Reigning champion Chris Froome says this year’s Tour de France is made for the specialist climbers.
Although there are two individual time-trials totalling 54km, it is the mountainous terrain that appears most foreboding along the 3,500km route starting in Normandy and finishing in Paris, having crossed a number of peaks in the Pyrenees and Alps.
There are four summit finishes, seven hors category climbs and 14 first category ones to crest in what will be a brutal test of leg strength.
“The route this year is very much a climber-based route in terms of even the two time-trials we have: one is straight uphill and the other one has two long climbs on it,” reflected Froome.
“Even though we have time-trials, they’re time-trials where a climber will do well.” He added: “It’s very much a climber’s Tour de France this year.”
When the 2015 Tour route was announced, Froome had been highly critical of that one, saying it didn’t have enough time-trials and was designed purely for specialist climbers.
Yet despite Nairo Quintana having a narrow edge on him in the mountains, he actually made the difference on one of the flat stages.
“It could be argued that last year I won it on that first stage, that’s when I put time into Nairo Quintana and that’s what I won by in Paris,” said Froome.
Quintana was caught behind a crash when crosswinds caused a split in the peloton.
He lost 1min 27sec that day to Froome, who beat him by just 1min 12sec overall.
But with a raft of mountainous challenges in the final week of this year’s race, Froome believes that is where the difference will be made.
“I imagine a lot of people will be looking at that last week given it’s so heavily loaded with mountains — stage 17, 18, 19 and 20 — anyone trying to make up time, it will be a great opportunity.
“Whoever’s defending, it will be one of the toughest moments to defend. Four days back-to-back like that.”
Many may be expecting a straight battle between Froome and Quintana but the defending champion says there are more names to look out for.
Notably, twice former winner Alberto Contador, himself a talented climber who has won seven Grand Tours in total.
He also showed good climbing legs earlier this season, winning the Tour of the Basque Country and coming second at Paris-Nice, to Froome’s teammate Geraint Thomas, and Volta a Catalunya, to Quintana. But in early June he was a touch off the pace at the Criterium du Dauphine, won by Froome, finishing only fifth.
At 33, his best days are perhaps behind him and he’s been talking of retiring over the next 18 months.
“This year more than ever the level of competition is that much higher,” said Froome. “I’ve got more rivals and the level of my rivals is that much stronger.”
The French challenge will come from a posse of young climbers led by Thibaut Pinot, third in 2014, with Romain Bardet, top 10 finishes in the last two years, and Warren Barguil, 14th last year, two exciting prospects to look out for.
For Astana, Fabio Aru, the reigning Vuelta a Espana champion, will have his first crack at the Tour alongside Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour winner in 2014 who claimed Giro d’Italia glory in May.
It’s a tough ask to challenge for the Giro and Tour in the same season and Nibali will likely fall back into a support role, unless Aru proves out of his depth.
Australian Richie Porte could feature and has the experience of helping Froome to his two Tour titles, but the Tasmanian, now riding for BMC having left Sky at the end of last season, has always flattered to deceive in three week races, despite great pedigree over one-week events.
Elsewhere, Germans Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel should animate the sprints, particularly with France’s Nacer Bouhanni missing out after injuring his hand in a punch-up a week ago.
But world champion Peter Sagan will be favourite for the sprinter’s green jersey due to his polyvalent ability to compete on all sorts of terrain, thus picking up points when the more specialist sprinters have been dropped by a sudden steep climb near the finish.
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