The Tour de France’s search for novelty and excitement in recent years has taken it in one direction: hillier, shorter, more intense, with occasional ventures off the Tarmac. The 2020 route heads down that road at breakneck speed, with only one time trial – and that up a severe climb – only one stage over 200 kilometres, and so many climbs that they risk becoming interchangeable, a blur of constant action.
“The toughest Tour I’ve ever seen,” said Chris Froome, who hopes to return from a severe crash to try for his fifth title, as long as his teammate Egan Bernal does not snatch the leadership of Ineos from him. The toughness comes not so much in the actual volume of climbing – there are relatively few classic set-piece ascents in the Alps and Pyrenees, no Mont Ventoux, no Alpe d’Huez – but in the constant day-to-day intensity that will make it virtually impossible for the race to settle down. “It’s more a mid-mountain all‑rounder route. I don’t think that makes it more difficult to control,” said Froome’s boss, Dave Brailsford.
That is what television demands in the 21st century, and in 2020 it will leave relatively thin pickings for the sprinters, and even less for cycling fans in the northern half of France. But the upside of an almost totally “southern” Tour is that the organisers can use all the mountain ranges of France to the full, beginning in the southern Alps on day two for what promises to be the toughest ever stage on a Tour’s opening weekend.
As is now the case in the Vuelta a España, the climbs then hit the riders like a series of straight lefts and rights to the solar plexus. Heading east-west: Orcières-Merlette in the Alps, Mont Aigoual in the Massif Central, and then the Pyrenees with Loudenvielle and Laruns, the latter concluded over the super-steep Col de Marie-Blanque. Added to day two’s climbs that will make for arguably the hardest opening nine days the Tour has ever known.
A brief flirtation with the flat – but possibly with the wind to fray the nerves on the Atlantic coast, then east again for a second dose of the Massif Central, including another uphill finish on the Puy Mary, a punchy finish in Lyon and a final week in the Alps. Here the novelties come with bewildering pace: three climbs of the same ridge, the Grand Colombier; the toughest finish of the race on the traffic free Col de la Loze at 2,300m, and the gravel Plateau des Glières close enough to the finish at La Roche-sur-Foron for any puncture or crash potentially to decide the race.
After which, there is a transfer north for the only time trial, to La Planche des Belles Filles, where there is a surprise: the organisers have not gone the whole hog and included the final gravel section, preferring the safe option of the “conventional” finish where Froome won in 2012. Overall, it is a route that will call for teams stuffed with climbers such as can be fielded only by the bigger-budget squads such as Froome and Bernal’s Ineos and Primoz Roglic’s Jumbo.
It will also have a wealth of openings for a rider who is not a climbing specialist but who can compete from day to day through sheer panache and racing ability, such as the nation’s new darling Julian Alaphilippe. The volume of climbing will suit France’s other star of 2019, Thibaut Pinot, although the day-to-day intensity will fray his nerves. The final time trial starts in Pinot’s hometown and finishes in his backyard, but it is a route made for the 2019 winner Bernal.