Scott Mercier: Looking at the stages and challenges of this year’s Tour de France
Special to The Aspen Times
Saturday is the start of the 107th Grande Boucle, also known to us Americans as the Tour de France. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the race was pushed from July to late August and is scheduled to run from Aug. 29 to Sept. 21. There will be 21 stages and two rest days. This year’s race is on the shorter side, at 2,165 miles. However, there are eight mountain top finishes, and one uphill time trial on the penultimate stage.
The pandemic could also affect the outcome of the race. Paris-Nice was forced to end the race a day early this spring, and Bora Hansgrohe’s Max Schachman was declared the overall winner. If France sees a surge in cases and goes into another lockdown, the Tour will have to end early, as well.
Hopefully, this doesn’t happen and the race can make it to Paris.
However, the threat of an early ending to the race could have a meaningful impact on tactics. The final week of the Tour in the Alps is brutal, and typically any contender would be content to bide his time and conserve as much energy as possible to be fresh for a final assault to win the overall. One would imagine that if the race has to be truncated that some notice would be given so that teams and riders could adapt, but that is not a guarantee. Being in yellow early could be a winning tactic this year.
Another potential impact is the inclusion of time bonuses at both the finish of each stage and at the top of several key climbs. First, second and third on each stage are awarded time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds, respectively. Additionally, seven of the mountain stages have time bonuses of 8, 5 and 2 seconds to the first rider to the top of a select climb. These climbs are strategically placed near the finish of the race.
While every stage can lead to disaster if a rider isn’t paying attention, there are really just a handful of stages that could have a meaningful impact on the final yellow jersey.
Stage 2 is the first mountain stage of the Tour. The final climb comes just 5.5 miles from the finish and has time bonuses to the first rider over the top. The finish is at the bottom of a technical descent, so it’s conceivable that the stage winner could pick up an early 18 seconds from time bonuses alone. Look for Julian Alaphilippe to be in yellow at the end of this stage.
The next significant test comes on Stage 4, which provides us with our first mountain top finish. The stage is just under 100 miles and is hilly until the final climb. The main contenders should all be together until the fireworks start. The final climb is 4.4 miles long at an average gradient of 6.7%. This will be the first real test for the contenders.
Stage 8 is another difficult stage. The final climb is 6 miles long at an average gradient of 7.8% and offers time bonuses at the top. The finish is about 7 miles from the top of the climb with a fast and technical descent. Stage 9 is right before the rest day and also has time bonusses on offer at the top of the final climb. The finish is just 11 miles from the top of the last climb, so expect most of the favorites to finish together and the stage winner to come out of a breakaway.
Stage 10 looks relatively easy on paper; it’s almost pancake-flat and 106 miles long. However, this coastal region of France is frequently windy, which could cause the peloton to split. There aren’t many opportunities for the pure sprinters in the 2020 Tour though, so I expect this to come down to a field sprint.
Stages 13 and 15 will be absolutely brutal. Stage 13 has six categorized climbs with two climbs in the last 10 miles. The penultimate climb averages 9.1% and has bonus seconds at the top and is almost immediately followed by a 3.5 mile, 8.1% climb to the finish.
Stage 15 comes right before the final rest day. The final 45 miles feature 9,400 feet of climbing. The final climb to the finish line is 11 miles and 4,050 vertical feet at an average gradient of 7.1%.
Stages 16-18 offer three consecutive days in the Alps with back-to-back mountain top finishes on Stages 16 and 17. Stage 17 features two Hors Categorie climbs and the final climb to the finish at Meribel is 13.5 miles long and 5,400 vertical feet at an average gradient of 7.8%. There are several pitches over 20% in the final few miles.
If anyone is still standing after these three stages, they’ll have to prove their mettle one final time on the penultimate stage. Stage 20 is the lone individual time trial. It’s 22.5 miles with 3.5 miles of climbing to the finish. The overall race could very well be decided in those last few miles.
This could be one of the most exciting and unpredictable Tours in recent memory. Let’s hope the peloton can make it all the way to Paris.
Happy watching. My wife can’t wait!
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services Cycling teams. He currently works in Aspen and can be reached at email@example.com.