In crafting the 2013 Tour de France route, tour director Christian Prudhomme appears to have created something volatile and compelling. In 2012, the parcours’ ample time trials, few mountaintop finishes, and largely steady climbs made Bradley Wiggins’ victory all but a foregone conclusion from the day he took the maillot jaune on Stage 7. This year, the goal seems to be to keep the GC in play until the final summit on Stage 20.
The island of Corsica, off the southern coast of France, features for the first time ever in Tour history, and the rugged terrain and sinuous roads may make the first three stages harder and more unpredictable than anyone expects. A team time trial follows on Stage 4, though the flat, relatively short 15.5-mile course should ensure that no GC favorites lose too much time.
All eyes are on the final week in the Alps, but the end of the first week’s foray into the Pyrenées, especially Stage 8’s sharp finish at Ax 3 Domaines, should provide a GC shake-up. The race, however, shouldn’t be decided until the last week, which includes a bumpy, 19.8-mile individual time trial that will likely serve the climbers rather than the TT specialists, and three back-to-back climbing stages with two summit finishes.
It’s a course that Wiggins likely would have found more difficult to master than the one in 2012, though it should play better to Chris Froome, who’s a punchier climber and has superseded the ailing defending champ. Sky is probably in for a bigger challenge this go-round, though, with fewer TT miles for Froome to consolidate his lead, two more summit finishes, and a host of explosive Spanish climbers who won’t be as easily smothered as the big engines of 2012. That should make for great spectating throughout, especially with so much rolling and hilly terrain on which wily favorites can set their traps.
Stage 3: Ajaccio to Calvi
Day three in Corsica won’t crown the Tour champ, but it could dampen the hopes of any unlucky or inattentive favorites. The island roads are notoriously tight, narrow, winding, and devoid of shoulders so there will be lots of jockeying for position and the chance of easily missing out on moves. There’s nary a flat spot the entire day, so a breakaway could sneak away and make it all the way to the finish, which also means that if a group of favorites get up the road minus anyone considered to be a GC threat, it could be full-gas to the finish. But even if no drama ensues, the granite-pocked landscape and views out over the Mediterranean on the coastal route will ensure scenic viewing.
Distance: 145.5 km
Stage 8: Castre to Ax 3 Domaines
Everyone is talking about the Alps, but the Tour’s first foray into the high mountains comes a full 10 days earlier and has the potential to produce some serious fireworks. This premier Pyrenéan excursion is a stage in two acts: the first part is 120 kilometers of relatively flat, and the second features two major climbs in relatively short order.
The lack of foothills to warm up on could make it tough on the favorites because, after all day (and nearly a full week) of mostly flat riding, they’ll need to rev the engines hard as soon as they hit the base of the Col de Pailhères. At an average grade of 8 percent, the 15.3-kilometer climb isn’t especially steep, though it climbs to the Tour’s highest point at 2001 meters (6,565 feet).
Twenty kilometers of downhill follow, which might catch out poor descenders like Andy Schleck, and then, with no time for regrouping, it’s another eight-kilometer, 8.2-percent climb to summit at the ski resort. On paper, it’s not the hardest stage. But the tempo change midway will make it tough, and the Spaniards will be keen to show themselves so close to home.
Distance: 195 km
Stage 15: Givours to Mt. Ventoux
Everything about this day promises an epic. It’s the Tour’s longest stage, so riders will have to mete out their energy wisely to be ready for the day’s finishing climb up the Mt. Ventoux. Falling on Bastille day, the stage should attract massive crowds and encourage the French racers to make the stage hard on everyone in their race independence day glory. Finally, the GC favorites should be keen to ride all-out knowing that they’ll be able to recover on the following rest day—and fully aware that their rivals will have the whole day to stew over their losses.
The Ventoux is a massive, singular, imposing mountain that’s crowned many a legend, including Charly Gaul, Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx, and Marco Pantani, and the favorites will be looking to add their names to that illustrious list. The 20.8-kilometer climb finishes on a wide-open moonscape, which makes for dramatic footage, though if the winds are blowing down from the top, as is often the case, it could be tough for the climbers to open big gaps.
Distance: 242.5 km
Stage 18: Gap to Alpe d’Huez
A trip up Alpe d’Huez is the highlight of any Tour, so the fact that riders will be taking it on twice on one day makes this arguably the most anticipated stage in years. The novel course comes thanks improvements on the road that climbs from Alpe d’Huez resort over the Col de la Sarenne, which makes it possible for the peloton to climb the 21 switchbacks, descend south and west back to Bour d’Oisans, and then do it all again to the summit.
The first ascent is unlikely to be a flat-out dash, though the descent from the Cold de la Sarenne is tight and tricky and could result in gaps for the tentative. The Alpe’s steepest pitches come in the first third, so climbers like Contador and Rodriguez may try their luck at opening a gap and holding from there to the finish.
Distance: 172.5 km
Stage 21: Versailles to Paris
Knowing that the final stage can become a bit tedious—with the GC already decided and the last four sprints here claimed easily by Mark Cavendish—the Tour director decided to take a few chances on this edition’s processional. A few small summits in the Chevreuse hills won’t disturb the overall, but it could see the mountains classification decided if that race is still close.
For the first time ever, the city circuit will loop around the Arc de Triomphe rather than turning in front of it, which should provide some memorable visuals. And most importantly, the race will be run after dark below the floodlights (à la the Singapore Formula 1), ensuring a dramatic finish no matter what. But even with all those exceptional measures, it would be hard to bet against Cavendish.
Distance: 133.3 km