Lotta mountains on tap at the Tour de France. (Photo: Michael Steele / Staff)

A Tour de France Route Designed to Defeat Boredom

Organizers have included hills and big mountains in the Tour’s first week. The format has made the opening stages must-see TV.

Michael Steele / Staff

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Did you watch the Tour de France during the eras of Lance Armstrong or Greg LeMond? If you did, then you probably found the Tour akin to a Wagnerian opera—painfully long, with a boring opening half and frenetic, edge-of-your-seat finale.

In the nineties and early aughts, the race often opened with a short individual time trial, followed by a solid week of flat stages that catered to the peloton’s sprinters. The favorites to win the yellow jersey, meanwhile, would rest their legs for this stretch, saving energy for weeks two and three. Finally, after perhaps ten days of doldrums, the race would enter the Alps or the Pyrenees, and the fight for yellow—with those aggressive high-altitude attacks and counterattacks—would jar viewers from their mid-summer slumbers.

The Tour followed this formula for decades. And then, just a few years ago, race owner Amaury Sport Organisation decided that the model had grown stuffy. Starting in 2017, organizers sprinkled high mountains and punishing summit finishes into the Tour’s opening week to spice things up. The new recipe worked so well that, for 2023, organizers appear to have dumped the entire spice rack into mix. This year’s race kicked off on Saturday, July 1, in Spain’s steep and hilly Basque country, which was then followed by another hard stage with plenty of uphills. Two flat stages followed on Monday and Tuesday, which served as a runway to two stages of big, punishing climbs in the Pyrenees.

Bye bye, Wagner. The 2023 Tour route feels more like Van Halen.

The profile of the 2023 Tour de France’s fifth stage. Image: Courtesy ASO 

(Spoiler alert!) Wednesday’s fifth stage was proof that the Tour’s opening week is now must-see TV. The mountainous route today completely shook up the fight for the yellow jersey, and forced rivals Jonas Vingegaard of Dutch team Jumbo Visma and Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates to square off, mano a mano, on a steep climb called the Col de Marie Blanque. Cycling can sometimes become a boxing match, with two great rivals accelerating and then chasing each other down on a steep section of road—the bike racing version of punching someone in the face. The goal is to score a knockout punch—an acceleration that is so fast and furious that a rival cannot follow.

That’s just what Vingegaard did on the climb. The Dane had his teammate, American Sepp Kuss, increase the pace to an unbearable speed, which dropped Pogačar’s teammates (including Adam Yates, who was in yellow). Then, Vingegaard bolted away on the steepest section of the climb, leaving a huffing and puffing Pogačar in his dust.

By the finish, Vingegaard—the defending champ—had gained more than one minute on Pogačar, himself a two-time Tour winner. And that wasn’t even the biggest storyline of the day! Earlier in the stage, an Australian rider named Jai Hindley had attacked into the day’s breakaway, and the peloton allowed the group to get a four-minute advantage over the climbs. Hindley is no slouch—he won the Giro d’Italia in 2022, and is one of the up-and-coming Grand Tour riders in the bunch. Why the group allowed him to gain so much time is anyone’s guess—sometimes the big favorites (in this case Pogačar and Vingegaard) are so preoccupied with each other that they allow dark horse favorites to gain time on the group.

Hindley dropped the breakaway riders on the Col de Marie Blanque and rode in solo for the stage win. He also took over the yellow jersey, and he now leads Vingegaard by 47 seconds.

In Tour parlance, 47 seconds represents a pretty big gap. Plus, Hindley is an expert climber, and this year’s route is teeming with high mountains where he can excel. On paper, the race looks to have become a two-horse race between Hindley and Vingegaard, but let me be the first to tell you that this race is far from over. More mountains, hills, and steep finishes are coming later in week one, and weeks two and three are similarly difficult. The 2023 Tour route has few days off for Hindley, Vingegaard, Pogačar, or any of the other riders hoping to win yellow. And that means it has few days off for viewers like you and me.

Current Standings

Tour de France, stage 5 (Pau – Laruns, 101 miles)

  1. Jai Hindley (Australia), Bora-Hansgrohe, 3:57:07
  2. Giulio Ciccone (Italy), Lidl-Trek, at 0:32
  3. Felix Gall (Austria), AG2R Citroën, at 0:32
  4. Emanuel Buchmann (Germany), Bora-Hansgrohe, at 0:32
  5. Jonas Vingegaard (Denmark), Jumbo-Visma, at 0:34
  6. Mattias Skjelmose (Denmark), Lidl-Trek, at 1:38
  7. Daniel Martinez (Colombia), Ineos Grenadiers, at 1:38
  8. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia), UAE Team Emirates, at 1:38
  9. David Gaudu (France), Groupama FDJ, at 1:38
  10. Carlos Rodriguez (Spain), Ineos Grenadiers, at 1:38

General Classification Standings

  1. Hindley, 22:15:12
  2. Vingegaard, at 0:47
  3. Ciccone, at 1:03
  4. Buchmann, at 1:11
  5. Adam Yates (Great Britain), UAE Team Emirates, at 1:34
  6. Pogačar, at 1:40
  7. Simon Yates (Great Britain), Jayco AlUla, at 1:40
  8. Skjelmose, at 1:56
  9. Gaudu, at 1:56

OK, onto the weird stuff I saw on Tour twitter today:

Tour Twitter’s Greatest Hits

So glad that backhoe biking hasn’t taken off.

Basque cycling fans—you can literally hear them coming a mile away.

Looks like there’s a new Netflix project about cycling.

I can’t get enough of these inside-the-peloton video clips.

Lead Photo: Michael Steele / Staff