplot to the 106th edition of the world's biggest bike race is, of course, the centenary of the yellow jersey: the Tour celebrates the 100th anniversary since Eugene Christophe donned the first ever maillot jaune in the opening stage of the 1919 race, one day after the Treaty of Versailles drew the curtain down on four years of world war.
On first glance, two things are certain: the winner of the 100th yellow jersey in Paris will have to be an accomplished climber not overly reliant on his time trialling legs. A closer look will reveal slim pickings – but hardly a famine – for the pure sprinters, and ample opportunities for the baroudeurs.
At 3,460km long, July's Tour route is 89km longer than the 2018 edition – memorably won by Geraint Thomas – but a shade shorter than the two previous editions won by the Welshman's team-mate Chris Froome.
Mountain stages outnumber those for the sprinters seven to six, leaving a further six unpredictable stages on the table for the breakaway specialists and uphill kickers in the mould of Peter Sagan, with just two TTs completing the collection of 21.
Let's now run through the main talking points of an intriguing route.
Brussels Grand Depart
The Tour will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Merckx's first overall win by sprouting in Brussels. It's the 11th time that the Belgian capital has welcomed the Tour, with Alessandro Petacchi most recently winning stage 2 in a sprint back in 2010. Merckx won six stages en route to securing his first Tour crown in 1969 by a margin of almost 18 minutes over Frenchman Roger Pingeon.
'The Cannibal' went on to win 34 stages in his career - a Tour record which still stands today, with Britain's Mark Cavendish still four scalps shy of Merckx's tally and unlikely to add to that given his absence from the Team Dimension Data roster.
Muur van Geraardsbergen on day one
It probably won't prove pivotal but it's a nice touch from Christian Prudhomme and his minions at ASO to include the iconic Muur de Geraardsbergen – or Mur de Grammont as they call it in France – in the opening stage. The cobbled climb made famous by the Tour of Flanders comes after 43km and while it should be visually spectacular, it probably won't be enough to entice Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara out of retirement.
Muur of Geraardsbergen - Ronde van VlaanderenGetty Images
Team time trial on day two
Returning after a four-year hiatus, the 27km team time trial in Brussels could put an early wedge between many of the GC hopefuls and will give a fast finisher from a strong collective unit the chance to don the race's second yellow jersey.
Fewer individual time trial kilometres
Also 27km in length, the race's only individual race of truth is sandwiched between two key stages in the Pyrenees and takes place over rolling rounds in and around the city of Pau.
Sagan for green?
As sure as death and taxes, it's hard to see anyone denying the former world champion a record seventh green jersey – particularly seeing that Peter Sagan should be popping champagne corks as early as stage 3 with the ramped finish in Epernay.
Tour de France : Sagan's podiumEurosport
Thankfully the organisers have learned their lesson from 2017 when the succession of flat stages in excess of 200km – most of which culminating with Marcel Kittel raising his hands aloft – put many viewers off while making a mockery of the live coverage of every stage in its mind-numbing entirety.
Well, this year there are seven stages longer than 200km – and a further two which are not far off. Mercifully, the majority of these seem to be peppered with obstacles to break up the monotony. Indeed, while we should see a bunch sprint in stage one, there may only be two more similar finishes in the opening week – at Nancy in stage 4 and Chalon-sur-Soane in stage 7.
Until last summer's Pyrenean denoument to the race, it seemed as if Prudhomme and ASO had decided that an Alpine showdown was the conclusion of choice for the Tour. Some prominent journalists were even starting to wonder if we'd ever see a "clockwise" Tour again – one which culminated in the Pyrenees before the final transfer to Paris.
If the 2018 Tour ended three successive years of anti-clockwise routes, the 2019 race returns to the tried-and-tested formula with three Alpine stages ahead of Paris. Although judging by the geographic spread - which eschews north and west France - it's a route which forgoes 50% of the nation. Those poor folk from Bordeaux...
Bastille Day for Bardet
The race heads to Romain Bardet's home town of Brioude in the Haute-Loire in stage 9 on 14th July. It's a day that looks favourable to a breakaway so we can probably discount the Frenchman – unless his GC plans have really gone awry.
Four mountain ranges
There's no Jura this year but the Vosges, Pyrenees, Alps and Massif Central all put in an appearance with two stages, three stages, three stages and two stages respectively.
30 major climbs
This will be the first edition of the Tour to feature more than 30 climbs of second-category or higher. Not only will this add extra emphasis on the polka dot jersey crown won by Frenchmen Warren Barguil and Julian Alaphilippe in recent years, but it will make, quite simply, strong climbing legs the number one criterion for the overall winner of the yellow jersey.
Five altitude finishes
In what is perhaps unfortunate wording for a sport often mired in doping, the 2019 route has been billed as the highest Tour in history.
Of the five summit finishes, three – the Col du Tourmalet (2,115m; stage 14), Tignes (2,113m; stage 19) and Val Thorens (2,365m; stage 20) – are above 2,000 metres. Throw in the Col d'Iseran (2,764m; stage 19), plus stage 18 to Valloire that includes the Col de Vars (2,109m), Col d'Izoard (2,360m) and Col du Galibier (2,642m), as well as the Cormet de Roselend (just 32m shy of 2,000m in stage 20), and that makes eight vertigo-inducing high-altitude summits in total.
It's perhaps no surprise that the world champion Alejandro Valverde has already said he'll be opting out of a GC challenge. One thing's for sure: the Colombians should feel right at home.
Highest and longest
The Souvenir Henri Desgrange – awarded to first rider over the summit of the highest point on the race – will be up for grabs on the Col d'Iseran. While it is actually six metres shy of the 2,770m it claims to be on the sign on the summit, the Iseran is the highest paved mountain pass in Europe and makes its first appearance in the race for 12 years.
The stage 20 finale may be punctuated by a few short downhill steps, but the climb to Val Thorens – which last featured in 1994 – is a stonking 33.4km long at an average gradient of 5.5% and comes in a stage that features 60 uphill kilometres in total.
Dirt and downhills
The craze for gravel continues with a new steeper dirt-road finish on stage 6 to La Planche de Belles Filles. Instead of the traditional finish in the ski resort for the race's first summit showdown, ASO have included an extra kilometre of unpaved roads that ramps up to a maximum gradient of 24%.
This novel conclusion is one of two new summit finishes, the second coming in the foothills of the Pyrenees with the testing ascent of Prat d'Albis (12km at 6.9%) above Foix in the Cathar castle country. It's an intriguing stage that features 4,700m of vertical ascent.
While five summit finishes will prove key, the winner of the 2019 Tour will have to know how to descend: the finishes in Bagneres-de-Bigorre (stage 12) and Valloire (stage 18) come after technical descents of the Hourquette d'Ancizan and Galibier.
L'Etape and La Course
Once again, women's cycling doesn't get the multi-day Tour event it crazes – and this year there'll be no repeat of the successful mountain showdown on the Izoard from two years back. La Course nevertheless returns for a fourth occasion with the riders tackling the men's 27km ITT route around Pau five times in a punchy 120km circuit race that features the Cote d'Esquillot.
For the amateurs out there, this year's L'Etape du Tour takes place on the stage 20 route one week before the pro riders do battle on the road to Val Thorens.
As usual, the Tour will conclude with the ubiquitous sprint showdown on the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees in Paris: some things never change.
Bonus seconds and power meters
Christian Prudhomme announced that there will be mid-stage time bonuses throughout the race in 2019 including some even placed on the climbs.
If that did not show ASO's desire to spice things up and make the race more unpredictable enough, then Prudhomme's call for a ban on power meters certainly did. Applause rang out in the Palais de Congres as Prudhomme – with a clear nod to Team Ineos' high-tempo style of suffocating riding – called for a ban on what he described as "the scourge of the sport".
"We reassert our desire to see the end of power meters in races, which annihilate the glorious uncertainty of sport," Prudhomme said in his closing remarks in front of UCI President David Lappartient.
"It's up to the UCI, but I'm saying what I think to stimulate things," Prudhomme added to reporters after the presentation.
What do you think of the 2019 Tour de France route? Have your say below…