Tour de France preview: Round-table (part 1)

We’re now less than 48 hours away from the start of the 2012 Tour de France. So on a lovely sunny afternoon here at VeloVoices Towers we decided to start pouring the Pimms and have a quick natter about our thoughts, hopes and predictions for the next three weeks.

In this first part of our pre-Tour round-table, we discussed this year’s race route.

To kick off, what are everyone’s first impressions of this year’s parcours?

Kitty: At first, I was worried it was going to be just a bunch of sprints and time trials, which for me is not the recipe for excitement. But actually there are a lot of stages that could hold surprises: there are a couple in the first week that could see Philippe Gilbert unleash and then the climbs hopefully will be attack after attack, all day long. It’s a subtle design, I think.

Can Gilbert win again in the first week? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Jack: I like it, it’s intriguing. Despite being a climbing obsessive – and not a huge fan of the TTs – the course is unpredictable enough to spring a few surprises. Plus anything that gives Gilbert a chance of a win is a more than welcome addition! I find sprints boring, but if that makes the mountain action better, I’ll grit my teeth and bear it.

Sheree: Sneaky, very sneaky! Time trials, cobbles, windy coastlines, steep climbs which – if it works out as anticipated – should keep us on the edge of our seats until the final dénouement, the long and difficult time trial on the penultimate stage.

Panache: I really like the first 11 stages of this year’s Tour. It’s a creative, well-balanced route, with exciting finishes. Though I wish they had ramped it up for the back half, which on paper appears to be less thrilling.

Tim: I agree this year’s route lacks obvious thrills. But then some of last year’s stages which looked brilliant on paper ended up being ridden conservatively, while other less eye-catching stages turned out to be fantastic. I think Kitty hit on the right word: it’s a ‘subtle’ parcours. The advantage will swing towards the all-rounders in the first long time trial, then back to the climbers, before finally giving the all-rounders one final comeback in the last TT. I don’t see the yellow jersey battle being settled before then – just like the Giro.

The course is more balanced this year, with fewer summit finishes and more time trial mileage. Will this make for a better race, a worse race, or just a different one?

Jack: I think this year’s Giro showed that the race doesn’t have to be littered with ridiculous summit finishes and constant climbs to be exciting. Hopefully this parcours produces the same great racing. I just pray that the extra time trialling doesn’t give Bradley Wiggins too great an advantage!

Panache: The route of the Tour is always challenging. It’s not the parcours that will determine the quality of the race, it’s the riders. The absence of Alberto Contador is the only wrinkle for me. Other than that, every team appears to be bringing their ‘A’ game. Except for maybe RadioShack-Nissan.

A small disagreement over the loveliness of Fabian (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Tim: RadioSlack, more like. It’s just ‘different’ for me, which is a good thing. You can’t just keep cranking up the difficulty or it gets too much – like the 2011 Giro – and leads to dull rather than exciting racing. There’s something for everyone here, and not just for the GC guys. Like Panache says, the course is always challenging. Let the riders ride!

Kitty: For me, even though I love Fabian Cancellara, I find TTs sooooo boring once he’s set the best time (although the final TT in the Giro was a cliff-hanger). I just hope the middle TT doesn’t sew the race up completely. That would be terrible.

Sheree: I don’t love Fabian [Kitty gasps at the audacity of this remark – Ed] but I do love watching him and other great exponents of the art of time trials – poetry in motion. My favourite is the team time trial but thankfully for Sammy Sanchez there isn’t one this year. Clearly, the volume of them will have a bearing on the race but to win a Grand Tour you have to be a great all-rounder.

The race revisits some notable climbs from its recent history: La Toussuire – where Floyd Landis cracked in 2006 – and the Port de Bales, scene of the infamous ‘Chain-gate’ controversy two years ago. Where is this year’s big drama likely to occur?

Sheree: It could begin as early as stage seven, which finishes on the new (to the Tour) La Planche des Belles – featured in the Trois-Ballons sportive – an average 10% gradient which kicks off with a veritable 1km 14% mur, handy for a well-placed attack as there’s only another 4km to the top. Climbers with either serious GC pretensions or an eye on the polka dot jersey have got to kick off their campaign here. Then they’ll need to turn the screw on stages 10 and 11, some riders’ GC ambitions will surely come to grief.

Wiggins is likely to be central to the drama as the race switches between TTs and mountains (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kitty: I think Stages 10 and 11 should be mega. Just after the middle TT, the pure climbers are going to want to make up any time they’ve lost to Wiggins/Evans so they’ll be attacking from the start gun – well, they should be. If they don’t, they’re idiots. This is where they could gain time, perhaps even break a few GC riders.

Panache: Stage 11 will be exciting because it will probably reveal the podium. However, since this race is going to come down to seconds, I think stage 17, Bagneres-De-Luchon to Peyragudes, is going to be where the most drama happens. This will be the last chance for Cadel Evans to drop Bradley Wiggins and gain time that he is likely to lose in the final TT. Will it be enough?

Jack: Hopefully it will be as early as stage four – by then not only has the racing gone through some Spring Classics territory but the coastal roads mean the peloton could be in shreds! The sheer force of the crosswinds has been demonstrated in recent Tours, and yet there’s always at least one favourite who manages to get caught up on the wrong side of the splits!

Tim: I agree with all of you, but I suspect the final acts will provide the most drama. The preceding week will shape the podium but the penultimate stage time trial will decide it. If we get half the drama that the concluding Giro TT gave us, it will be nail-biting stuff. And for afters we get the green jersey showdown on the Champs-Élysées.

Is there any particular stage you’re looking forward to the most?

Tim: I’ll be looking forward to all the big mountain stages, for sure, but being the sprint-lover that I am there is always something special for me about the first bunch sprint of the race – which looks like being stage two into Tournai – and then the Champs Élysées. The first sprint is always frenetic – riders are fresh and desperate to establish the pecking order. And the Champs, well, it’s the Champs, isn’t it?

Could Vino leave with a valedictory win? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Panache: I’m looking forward to stage seven and the finish on La Planche Des Belles Filles. There is so much history at that finish. This is the first stage where the GC contenders will have to show their cards but it’s also a great stage for a rider like Alexandre Vinokourov or Gilbert to go for a stage win. I’m also looking forward to the saw-tooth that is stage eight. I could see Jeremy Roy, Johnny Hoogerland, Samuel Sanchez or Sylvain Chavanel escaping for the win.

Kitty: Stage one, which looks tailor-made for PhilGil. I want to see the King of Belgium come out of his doldrums and make the road blaze like he did last year. I miss him. Also the big mountain stages. Those always get me on the edge of my seat. And anything Cancellara can win.

Jack: Both stages 11 and 12. As the first proper mountain stage of this year’s Tour, stage 11 takes in two HC climbs before the summit finish on La Toussuire. It may be too early for any of the favourites to make real moves, but seeing the Tour roll into the mountains for the first time is always exciting! As for stage 12, its mildly hilly terrain makes it very breakaway-friendly, and with many of the breakaway specialists set to lose time the day before, the favourites will most likely let them free. I’ll be shouting “Allez FDJ” right to the finish, no doubt.

Sheree: I’m going to be looking forward firstly to the stages which French television is going to show in their entirety – heaven. Then, of course, the last week. I know I said I was only going to go to Paris this year but I’ve recanted, I’ll be following the Tour from Bastille Day [July 14 – Ed] through to its conclusion.

Tomorrow we’ll run the rule over the key riders we expect to be vying for our attention during the Tour.

VeloVoices Tour de France previews

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Link: Tour de France official website

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