Analysis: The 2014 Tour de France is one for the climbers

The favorites have weighed in on the 2014 Tour route and Andrew Hood digs into the race's 21 stages


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The ever-humble Nairo Quintana (Movistar) might have to reset his predictions of when he hopes to win a Tour de France. After hogging the podium in Paris in 2013 with second overall, and the climber’s and young rider’s jerseys, Quintana said he hoped to win the Tour in the next “two or three years.”

After watching Tour officials unveil a climb-heavy course on Wednesday, with just one time trial and five mountaintop finales, Quintana will recalibrate his prediction.

“Both the Alps and the Pyrénées have stages that are interesting,” Quintana said Wednesday. “I believe it will all be decided in the Pyrénées and with the final time trial.”

The 2014 Tour is one for the climbers. With climbs in the Vosges, the Alps, and the Pyrénées, the mountain goats will take center stage in the second half of the 101st edition of the French tour.

Another rider licking his chops Wednesday was defending champion Chris Froome (Sky). Strong in both climbing and time trials, the Kenya-born Froome couldn’t have designed a better course for his characteristics.

“We’ve got five mountaintop finishes, that’s more than this year. That’s a good thing for me and also with the penultimate stage being a 50-plus-kilometer individual time trial, that’s something that suits me,” Froome said Wednesday. “So, yes, I’m getting excited about the prospect of taking on next year’s Tour.”

The lone bump, at least for the GC candidates, is the inclusion of cobblestones in stage 5. The inclusion of the pavé puts all the skinny climbers on edge.

“The pavé present an interesting challenge,” said Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). “It’s a stage where a mechanical or a crash can greatly alter the outcome. It won’t decide anything, except for anyone who has problems.”

Without an opening prologue or a team time trial, the first half of the route is similar to what the Tour endured in 2011, when Cadel Evans and BMC Racing bulldozed to victory. The GC favorites will have to rely on brawny teammates to steer them safely to the second-half climbs. Nerves and crashes should be off the charts in the opening nine days.

With nine stages between the start in Yorkshire, England, and the first serious climb in the Vosges up La Planche des Belles Filles, the first half of the Tour is packed with interesting routes to challenge the sprinters and stage hunters, and keep the GC favorites on sharp focus.

“I already lived it in first person this year, but the truth is that the first week of the Tour next year can be even more nervous,” Quintana said. “Above all, the pavé, which can make the race very difficult and complicated. It will be important to count on a strong team during these days.”

Sprinters will be happy with the first half of the route. Races such as the Vuelta a España have packed so many climbs into their three weeks, there were only four true sprints in the entire 2013 edition of the Spanish tour.

It’s the second half where things get truly interesting.

Froome, Quintana, Contador like what they see

The route is laced with climbs — a total of six mountain stages and five mountaintop finales — and just on long, 54km individual time trial on the penultimate day.

Like Quintana, Froome liked what he saw. Sky will line up as the five-star favorite as two-time defending champion. Whether Bradley Wiggins will be there remains to be seen, but Froome said the mountainous profile only fuels his ambitions to win a second yellow jersey.

“At the end of the day, the team’s always going to select the nine strongest guys to go to the Tour with the best possible chance of winning it,” Froome said. “If Bradley’s in that nine or not would be for the performance team to decide, but I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be there.”

Another rider whom the course naturally favors is Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). The 30-year-old Spaniard struggled in this year’s Tour, slipping off the podium to fourth after getting shelled in the mountains.

That’s terrain where Contador typically shines, but this year, he was on the back foot all season. He promises to take on the 2014 season differently, with the Tour as the primary focus.

“I will try to take on Froome, but it won’t be easy. He was incredibly strong this year, and he just kept getting stronger. I hope he’s hit his peak,” Contador told Eurosport in Paris. “We are going to prepare for the fullest. I think it’s a balanced course, and it will be important to have a strong team around you, and I know I will. We’ll see what will happen.”

For Movistar, team management vowed to return with the double attack of Quintana and Alejandro Valverde.

“At first glance, it’s a route I like, above all because it only has one time trial, and it’s on the penultimate stage,” Valverde said. “Even though it’s flat, the final time trial is always influenced by how much strength one has at the end of the Tour. For the rest, it looks like a balanced course.”

Another rider with strong TT credentials who can climb with the best in the mountains is Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing).

Accent on ascents at the 2014 Tour

Tour organizers delivered on their promise to make the course open and riveting all the way to the end. Of the three grand tours, the French race has been the most traditional and least inclined to shake up the model of how a three-week grand tour should look.

While the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España have become increasingly difficult, with incredibly steep climbs like the Zoncolan and the Anglirú becoming part and parcel, the Tour refuses to buckle to the trend of packing the race full of climbs and punchy uphill finales.

The route includes five mountaintop finishes, high for the Tour, but pale in comparison to the Vuelta’s 13 uphill finales in 2013.

The route features climbs in the Vosges, Alps, and then the Pyrénées. Five summit finales are packed between stages 10 and 18, with two rest days, meaning that hitting peak form in the second half of the race is paramount.

The first climb is Belles Filles in the Vosges, where Froome won a stage in the 2012 Tour. Not terribly long, but terribly steep, the climb favors puncheurs like Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin), but as 2012 revealed, any team can make it so hard that the GC favorites surge to the front in the first major uphill test.

The Alps arrive in the form of Chamrousse and Risoul in stages 13 and 14. Neither are brutal climbs, such as l’Alpe d’Huez or the Col du Galibier, but coming early, they will certainly peel back the layers to show who has the legs to truly challenge for overall victory. Pretenders will be shed away by the time the Tour rolls out of the Alps.

The crux of the GC battle will play out over the Pyrénées, with a short but potentially explosive 125km stage ending atop Plan d’Adet likely seeing the true favorites clearly separating from the pack.

The hors-categorie steeps of Hautacam could play kingmaker. Climbers, such as Quintana, Rodríguez, and 2013 Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), will be going full gas to try to widen gaps to dangerous time trialists, such as Froome on the final mountain test.

Sprinters’ paradise

With the Alps and the Pyrénées the setting for the decisive GC battles, the route barely skirts the Massif Central. That means the sprinters will have plenty of chances in this Tour.

With three stages in the United Kingdom to open the Tour, the stage is set for a major showdown between Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and German phenom Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), who bolted to four wins in 2013, including a run in yellow and victory on the Champs-Élysées.

“It’s an interesting first week, a good one for the sprinters,” Kittel said Wednesday. “Hopefully, we can make a nice start to the Tour like this year. I am already excited and motivated. The second half of the race is a real challenge of surviving.”

The way the race unfolds, there could be up to nine bunch sprints, depending on how breakaways are controlled by the sprinters’ teams.

With no time bonuses and no opening prologue, the yellow jersey will be up for grabs in the opening stages across Yorkshire. Cavendish will be keen to take yellow for the first time of his career. The pressure will be huge on the Manxman, who’s no slouch when it comes to delivering big-time wins. He will have an added bonus in that the Tour’s first stage also finishes in the hometown of his mother.

“I’m excited to try for a sprint finish there and have a second attempt at a yellow jersey,” Cavendish said Wednesday. “It didn’t work out last year (2013), but it would be brilliant to pull it on in front of a home crowd in 2014.”

The decisive final time trial

The 2014 Tour features only one time trial, but what a doozy it will be.

The 54km test against the clock runs over the hilly farm country between Bergerac and Perigueux in the southern edge of the Dordogne.

By placing the time trial at the tail end of the Tour, race director Christian Prudhomme said he hopes to heighten the tension all the way to Paris.

“Time trials provide greater time gaps than the mountains, sometimes insurmountable ones,” Prudhomme told AFP. “Having the time trial at the end is designed that the climbers don’t have to chase, but can ride in front and not become demoralized.”

The route will favor pure power riders such as Tony Martin (Omega Pharma), Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), and Wiggins, if he’s racing, but for the GC contenders, Froome will have a huge advantage. He knows he will be able to re-take minutes on the climbers, but he certainly won’t want to have it play out that way.

As he proved last year, Froome is not afraid to attack in the mountains. Sky will want to take advantage of any and all opportunities, and certainly will not want to leave the GC until the penultimate stage, opening the door for a motivated climber to rise to the monumental occasion.

It should come down to a thrilling, see saw battle between the pure climbers and Froome. But in 2013, Froome was the strongest climber in the Tour, with the possible exception of Quintana.

Will Contador be able to drop him and take time? He couldn’t do it this year, but Contador vowed to up his game for 2014.

Could someone break the Sky stranglehold on the yellow jersey?

Quintana, who began the Tour supporting Valverde before the Spaniard lost 10 minutes in the crosswind, was the lone rider who put Froome on edge in the mountains in 2013. Unbridled in 2014, Quintana has been presented with the course that he needs to have a chance to become South America’s first Tour winner.

The Tour did its part of providing the peloton with a superb course. Now it’s up to the riders.

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