Not long after Hugh Carthy won on the Alto de l'Angliru to blow La Vuelta apart, Christian Prudhomme put in an appearance on French television to belatedly announce the route for the 2021 Tour de France.
Originally set for Thursday in the Palais des Congrès, the presentation was postponed and downscaled because of the snowballing second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, with Prudhomme instead unveiling the route in a special edition of the Stade 2 sports show on French TV.
Prudhomme and the whole of the cycling community will hope that, come next summer, the pandemic will be under control and the 108th edition of the Tour will be able to run as scheduled from Saturday 26th June to Sunday 18th July.
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Branded as "Looping the Loop" because the route is, more or less, a full circle of France, the parcours only once ventures outside France, but does ignore the entirety of France north of Paris for a second year running, including the regions neighbouring the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
Let's take a closer look at the main talking points of the route via a broadly chronological sweep through the race's evolving narrative…
Brittany Grand Départ
Initial plans for a grand départ in Copenhagen and Denmark have gone on ice, with the organisers instead heading to the hinterland of French cycling and the rolling roads of Brittany.
Starting in Brest on the Atlantic coast, four stages in the home region of both Bernard Hinault and Warren Barguil will cater for the puncheurs and sprinters, with the early leader of the race more likely to be a Wout van Aert than a Sam Bennett.
That's because Stage 1 culminates with the punchy climb of the Cote de la Fosse aux Loups (3km at 5.7%) which should prove too much for the fast men and perhaps play into the hands of Peter Sagan kick-starting his quest to take back the green jersey by starting the race in yellow.
Two different climbs up the Mûr-de-Bretagne in Stage 2 will spice things up along with potential coastal winds and the hills of the Armorican Massif. But the sprinters should not fear, for their chances will come in the second half of this Breton introduction to the race, with stages to Pontivy and Fougères likely to end in a bunch gallop.
Such is the course then you can bet your bottom euro that Groupama-FDJ won't make the same mistake and leave their French champion Arnaud Démare at home. A winner of four stages in the Giro, Démare and the other sprinters will have their chance to shine on at least seven occasions in this race – including two times in the last three days: something of a rarity in modern Tour route planning.
Two individual time trials
Breaking up those last two sprints into Libourne (Stage 19) and Paris (Stage 20) will be the deciding time trial – the second of two races against the clock. A combined length of 58 kilometres amounts to the most time trialling since 2013.
The first tests comes in Stage 5 as the race leaves Brittany with a 27km TT that could provide an early indication of the pecking order for the maillot jaune. By the time the riders tackle the scenic 31km through the vineyards of Saint-Émilion on the eve of the finish on the Champs-Élysées, all the mountains will be behind the GC rivals. But as this year's Tour and Giro both proved – it could well all come down to this final individual race of truth.
A long longest stage
The 248km Stage 7 from Vierzon to Le Creuset not only sees the Tour go on a rare venture through the Loire and Cher regions south of Paris, it also is longest stage in 21 years. A new climb in the Morvan Massif, Le Signal d'Uchon, also known as Mont Julien, is a narrow 5.7km track at an average gradient of 5.7% that winds its way through picturesque woodland. Coming just 18km from the finish, it should ensure that this long day in the saddle ends in drama.
Just a small nod to the Alps
Just as in 2018, a clockwise route ensures that the race will be decided not in the Alps but the Pyrenees. In fact, with just two stages at the end of the opening week, the Alps are very much in a supporting cast role in 2021.
The first of the two Alpine tests is the 151km Stage 8 to Le Grand Bornand finishes a Col de Romme-Col de la Colombiere double where Julian Alaphilippe triumphed in 2018.
First summit finish not until stage 9
The second half of the Alpine double-header gives the ski resort of Tignes the finish it was denied in 2019 when those hailstones in Stage 19 forced the stage to stop prematurely after the Col d'Iseran.
Running just 145km long, the stage from Cluses will be decided with successive ascents of the Col des Saisies, Col du Pré, Cormet de Roselend and then the long slog to Tignes where either Egan Bernal or Simon Yates looked set to win in 2019 before that meteorological intervention brought the race to a dramatic standstill.
Mont Ventoux double
Returning for a first time since 2016, the Giant of Provence casts its shadows over the peloton not once but twice in the same afternoon with a brutal double ascent in Stage 11.
Mirroring the Alpe d'Huez pairing from 2013, Mont Ventoux will be tackled from two different sides in the 199km stage, with the riders first approaching from the longer, gentler road from Sault (24.3km at 5%) which joins the traditional climb at Chalet Reynard.
After dropping down the northern, lesser known side of the mountain towards Malaucène, the riders will then flank this mythical peak for a second bit of the cherry from Bédoin (15.7km at 8.8%) that takes in the claustrophobic wooded section where much of the suffering usually plays out before the exposed peak.
Instead of finishing at the top, the riders will continue again for a second descent (for the first time since Eros Poli went on to win in Carpentras in 1994) for a fast, technical finish in Malaucène.
Going down as key as going up
Outnumbering the race's three summit finishes – the fewest since 2018 – there are four mountain stages which culminate in a downhill dash to the line.
On top of the aforementioned stage to Le Grand Bornand and the stage to Malaucène at the foot of Mont Ventoux, an intriguing Stage 14 through the Cathar region on the apron of the Pyrenees culminates in the pretty town of Quillan after a descent from the brand-new, spectacular Col de Saint-Louis.
But the stand-out mountain stage with a fast run to the finish is Stage 15 into Andorra, which includes the fearsome Port d'Envalira climb (which is 10.7km long at 6.2% making it the Souvenir Henri Desgrange at 2,408m) then the Col de Beixalis.
Having been underused over the past few years, the Pyrenees strike back with five stages in and around the wild mountain range in south-west France. Following those two downhill fixtures and a rolling stage to Saint-Gaudens for the baroudeurs, two summit finishes bring the GC battle to a head before that final deciding time trial.
Stage 17 is 178km long and after a fast and furious opening two thirds, the classic trio of the Col de Peyresourde, Col du Val Louron-Azet and then the Col du Portet (16km at 8.7%), where Nairo Quintana won in the 2018 Tour, should provide a few fireworks. Taking place on Bastille Day, you can bet your bottom dollar that the likes of Alaphilippe, Bardet and Pinot will have already marked this day in their calendar.
The shortest road stage of the race follows with the 130km Stage 18 that culminates with the long grind of the Tourmalet followed by the stunning hairpins of Luz Ardiden – where a certain Lance Armstrong won while driven on pure fury after a crash in 1999.
La Course returns
After finishes on the Champs-Élysées, the Col d'Izoard and at the foot of the Pyrenees, La Course returns for an eighth year with the women's peloton taking on multiple ascents of "the Breton Alpe d'Huez". While the men's peloton face the Mûr-de-Bretagne twice in Stage 2, the women will tackle it no fewer than six times on 27th June during a circuit race of around 130km.
So, what's the verdict?
There is certainly something for everyone in a route which ticks many boxes and gives the Pyrenees some bang for its buck after years of neglect. The Alps don't get much of a look in but that is compensated for by that intriguing double ascent of Mont Ventoux which, in the eyes of many, is made even better by virtue of the downhill finale.
Just three summit finishes will mean the riders going for yellow will need more in their armoury than pure uphill pedigree, while it’s the two time trials where the real damage could be done.
This is a route which suits the Jumbo-Visma team to a core – whether it's Wout van Aert enjoying an opening week in yellow, or their two GC riders Primoz Roglic and Tom Dumoulin coming to the fore in the mountains.
Defending champion Tadej Pogacar will have no fears looking at what's on offer, while France's long wait for a winner would feasibly come to an end with a balanced parcours that does not close the door on the likes of Julian Alaphilippe, Thibaut Pinot or Romain Bardet.
While ASO have branded their 2021 offering as a "ground-breaking route" there's very little seismic shift of note. It's a gamble to sandwich a final time trial with two sprint stages – but the severity of the Pyrenean phase before should do enough to keep entertainment levels high.
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