The Tour de France is the pinnacle of professional road cycling and its importance to the cycling world is further emphasised this year. The Tour is the biggest race for any men’s professional team and the successful running of it during the COVID-19 pandemic is vital to the futures of many of the top-tier teams. While cycling fans have had to wait a little longer this year due to the Tour being postponed from its usual July window, if the racing since the restart of the season is anything to go by, it should be one of the most exciting editions in recent memory.
Last year we outlined the history and a few basics of the Tour de France in our essential guide to the race including a breakdown of how the different jerseys work.
The successful completion of the Critérium du Dauphiné last week gave us a glimpse of what to expect for the three-week journey across France. While the race left us with more questions than answers from a competitive perspective, it was clear that many of the top contenders are on frighteningly good form heading towards the race.
Running a Tour during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The 2020 Tour will obviously be vastly different to those in the past. With extremely strict medical protocols to be followed by teams and also the media, the organisers hope to create a ‘bubble’ around the event which will keep it COVID-19 free. Failure to do so could – in the most extreme case – lead to an abandonment or curtailment of the event.
There will be fewer fans on the road with camper vans banned – as race owners ASO aim to keep the crowds local and socially distanced. With several travel restrictions already in place within Europe, we will doubtless see fewer people travel to the race and therefore a safer environment. This year, more than most, will be a Tour enjoyed from the safety of our homes around the globe. There has not been a better time to enjoy the Tour on your home TV screen and with many of us still working from home, it makes for perfect background viewing.
The protocols in place to keep the riders and race safe will not just impact the spectators, however – they could have major implications on the overall winner. A recently announced rule states that any team that returns two positive COVID-19 cases within their team in a single week will be expelled from the race, which is sure to make riders and staff nervous.
A couple of mechanics picking up what they view as an innocent coffee along the route could see their entire team thrown from the race if they contract the virus mingling with members outside the race “bubble.”
With rising COVID-19 numbers across France in the past few weeks, it will be interesting to see if the organisers manage to run the three-week trip across France without a COVID-19 scare. The success of the race could potentially determine how much of the remainder of the racing calendar is completed for the year and therefore has huge implications for the future of the sport.
If you cannot watch all 21 stages (we get that it is a lot!) be sure to mark some of these days down as key ones to catch. The Tour visits each of France’s mountain ranges with a total of six summit finishes as well as 29 categorised climbs along the way. There are only five potential stages for the pure sprinters, so a few of the big names have decided to target other races. Even without the iconic Tour climbs such as Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez, there are still some very intriguing stages which should have some great battles along the way.
Stage 1 – The opening stage is always an exciting affair with the first yellow jersey up for grabs. A photogenic finish in the seaside city of Nice adds further prestige to what is expected to be one of the few opportunities for the sprinters. Expect a tense final few kilometres before the rapid finish to the line on the Promenade des Anglais.
Stage 4- The first mountain finish of the 2020 Tour de France comes as early as Stage 4 with a finish at the ski resort of Ocières-Merlette. The stage should give us a clear indicator of who is in strong form early on and as the old adage goes, ‘you cannot win the Tour in the first week, but you can definitely lose it’. Expect a strong battle for the early breakaway with the solid chance of it going all the way to the finish line, followed by a battle of the general classification contenders behind.
Stage 6- Multiple summit finishes in the first week of the Tour is not something we see often but Stage 6 presents the peloton with a tough finish in Mont Aigoual. A flat run in for most of the day will mean the race is likely to explode to life on the category 1 Col de La Lussette with steep gradients likely to shell some of the overall contenders. A micro descent before the final 4% pinch to the line and the all-important bonus seconds will make it a fascinating finale.
Stage 15- The second week of the Tour lends itself to breakaway specialists as well as the sprinters. There is the potential for crosswinds on the coastal roads in stage 10 which will make the bunch nervous, but you will have to wait until Stage 15 for the next mountain shake up of the Tour. Two category one climbs precede the Grand Colombier which covers 17.4km at an average gradient of 7.1%. With sections of up to 12% it is the perfect general classification battle before the second rest day.
Stage 17- The “queen-stage” of the Tour comes in the Alps during the third week with Stage 17 throwing two hors categorie (literally ‘out of categorisation’) climbs as the peloton. It is a monster general classification day with the peloton tackling the Col de La Madeleine before a summit finish in Méribel up the Col de la Loze. Team tactics are sure to play a huge part, but there will be little hiding for those dreaming of overall victory.
Stage 18- There is no rest for the riders with the following day throwing up another tough course. While the stage does not reach the same heights as the previous day, there is barely a flat road in sight for the 168km journey from Méribel to La Roche-sur-Foron. Four categorised climbs are scattered throughout the stage with a downhill run to the finish. There is even a sneaky 1.5km gravel sector thrown in for good measure ahead of the final climb. It might be hard to open major gaps between the overall contenders, but it would be hugely impactful if any of them had an “off” day.
Stage 20- The only time-trial of the 2020 Tour comes on the penultimate day and even then, the organisers could not help throwing in a summit finish. The 36km route will likely see bike changes before the steep climb of La Planche des Belles Filles where Chris Froome took his first Tour stage victory out in 2012. Since then, it has become a famous climb for the Tour with four stages finishing on the summit. Time gaps could be huge, with the stage potentially deciding the overall winner of the 2020 Tour de France.
For the first time in a few years, there seems to be a genuine challenge to Team Ineos’ recent Tour de France dominance. Jumbo-Visma have shown they are more than up to the challenge of taking the race to Ineos – after a dominant display at the Dauphiné – with a strong leadership duo of Primož Roglič and Tom Dumoulin backed up by one of the “killer wasps” strongest Tour squads ever.
Team Ineos have shown their strength-in-depth by leaving previous champions Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome behind. It means that Egan Bernal is the only former winner on the start line and is backed up by Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz, as well as climbing duo Andrey Amador and Pavel Sivakov.
While most of the pre-race chatter has been focussed around the much-anticipated Team Ineos vs Jumbo-Visma battle, other teams will not just sit by and let them have it their own way. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama – FDJ) looks to be in some of the best form of his career and will be the host nation’s best shot at a potential winner. Pinot was runner-up at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné but gained some strong fitness from the race and will hope to avoid a repeat of last years tearful ending in Stage 19 where he succumbed to an injury.
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) looks to be back to his best self, coming close to the level that saw him take victories at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana in the past. A training crash in his native Colombia right before he returned to Europe seemed to impact him during the restart of the season, but he will look to continue what was an extraordinarily strong opening to 2020.
Other outside chances for the overall prize include Mikel Landa (Bahrain McLaren) who has the full support of his team after they left legendary British sprinter, Mark Cavendish, at home. Emanuel Buchmann (BORA-Hansgrohe) finished fourth last year and could muscle his way onto the podium this time. Tour debutant Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) burst onto the Grand Tour scene last year landing a podium in the Vuelta a España and will look to see how he can compete against the best on French roads.
EF Pro Cycling come with the three Colombian options of Critérium du Dauphiné winner Dani Martinez as well as 2017 Tour runner-up Rigoberto Uran and young gun Sergio Higuita. The South Americans will hope to make it an animated Tour to use their numbers against the bigger teams.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has said he will be looking for stage victories but could be drawn into a yellow jersey battle if the opportunity presented itself. Fellow country man Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) impressed at the Critérium du Dauphiné with a third overall and will hope to score his first top 10 at the Tour.
While some big sprinter names have opted out of the Tour this year, there will still be a strong field of fast men vying for stage and green jersey success. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck – Quick Step) has looked in good form recently, taking out stages of Tour de Wallonie and Vuelta a Burgos. He should have a good amount of support from his team, who also boast last year’s nearly man, Julian Alaphilippe, in their starting roster. The buccaneering Frenchman, who wore yellow for 14 of the 21 stages last year, should be given his own opportunities in more intermediate stages throughout the race.
Peter Sagan (BORA – Hansgrohe) is chasing his eighth green jersey and will look to add to his twelve Tour stage wins – he has, however, been looking fairly off-the-pace since racing resumed. Lotto Soudal have built a team around Australian Caleb Ewan who had an extremely successful debut Tour in 2019 winning three stages.
Elia Viviani (Cofidis) and recently crowned Italian national champion Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling) should feature towards the front of the flat finishes with a stage win being a huge deal for their teams, should they be able to take one out.
Other names to watch
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has said he is on domestique duties for the team but do not discount him to add to his debut stage win from 2019. Van Aert has been the rider of 2020 so far, taking out both Strade Bianche as well as Milano-Sanremo. A stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné as well as the points classification, plus victory in the Belgian national time-trial championships really shows the immense form he currently has.
Thomas de Gendt (Lotto Soudal) will look to use his masterful breakaway tactics to good use once again, as well as riders such as teammate Philippe Gilbert and Israel Start-Up Nation’s Dan Martin.
Mitchelton-Scott duo Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves have both said they are targeting stage victories throughout the race and it would not be a surprise to see them both up the road during major mountain stages.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) is making his Tour debut and it will be interesting to see how the Colombian fares in France.
The season restart has shown us how quickly things can change in cycling. It sets up one of the most anticipated Tours de France in recent memory and there is no better way to catch all the action then live on TV. In a year which has impacted everyone so deeply, it will hopefully be a shining light towards the future.