Race Design Thread

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With the Tour de France just finishing this past weekend, we have had wall to wall coverage start to finish for three weeks. At the same time, we’ve just seen the end of the Giro Rosa, which has been somewhat beleaguered but in terms of spectacle no less a race (and for the most part more, the Tour has done a lot of work in the last few days to at least give us something to remember it for). The Giro Rosa has had something of a difficult year, with hosts arranged on short notice and on the fly, some probably-too-extreme stunts with gravel on stage 2 that was far rougher than anything Strade Bianche has thrown at us, some interesting run-ins with slippery surfaces and poorly-placed corners, stages having to be re-routed on the day of the race due to road conditions and a disappointed lack of the live coverage that we had been promised. However, for all its undoubted faults, the Giro Rosa is the only women’s Grand Tour, and as a result its prestige is immediately inherent - and possibly even a bit of an issue as it means they can sometimes get away with some of their organisational misgivings more than another race might, because as the only Grand Tour on the calendar, it always retains that status as #1 target for stage racers and climbers.

Simultaneously, in watching the riders parade up and down the Champs Elysées I am reminded, after watching 9 days of racing in Italy, that perhaps the best thing in cycling to come from Covid-19 has been that La Course, the most divisive and controversial race on the women’s calendar, was changed. It was originally going to be a pan-flat circuit race on the Champs Elysées, as it was when originally introduced, but due to the compressed calendar it was re-designed to follow the route of stage 1 of the Tour, leading to a much better race including attacks on hills and descents and a six-woman breakaway settling the finale - fortunately before the unfortunate downpour that wreaked such havoc on the men’s stage later on.



ASO launched La Course by Le Tour de France to much fanfare in 2014. With the women’s calendar becoming more organised and with much clamour to establish a stronger calendar, ASO came under particular fire for their lazy treatment of La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, and under pressure to give the women something, ASO announced possibly the laziest and least inspired idea there was - a borderline criterium up and down the Champs Elysées. It worked to an extent; the women got to race in front of a huge crowd, and they got full television coverage. However, they remained steadfastly in the role of a support race to warm up the crowd for the men later, and despite Anna van der Breggen successfully “doing a Vino” in 2015, a lot of the time, the spectacle wasn’t exactly the most ringing endorsement for women’s cycling, seeing as the Giro was sending the women over the Mortirolo at the time with 15 minutes’ coverage summary, yet an hour of riding up and down a wide road got full coverage. It was hardly the Women’s Tour de France that there had been clamour for.

In 2017, there was some excitement when other prestigious non-World Tour races like the Thüringen Rundfahrt were placed on notice that they might need to reconsider their calendar spot as a clashing date was earmarked for La Course, leading to excited speculation the race might be growing. When it was announced that La Course would still be a one-day race it was a big disappointment, tempered somewhat by the understanding that it would be a big mountain stage that would at last let the world see what women’s cycling could be. Yes, that was also the year of the failed experiment with a Nordic skiing-style pursuit race, which was seen as a bit of a gimmick and possibly using the women as guinea pigs for a mooted response to if Velon’s Hammer Series concepts worked. But we did get a big mountain stage. 2018 was even better, with a multi-climb stage and downhill finish, leading to two of the best moments of the year for women’s cycling: firstly it was an epic race with a dramatic last second finish and secondly it gave us the first time a Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig interview went out to a wider audience. With no Lombardia and a dearth of true climbing races on the calendar, La Course was accepted despite its faults.

Unfortunately, despite the racing being excellent and fan feedback improving, ASO’s interest in the race was waning. I personally believe that a large part of that has to do with a very simple factor: ASO’s real pet project is the Paris-Dakar and that is a loss-making exercise propped up by the money their cycling endeavours make. A lot of their interest in women’s cycling had been influenced by the expectation of French success via the highly successful and marketable Pauline Ferrand-Prévot; she had taken the cycling world by storm in the early 2010s, and the year that La Course was introduced she won the World Championships, Emakumeen Bira, and only lost the Giro on bonus seconds, and was voted France’s Sports Personality of the Year. I think at this stage there was probably a genuine interest in developing La Course into something major and hoping to profit from the interest piqued by a home-grown superstar. Alas, ’twas not to be; Pauline’s convertibility meant she continued to race MTB and cyclocross at the same time as road, and perhaps more importantly, Pauline collects injuries the way other people collect stamps, or baseball cards, or autographs. The next French superstar is now a - very good - mountain bike racer only, and only occasionally makes forays onto the road. ASO’s interest in women’s cycling looks to perfectly match up to PFP’s road cycling career path, that is to say, right now it is at practically nil. La Course was moved from the mountains to a slightly hilly circuit race for 2019, of the kind the calendar has many of, and removing the unique selling point that the race had had, and for 2020 it was scheduled to be moved back onto the Champs Elysées. You see, the problem is, if they provide exciting women’s racing, they’ll be pressured to produce more of it, or at least turn the cameras on for the races like La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège that they already run but don’t broadcast.

Every year, though, there is clamour that ASO should do more. It’s easy to understand why. After all, not only does ASO try to get away with doing the absolute bare minimum it can get away with doing without getting status revoked for its races or committing PR suicide… but by shifting La Course all around the Tour it has run roughshod over the calendar, forcing long-established races to find new calendar spots to survive and causing irreparable damage to others. However, there is another way - and regular posters in, and readers of, the Women’s Cycling threads over the years will know what my proposed solution will be. After all, for all the clamour for a proper women’s stage race in France (not tied to a specific location like the Tour de l’Ardêche), with real mountains and the like, how many of you knew that there genuinely was one… as recently as 2016?



The Route de France Féminine was established in the early 2000s as a response to the rapidly dwindling importance of the Grande Boucle Féminine, the privateer successor to ASO’s original Tour de France Féminine from the 1980s, formed by Pierre Boué in 1992 to replace the faltering Tour of the EEC, the original ASO race’s new incarnation, linked not to the main event but to then then-contemporary branding of l’Avenir instead. Boué was prevented by licensing restrictions from calling his race “le Tour” in 1998, and it settled on using one of the nicknames as its actual official name, hence the Grande Boucle Féminine. It was marred by organisational chaos after this as Boué struggled to find hosts suitable for a race of its cumbersome size during the nascent days of women’s cycling, leading to colossal transfers and some bizarre editions such as one in the early 2000s where all of the mountains were concentrated in the first 3 days before nearly two weeks of flat stages, leading to a very mundane spectacle as Joane Somarriba led almost unchallenged from start to finish. A trip to Corsica was doomed by a thunderstorm meaning that the following stage on the mainland had to be shortened after riders couldn’t make it to their hotels until well after midnight, while one year the prize money from the previous year’s edition was only paid a couple of weeks before the next years’ race was scheduled to begin. Later editions of the Boucle had sunk to just four or five stages, derided semi-affectionately by final winner Emma Pooley as a “Petite Boucle”. However, arguments over licensing meant that the Boucle and the nascent Route de France could not co-operate with one another, and the split meant that the race never got the funding or the interest to make it a genuine competitor to the Giro as had been envisioned, plus going up head to head with the race that had been a successor to the official ASO version of the race meant that certain trademarks were protected, so no yellow, green and polka dot jerseys, which are of course pretty much universal symbols in cycling in France and made it harder for the race to be seen as a real Tour de France type event.

The Route de France typically ran in early August, shortly after the end of the Tour de France, and would often start somewhere in the Paris suburbs and then move off in other directions which would vary year on year. The first part of the race would typically be in the centre before moving to another part of the country for some more decisive stages. This could be in the Massif Central, the Jura or, especially in latter days, the Vosges typically. 2007 featured a mountain stage looping around the La Bresse ski station, 2010 featured two stages around Saint-Dié-les-Vosges, 2012 featured three Vosges stages including a Planche des Belles Filles MTF, 2013 featured a final stage in the Puys, and the final two editions in 2015 and 2016 both featured the Vosges heavily, including a Planche des Belles Filles MTF. However, having fluctuated between 5 and 9 stages (the longest edition was 2012’s, with 9 stages and 930km raced) and including some mammoth transfers that didn’t enhance its appeal to the big teams, the race was never really settled in terms of its identity, and the proximity to La Course killed it off when La Course moved into the mountains, making a smaller race attracting a mid-tier péloton with only a couple of major teams most years look a bit shabby and low-rent by comparison and sealing the race’s fate. The organisers tried to revamp it for 2018, even going as far as to announce the route, which finished with a pretty interesting stage around the same kind of terrain as stage 9 of the 2011 Tour, but political issues in some of the host towns caused the project to be stillborn, and the project of a long-form stage race in France was dead once more.


Elisa Longo Borghini wins atop Planche des Belles Filles

I always thought, however, what would have been best for the sport would have been for ASO and ORC (organisers of the Route de France) to work together. Especially since La Course was set up five years after the final Grande Boucle Féminine and the calendar spot would require minimal rearrangement, I thought there was ample opportunity to do something there. After all, while they give the licensing out for the trademarked jersey colours, graphics and so on, EASD, who organise the Giro Rosa, are not RCS. I felt that while ASO clearly didn’t want to go all in on a women’s stage race from scratch, hence their rather token attempts to placate discontent about the lack of a women’s Tour, there was little to lose in them offering up their trademarked jersey colours and design, graphics and production clout to work together with ORC to turn La Course and the Route de France between them into something that would genuinely work for women’s cycling. I honestly think it would not take a particularly large commitment on ASO’s part beyond what they currently do for a one day La Course anyway - just having ASO’s official patronage and the coverage that comes from being attached to La Course and its broadcast parallel to the final day of the Tour would make it easier to attract sponsorship and willing host towns, especially with potential ‘reserve’ host towns when planning the route of the Tour, and an interesting route could then be put together that would minimise the eye-watering transfer mileage that was such an issue for the real-life Route de France (and often remains one for the Giro Rosa).

The next thought was format. One of the reasons for the original form taken by La Course was the desire to familiarise the audience with the péloton by putting them in front of the large in-person crowd on the Champs Elysées. However, maintaining a women’s stage race to run coterminously with Le Tour and finish on the same day in the same place would run into notable problems - if they did use the same stage hosts as the Tour, it would perpetuate the accusation of treating the women as a warm-up act, as well as resulting in likely hugely imbalanced parcours due to the nature of the Tour’s final week most years. And if they didn’t, their race would likely be buried as an irrelevant sideshow attraction with most of its prospective audience at home watching the more established men’s race on the TV rather than coming out to see it live, which would be counterproductive.

My solution, therefore, was to accept the Champs Elysées set-up, however instead of having this as the last stage, have it as the first. After all, there are many, many casual fans of cycling for whom the cycling calendar ends when the riders cross the line in Paris. There are also lots of cycling fans for whom the Tour is an event which, due to its stature, inspires them and excites them for the sport, and who have got into a month-long routine of watching cycling, either live or waiting for highlights in the evening, who will then have a cycling-shaped hole in their routine. Why not reach out to them and run what is effectively an ASO-backed Route de France in the same timeslot for a week after the Tour, marketing it during the Tour coverage on the basis of “if you haven’t had enough of your cycling fix” and see if you can capture some crossover audience with the promise of mountains, time trials and effectively the same thing you’ve just been watching, but for the world’s best women instead of men?

The next question was going to be how would I do the format from here? After all, starting on the same day as the men’s Tour finishes, that’s got to be a Sunday, which then means the old Route’s length would vary as to how useful it is with weekend days being more desirable. The Giro is 10 days straight through most years (9 this year), which maximises the weekend days. 10 days starting on a Sunday would mean ending on a Tuesday meaning either a damp squib of a GC finale, or holding the most important stages on days without max audience. This kind of thing needs to be thought about more for races that aren’t established, you see. I decided that my best format for the race would be something inspired by some other ASO racing. The 2006, 2007, 2012, 2013 and 2015 editions of the race went into and around the Paris conurbation, so I felt that we could happily use Paris as a traditional starting point, and then have other cities bid to be the conclusion of the race, in a reversal of the Tour’s traditional system. This could enable the race to remain varied both in terms of terrain and route and avoid things getting stale. One year you could see the women travelling east to the Vosges, another year to the Jura, another year to the Massif Central (and within that, are we going to the Puys or toward the Rhône valley?), possibly as far as the Alps… but you could also see them travelling to the west and having a week long race of punchy climbs, echelons and ribinou.

This then added another question, though: unless it finishes on a weekend, what’s the point in having a parade stage - and if it finishes on a weekend, isn’t it counterproductive to have a parade stage on a max potential audience day when it's already going to be a flat stage of some description on the opening Sunday? I’m effectively proposing a Paris-? stage race, after all, and Paris-Nice always looks to maximise its audience with GC-relevant days on the final weekend rather than a parade… but then it hit me - what else does holding it at the end of July/start of August offer as an ‘out’ for me? Of course! The Post-Tour crits! That was my answer! Sure, they may not be the draw that they once were, but the French ones move around year on year with new ones coming and going and so it could be perfectly reasonable for a city to get a double-whammy from dealing with ASO - a post-Tour crit with some of the stars of Le Tour, and a final day short stage spectacle for the women’s Tour. So, the effective situation is: the first stage is on the Champs Elysées, then we have seven more stages to finish on the following Sunday - and it doesn’t need to be in a major city for a parade, because we can simply have it that the reward finale is that either on the Sunday night as stage 8b or the Monday as an epilogue, the women can have a grand finale criterium circuit race on the same course the men will have their post-Tour criterium that night as an evening double-header. After all, post-Tour crits may not be the money-spinners from Merckx’s day, but with star power on show, they will usually still attract a significant in-person audience. The other benefit to doing an event such as this is that the women’s race will require far fewer trappings than Le Tour, and after all ASO has all this stuff lying around from other races they host, which don’t have the extravagant race caravan that their blue riband event does, and so the women can use a few different climbs and finishes that are either off limits to the men’s event, or can be trialled as to their potential suitability in a race which has a smaller entourage much the same way as they might use Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de l’Avenir for that purpose.

But now that I’ve gone through all the theory, it’s time to put things into practice and show you all what I believe is a not too unrealistic, and viable, vision of what La Course could have been, had the desire and the determination been there on the part of ASO to truly give the women something that would stand out as an attraction on the calendar - and be a feasible, major event that wouldn’t generate the same controversy and divided opinion, whilst also being not too unachievable off the kind of planning background of ORC with the benefit of ASO’s patronage, even if they might not be able to cash in on Pauline Ferrand-Prévot anymore but are instead looking to the next generation of French young prospects like Juliette Labous, Jade Wiel, Évita Muzic and Laura Asencio to develop into their GC hopes. I had one course mostly put together a while back, but with the Giro Rosa going on at the moment and plenty of time to daydream about concepts and designs while waiting for action to develop in the 2020 Tour de France, I soon found that I had designed two complete routes for a La Course/Route de France hybrid - one is designed around being close to the kind of routes the Route did during its lifespan, and one is designed around trying to maximise the audience, draw attention to prominent French riders and prospects, and showcase the potential the race has for innovation as well. I probably won’t do them back to back, but I will inevitably post both. So here’s the first. It’ll become clear which route is which as we go along.

La Vraie Course, by Le Tour de France

Prologue: Paris Champs Elysées - Paris Champs Elysées






Really not a great deal to say about this one. After all, I’ve produced enough of a blurb explaining the race that I’m laying out and why, and any cycling fan worth their salt - and many that aren’t worth their salt - knows the Champs Elysées circuit like the back of their hand. It is, after all, the single most iconic shot in the sport, the yellow jersey holding their trophy aloft on the Champs with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. Almost everything changes in cycling - Roubaix has finished outside the velodrome, San Remo has moved its finishing line, Liège has brought the line back into the city from Ans while de Ronde and Lombardia move their finish regularly. Paris-Nice has two or three option finishes around Nice; the Vuelta usually finishes in Madrid but that’s only a tradition established since the 80s and broken periodically as recently as 2014. But the Tour de France always finishes on the Champs Elysées.

When La Course has been run on the Champs it has been a straightforward, pan flat road stage, but I didn’t fancy that as it would be a damp squib to start with a road stage that doesn’t give out QOM points and simply has all the riders roll off the start with no real presentation. After all, as the crowds will largely be there for the grand finale of the Tour de France, they can’t really do a special pre-race team presentation in the same way for the women here. So why not give them a prologue? Let every rider have a personal introduction and let the fans get to know each rider, who they are and let them get their own heroes and villains from the get-go.

I could also have done this as a TTT which could also work in terms of presenting each team individually, but let’s face it, prologues feel like a dying art, there are too few ITTs on the Women’s World Tour anyway, and the presence of a Team Time Trial just cost Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig a Giro podium this past weekend, so I am even more negatively disposed to the format at present than I ordinarily would be, which is “very”. So a prologue it is and a prologue it shall be!


Plus ça change…

I have decided to put the start at Place de la Concorde. This is because the Place de la Concorde is obviously used in Le Tour as where the course diverts from being an out and back, and there’s a wide open line for the final left-right chicane onto the finishing straight, leaving the centre of Place de la Concorde largely unused, as the péloton will take the fastest line through there. This gives me the opportunity to place a start ramp there with far less disruption than would be the case if riders were to start after the finish line, or indeed on it given how wide the Champs Elysées are. My thinking was, people are going to stake out positions near the finish hours and hours before the men arrive, so if you have a time trial start ramp apparatus needing dismantling and then taking down through the crowds there, that is going to be a lot more disruption than would be needed for my approach, plus you have the issue of the follow-cars.

With my solution, you simply have the starting ramp set up in the area of the Place de la Concorde between the lines taken heading toward the Tuileries and the line taken toward the finish, facing directly down the Champs Elysées, and then this can just basically be an on-ramp that merges into the circuit, and just have a few cones separating those riders merging onto the course at the start of their TT from those riding across the line at the finish, to clear up for the men’s race, rather like having a start/finish set up inside a U-configuration stadium in cross-country skiing (examples such as Östersund spring to mind), minimising disruption and also having the riders depart from immediately opposite a key viewing spot.


Start ramps set up in the area where the tricouleur banner is - riders coming from the bleu, team cars from the rouge.

Prologues are less common than they were a few years ago for women’s racing - back a few years ago when she was riding for Bigla, Annemiek van Vleuten was renowned more for her indomitable record in short time trials than anything else, as she racked up wins in them more than any other format. This is long for a prologue in the women’s calendar - as examples from last year, the Boels Rentals Ladies Tour had a 3,8km one, the BeNe Tour a 3,9km one, and the Festival Elsy Jacobs a 2,7km one and the Tour of Belgium a 5,0km one - but then, this is a longer and more selective stage race than them in terms of the expected time gaps, so let’s open up some smallish time gaps from the word go, set up the race for further days of action in the coming days, and of course hand out women’s cycling’s first “true” maillot jaune since 1989 in the most fitting of places: on the Champs Elysées in the very heart of Paris.
 
Reactions: gregrowlerson
Stage 17 Motril-Motril 131.2 Km Medium Mountain/Transitional

KOM:
Venta de la Cebada ( cat.2 ) 13.9 km @ %5.2
Mirador de la Atalaya ( cat.3 ) 8.7 km @ %3.9
Alto de Puntalon ( cat.3 ) 2.5 km @ %7.6

A breakaway stage before the last 2 chances for climbers. Maybe someone can try an attack on Alto de Puntalon to test others legs.
Nice. This is the kind of stage the Vuelta really does well and has lots of options for.
 
Thanks. I feel it is a good stage. GC riders to get some rest and breakways to get a chance. However riders shoudn't underestimate the possibility of an ambush too.
Also, I would love to see you design a 1-day race around Paris, would be amazing with the information you give on your posts.
Stage 18 Motril-Antequera High/Medium Mountain 220.5 Km

GPM:
Alto de Moclinejo ( cat.2 ) 4.7 km @ %8.3
Puerto del Leon ( cat.1 ) 16.3 km @ %5.4
La Mina ( cat.1 ) 7.1 km @ %7.8
Torcal de Antequera ( cat.2 ) 7.9 km @ %6.8 ( till the Antequera junction )

A tough stage. The penultimate chance for the climbers. Sending teammates to breakaways may well be crucial. The first 40 km of the stage should be hard to control as well, with various short hills and sometimes some narrow roads ( there is a 1.1 km @ %10.39 uncategorized climb for instance )

Antequera:
 
Last chance saloon for climbers. Time for desperate moves.
Stage 19 Malaga-Ronda 187.2 Km High/Medium Mountain

GPM:
Alto de Mijas ( cat.2 ) 5.1 km @ %8.1 ( last 5 km of the profile )
Puerto de Penas Blancas ( cat.1 ) 17.3 km @ %5.9 ( till km 16 of this profile + km 20-23 of this profile in reverse )
Puerto de Benalauria ( cat.2 ) 10.4 km @ %5.8
Puerto de Encinas Borrachas ( cat.3 ) 7.9 km @ %3.2 ( from the Benalauria junction, so the last 16 kms )

Last chance for climbers. Penas Blancas with 57 km to go should be a crucial part of the stage. And Benalauria, crossing with 26 km to go.

Malaga:


Ronda:
 
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I actually decided to categorize Haza del Lino ( Sorvillan ) and Puerto Camacho ( Rubite ) as cat.ESP. on stage 16.
The new profile of stage 16 is this: https://www.cronoescalada.com/index.php/tracks/viewVuelta/657300/317038

Anyways, here is the final GC relevant stage:
Stage 20 Ronda-Utrera 193.9 Km Flat/Sterrato

Sterrato:
N-4 5.8 km
Camino de Canal 13.1 km
Los Palacios-Utrera 7.8 km
Utrera-Los Molares-Utrera 14.3 km

Final chance for overall contenders. 41 kilometers of sterrato in the last 90 km. Enjoy!
The last 90 km in detail ( although the profile is awful - at least it shows the last 40 km better ):
Some photos:
N-4, Camino de Canal, Los Palacios-Utrera, Utrera-Los Molares-Utrera

Utrera:
 
2 years ago I started my second Giro here and I was posting it stage by stage with posting the climbs etc. and posted the first 8 stages but I did not have the time to continue it then I forgot about it ( and when I remembered it I was just too lazy ). However, since laflammerouge has every categorized climb with details, I can post the whole route without going stage by stage because the site gives the information needed about the climbs.

So here is it:
Giro d'Italia v2

  • 6 mountain stages
  • 7 hilly stages
  • 3 ITTs ( one of them up and down the cat.1 Erice )
  • 5 flat stages
  • Cima Coppi is Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse - Hochtor via Füscher Törl
  • 4 uphill finishes ( Monte Ortobene 2C, Enna 3C, Franz Josefs Höhe 2C, Potenza Picena 4C )
  • 126.69 km of ITT
  • 19 1st category climbs
 
Reactions: Red Rick
La Vuelta a Espana v5 Library Post
So, that was the 5th Vuelta I designed. I tried to focus on some areas I did not use much in the previous ones ( such as Extremadura ) and also wanted to have a route suited to climbers whilst still making it balanced. I also kept my 'don't repeat a MTF' rule.
In the end there were:
  • 3329.4 km's
  • 7 cat.ESP climbs ( Col de Pradell, Rassos de Peguera, Coll de la Gallina, Col de Arnostegi, Venta del Chaleco, Haza del Lino ( Sorvillan ), Puerto Camacho ( Rubite ) )
  • 16 cat.1 climbs ( Coll de la Creuta, Coll de la Rabassa, Puerto de Larrau, Col de Bagargui, Col de Beilurti, Col de Irei, Collado de los Ballesteros ( Guadalupe ), Collado de los Ballesteros ( Acebadillas ), Puerto del Piornal, Puerto de Honduras, Portillo de las Batuecas, Pena de Francia, Alto de la Capileira, Puerto del Leon, La Mina, Puerto de Penas Blancas )
  • 2 ITT stages ( 98 km of ITT )
  • 3 summit finishes ( Rassos de Peguera at stage 3, Pena de Francia at stage 15, Alto de la Capileira at stage 16 )
  • 56.8 km of strerrato in total
  • 6 mountainous stages ( stage 3 to Rassos de Peguera, stage 4 to Andorra la Vella, stage 8 to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, stage 14 to Guadalupe, stage 15 to Pena de Francia, stage 16 to La Capileira )
  • 2 high/medium mountain stages ( stage 18 to Antequera, stage 19 to Ronda )
  • 3 medium mountain stages ( stage 1 to Vilafranca del Penedes, stage 9 to Irun, stage 10 to Alcoy )
  • 2 transitional stages ( stage 5 to Barbastro, stage 17 to Motril )
  • 5 sprint stages ( stage 2 to Barcelona, stage 6 to Pamplona, stage 11 to Albacete, stage 12 to Tomelloso ( +15 km of sterrato ), stage 21 to Sevilla )
  • 1 sterrato stage ( stage 20 to Utrera )
  • Rest days are after stage 9 and stage 15
Stage 1: Tarragona-Vilafranca del Penedes 101.0 km
Stage 2: Sitges-Barcelona 137.2 km
Stage 3: Vic-Rassos de Peguera 162.5 km
Stage 4 Guardiola de Bergueda-Andorra la Vella 207.4 km
Stage 5 Andorra la Vella-Barbastro 193.0 km
Stage 6 Huesca-Pamplona 188.1 km
Stage 7 Pamplona-Puerto de Goni 52.3 km ( ITT )
Stage 8 Lumbier-Saint Jean Pied de Port 207.8 km
Stage 9 Saint Jean Pied de Port-Irun 155.3 km
Stage 10 Calpe-Alcoy 185.2 km
Stage 11 Alcoy-Albacete 155.7 km
Stage 12 Albacete-Tomelloso 137.5 km
Stage 13 Daimiel-Ciudad Real 45.7 km ( ITT )
Stage 14 Puebla de Don Rodrigo-Guadalupe 234.5 km
Stage 15 Navalmoral de la Mata-Pena de Francia 200.8 km
Stage 16 Adra-La Capileira 172.6 km
Stage 17 Motril-Motril 131.2 km
Stage 18 Motril-Antequera 220.5 km
Stage 19 Antequera-Ronda 187.2 km
Stage 20 Ronda-Utrera 193.9 km
Stage 21 Dos Hermanas-Sevilla 60.0 km
 
Well, there's a good few options. The PRC guys created the "GP Canal de Castilla" in the Provincia de Valladolid and this has even turned into a cyclotourist event. There are areas that have been used in eastern Extremadura, and in the Sierra de Javalambre. There are a few options in the southern and eastern parts of Comunidad de Madrid, I'm sure there are a few areas of Castilla-La Mancha I've not fully explored that you could find some sterrato options in, and, well, Forever The Best just posted a strong sterrato stage in the Utrera area yesterday!
 
I have a sterrato stage around Utrera. I also included sterrato in my stage 12 which was between Albacete and Tomelloso. As LS says, PRC guys have a GP Canal de Castilla around Medina de Rioseco near Valladolid. fauniera posted a sterrato stages around Sierra de Javalambre ( link stage 18, link stage 19 ). railxmig has used some areas with sterrato in the Pyrenees ( link to his Llivia stage, link to his Monasterio de Leyre stage ). And I also saw visko from PRC having 2 sterrato stages on his Vuelta that he posted on this forum ( link here: https://forum.cyclingnews.com/threads/race-design-thread.15517/post-1925410 ).

So all in all there are various areas for sterrato in Spain but since they don't have a race like Strade Bianche or have been used at a big race, they are much more obscure and mostly only used by traceurs.
 
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Stage 1: Châlette-sur-Loing - Pougues-sur-Eaux, 144km





GPM:
Côte de Bouhy (cat.3) 2,9km @ 4,0%

The first road stage begins in Châlette-sur-Loing, a smallish town of around 12.500 just outside Montargis, a little over an hour south of Paris. Its name is believed to derive from Latin cataracta, for waterfall, and is first attested as Caderaita in the 9th Century, by the 11th it was Catalecta, and this has in time contracted to Châlette. It is famous for its paper mill and also has a sizeable population of Spanish origin, thanks to the Loiret Département accepting nearly 3.000 refugees in the Spanish Civil War after their initial planned decampment in Orléans was overwhelmed. The single most significant étranger in the town, however, would be Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese premier, who worked in his youth at the Hutchinson manufacturing plant in Châlette-sur-Loing.



I picked Châlette-sur-Loing as a host for a particular reason, and that is that it is very supportive of cycling. It has been the home of a successful division I amateur team in French domestic cycling, the Guidon Chalettois squad, which has amongst its alumni former Greek champion Polychronis Tzortzakis, Groupama-FDJ’s Marc Sarreau (2019’s Coupe de France overall winner after a number of victories in French one-dayers, most notably the Tour de Vendée), and Bryan Alaphilippe, brother of the more famous Julian. They’ve also provided a tier N1 home for riders without contracts, such sa former Crédit Agricole, FDJ and Jean Delatour rider Frédéric Finot, and former Europcar and Delko-Marseille sprinter Yannick Martinez.

However, just having a team is not enough for Châlette. The town frequently crops up in racing through this part of France, appearing in the Tour de l’Avenir, Paris-Nice and the Route de France. In 2008, the Tour de l’Avenir started with a prologue here, which was won by longtime Abarcá stalwart Andrey Amador, and as recently as 2020 the town saw racing, when Giacomo Nizzolo won a Paris-Nice stage at such a point as we all knew racing could be shut down at any moment, and therefore every stage was being raced as though there was no tomorrow. Châlette-sur-Loing also played host to the Route de France twice, in 2012 and 2014, with both stages ending in sprints which were won by Chloe Hosking and Kirsten Wild respectively; it was also scheduled to hold an ITT in the mooted 2018 edition, before it was cancelled. There is also a national elite amateur one-day race, Paris-Châlette-Vierzon, which starts in the town and has run since 1949 - it attracts a mixed field including some strong teams and its winners list includes a few names of at least decent repute - two-time Tour de France points classification winner Jean Graczyk most prominent among them, but there’s also former Tour stage winner and maillot jaune Jaan Kirsipuu, Tour de Pologne winners Marek Leśniewski and Vyacheslav Djavanian, and more recently a few recognisable names such as Tony Gallopin, Romain Feillu, Mickaël Larpe and Yannis Yssaad.

As you will note, the general direction of the stage is southward and, here in Centre, there really aren’t too many significant hills to break up the race. This is very much a transitional stage which will give the sprinters a chance to, if they did a good enough prologue, take the maillot jaune as well as perhaps buy themselves some time in the maillot vert before Marianne Vos inevitably bogarts it. This area to the south of Paris was very common in the Route de France, appearing in every route from 2010 onward, so there will be a few sights familiar to the riders here for sure.


The péloton in Châlette-sur-Loing for the Route de France Féminine in 2014

The first place that they can reminisce about comes barely out of the neutral zone - Amilly, on the other side of Montargis, hosted a Route de France ITT in 2007, which was won by Amber Neben. Of course, although Amber is still going strong, not many of the key names in the sport at present would have been there 13 years ago, and in fact Peta Mullens is the only other rider in the top 30 that day that I believe is still active on the road today, although Grace Verbeke does still do the occasional crit back in Belgium. Amilly also hosts ITTs in Paris-Nice sometimes, with Thor Hushovd and Alberto Contador winning them in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

We bypass Briare, which hosted the race in 2013 and 2015 (like Châlette-sur-Loing, sprints were the order of the day, won by Giorgia Bronzini and Lucy Garner (not yet Garner-van der Haar) respectively), but we do pass through neighbouring Saint-Fargeau, which hosted the start of the following stage from the Briare finish in 2013. It being 2013, Bronzini won that one too - in fact, the results that year are particularly astounding, as Emma Johansson won the first stage and Linda Villumsen the last, but between those two victories are sandwiched six consecutive victories for Bronzini. From here, the terrain moves from “completely pan flat” to “slightly rolling but still mostly flat” as we take a quick detour to our first intermediate sprint, in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. This was chosen as it was a stage host in the last Route de France, with Chloe Hosking winning a stage from Saint-Sauveur to Nevers, and also was on the scheduled route for the aborted 2018 reboot of the race, intended to host a stage which would run to the same finishing town that I have chosen for my stage, in fact. The small village is best known to the outside world as the home of Colette, the author and libertine who has been interpreted as a powerful voice for female fiction in the early 20th Century, best known for her late-career novel Gigi.

Now as we straddle the border between the Yonne and Nièvre départements, the terrain starts to get a bit more interesting, with an uncategorised climb preceding the one and only points-paying ascent of the day, the 3km drag of around 4% up to the village of Bouhy, sat on the highest hill of the Puisaye.



I would anticipate that while there are likely to be some attempts to establish moves prior to this, the opportunity of bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint, and the prospect of a day in a major jersey on the podium at the top of the climb, mean that we’ll see the péloton lift the pace to ensure they can contest these. The sprint will likely be fought out by the regular fast women like Kirsten Wild, Jolien d’Hoore, Chloe Hosking and Marta Bastianelli, though a few more all-round women like Marianne Vos, Lizzie Deignan or Lisa Brennauer might involve themselves in the battle for the points. The GPM is a bit harder to predict - riders like Elisa Longo Borghini and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig like to collect mountains points especially as this gives a good fall back option if their GC bid fails, and indeed they just fought out this year’s Giro GPM between themselves, but then there are also riders like Christine Majerus who love to look for a day on the podium in a situation like this, and in particular in races like the Women’s Tour try to take on every intermediate milestone, sprints and mountains alike. She would not be a likely candidate to win the GPM outright in this race, but nothing would be stopping her taking the jersey here, this climb is comfortably within her remit. Once these points are dispensed with, that’s when I see the action picking up with attacks from the bunch to try to foil the sprinters’ teams.

That’s despite the fact there’s still over 50km to go. Look, if the sprinters’ teams don’t want to chase, they don’t want to chase and only a couple of years ago we saw Kasia Niewiadoma take a near 50km solo ride all the way to victory in a flat stage at the Women’s Tour, sometimes a gamble can be worth it. The sprinters’ teams have grown a bit more savvy but then this is peak early Paris-Nice stage territory and as we know, early Paris-Nice stages often deliver more action than they have any right to. And there are lots of riders out there who are fast finishers but mightn’t fancy their chances in a bunch kick, but are also strong enough to look at holding the group off. Majerus fits into this category, as does Amy Pieters, and also the likes of Letizia Paternoster, Lisa Klein, Lisa Brennauer, both Barnes sisters, Emilia Fahlin, and numerous others. Heck, for Boels-Dolmans, in theory they could bring an entire team of riders of that kind, as they also have Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak and Amalie Dideriksen, plus some other young riders in that vein like Jip van den Bos and Eva Buurman. Putting a rider like Majerus or Pieters up the road would also give Jolien d’Hoore a free ride behind - so there is the possibility this gets interesting, especially as some of the bonanza sprinters are riders like Chloe Hosking and Marta Bastianelli, who are not on the current super teams and therefore mightn’t have the same firepower at their disposal to try to bring back the moves for a sprint.

That said, however, the sprint remain s the most likely outcome here; the sprinters might want to fight out some more points at the second sprint at La Charité-sur-Loire, just 18km from home, but even if they don’t, between there and the finish line there is a long and frustrating false flat as we divert away from the Loire’s banks and back into some rolling countryside to avoid the disruption of taking the riders onto the Autorouute de l’Arbre; there’s then a short downhill, a 90º left-hander and then a Paris-Tours-esque 2500m finishing straight into Pougues-les-Eaux, a small village-étape of 2.500 to the north of Nevers, which hosts the arrival for this first road stage.



As you can probably guess from the appellation -les-Eaux, Pougues-les-Eaux’s main claim to fame is as a spa town, at least until recently when the Centre d’Art Parc Saint Leger was opened. It’s also the home of Jean Laudet, a C2 Canoeing gold medalist at the 1952 Olympics. But like Châlette-sur-Loing, I picked it as a stage host mostly as it is a supportive host of the Route de France, and I feel I should include a few of those to be authentic. It was brought in as a stage host in 2013, when it hosted the finish of stage 5 and then the start of stage 6 to Vichy - both of which were part of Bronzini’s reign of terror on that particular edition. Another sprint stage departed from the town a year later, with Kirsten Wild winning in Varennes-sur-Allier for the same team as race leader Claudia Lichtenberg - in one of those strange events rather like the 2017 Women’s Tour, a two-woman breakaway gained a lot of time on day 1, as with both being specialist climbers, Lichtenberg and Alena Amialiusik were allowed to gain more time than you might expect in an undulating stage in the Vendée before the former Giro winner controlled the race from there on in. It was also part of the route for the abortive 2018 edition, with a stage finishing here after departing from Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, which was intended as a hilly stage through the collines to the east of the southward line we’re drawing in our stage.

With such a long, straight power test to the line, crashes should be a minimal threat here, as should GC action. This is the best chance all week for the more limited and purer sprinters, so especially if they’ve kept themselves within touching distance of the GC lead after the ITT, they should be motivated to take it. After all, a fair few of them travelled to the Giro Rosa only to be expended as domestiques and dropped on the hills on even the flattest of stages in this year’s edition’s route, because there weren’t any real sprinters’ stages. I’m at least providing one of those, so the likes of Kirsten Wild, Lorena Wiebes, Jolien d’Hoore and co. had better make best use of it.
 
Stage 2: Magny-Cours - Beaune, 159km





GPM:
Côte des Puits (cat.2) 6,1km @ 4,0%
Côte de Cirey (cat.3) 1,0km @ 7,6%
Côte de la Combe d’Été (cat.3) 2,0km @ 8,1%

A short transfer - Pougues-les-Eaux is just north of Nevers, and Magny-Cours is just to the south of it. Magny-Cours is a small town of 1400 inhabitants, but it is a name which holds much more currency internationally as the home of the Circuit de Nevers-Magny-Cours, usually just abbreviated to Magny-Cours, which is one of the 7 circuits to have held the Formula 1 French Grand Prix, and 17 overall (18 if you count Le Mans-Circuit de la Sarthe, which hosted races titled the “French Grand Prix” before the institution of Formula 1, and Le Mans-Bugatti, which hosted the French Grand Prix in 1967, as separate circuits), and the most recent to join that club. It was opened in 1960 and saw a number of French drivers come through its academies, but fell into disrepair until the local Département council took control and rebuilt it at the end of the 1980s, paving the way for Formula 1 to come on board from 1991 through to the suspension of the French Grand Prix thanks to the need to make room for more oil-rich dictatorships in 2008. The problem the race found, however, was that while its location was fairly central in l’Hexagone, its comparative isolation from major urban centres meant it was not the draw that Reims or Rouen had been, easily accessible from Paris, nor did it have the nearby southern metropolis of Marseilles on hand like Le Castellet, and the city of Nevers was not big enough to adequately cope with the influx of visitors for Grand Prix weekend. It was much happier with niche motorsports, with the city continuing to host the Bol d’Or endurance motorbike race for several years after the F1 circus had left; recently, however, it has looked to expand into other arenas to make up additional money when motor race weekends are not running - such as in 2014, when John Degenkolb won a stage of Paris-Nice on the tarmac of the circuit, curiously raced in the opposite direction to conventional racing.



This is the longest stage of the race, a feature-length grind eastwards into the Saône basin which could be considered a useful Worlds tune-up if the latter race was held in its old August slot - pleasingly this is a situation which is gradually changing, but the women don’t get to take on many 160km routes, so this will bring in endurance as an additional factor which only infrequently comes into play. Also, although the run-in might be flat, it’s a much more arduous stage than yesterday’s too, with a transitional route which crosses two ranges of hills, the Morvan and the Côte d’Or.

Departing Magny-Cours, we almost immediately cross the Loire at the now dilapidated old steel town of Imphy, whose metalworks were used in the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Imphy was also subject of a tongue-in-cheek short film which proposed using its industrial heritage and central location to recommend it as a replacement for Paris as capital of the republic. This precedes a very early intermediate sprint in Anlezy, a very small town - however this may create some interest early on as the bunch fights over bonus seconds, especially if somebody can get themselves into the virtual maillot jaune. The next 40km or so are fairly featureless, if progressively more rolling as we get closer to the Morvan massif that characterises the Saône-et-Loire département. This range of hills in east-central France perhaps does not have the altitude to create a major attraction, but there are enough hills around to create a nice race. So, that’s what the CC Varennes-Vazulles did, and now the Tour Nivernais-Morvan is a fairly well established amateur race in France, dating back to 1968 when the inaugural edition was won by former Peace Race winner Jean-Pierre Danguillaume. The race died in the late 70s but was brought back in 1987 with Pascal Lino the first to win the reborn event. Other recognisable names to have won the race include Steve Houanard, namesake of the Steve Houanard Principle, an informal name given largely only in the Clinic to a case where a drugs bust catches a career domestique on an expiring contract who is clearly doing nothing more than trying to prolong their career; more prominently there is Trek’s Julien Bernard and Direct Énergie’s Marlon Gaillard in recent years; the podium of the race has also seen Jean-Christophe Péraud (back when he was a MTB rider only), Romain Hardy, Lilian Calmejane, Ben Dyball, Yannick Martinez and Aleksandr Botcharov. The region is seldom seen in Le Tour, and something like this, from 2007, is as good as you’re likely to get.

We don’t use the biggest of those climbs, Le Haut-Folin, although we pass close by it. Our biggest ascent, rather, is on the way from Onlay to Mont Beuvray, before which we pass the hamlet and holiday refuge of Les Puits. This is around 6km at 4%, the first half of which is steeper than the second. A downhill false flat gives way to a second, uncategorised kick up to the Gallic citadel of Bibracte, an important settlement of pre-Roman France that once housed over 30.000 people; it was here that Vercingetorix was proclaimed head of the Gaulish coalition as they sought to fight off Roman conquest. Although as any true historian knows, Roman conquest of Gaul was not quite complete thanks to a small pocket of resistance in a single village in Armorica, but Vercingetorix’s coalition was beaten and the settlement of Bibracte was abandoned in favour of the larger Autun a few years later. The former remained virtually untouched for centuries, and arguments reigned as to the location of the great city, confused especially as, after the French Revolution, Autun had been renamed Bibracte and retained this name for many years. However, that Mont Beuvray’s name was etymologically derived from Bibracte, linked with some scholarly findings, led to excavations on the hillside and the remains of the great metropolis were unearthed, and subsequently with the help of reconstructions and research, the archaeological complex was renovated and turned into the sprawling Museum of Celtic Civilization, the biggest of its type in France.



Our next stop-off point, after 25km of gentle downhill, is the city of Autun, which supplanted Bibracte as the Gaulish capital after Roman conquest. Created as Augustodunum and expanded as a Roman counterpart to Bibracte, it swiftly outgrew its neighbour and became the “tribal capital” of the Aedui. It also marks the northeasternmost point of Umayyad conquest in Europe, although it was only held briefly before the death of general Anbasa Ibn Suhaym al-Kalbi precipitated a retreat of the Caliphate’s forces back to better defended terrain. Napoleon Bonaparte studied here for a period in his youth, but the city has rather shrunken from its glory days and now is a fortified town of 13.000 on the southern tips of the Morvan.

The area between the Morvan massif and the hills of the Côte d’Or is hilly in its own right, but not to the same extent; as a result the ensuing 25km are undulating; very little is truly flat but not much is what you’d call genuinely hilly, so it could be a difficult stretch to control as numerous groups attempt to make moves and fights break out as to what is an acceptable group of escapees to which team - this is the kind of stage where an Amy Pieters, a Floortje Mackaij, an Elena Cecchini or an Audrey Cordon-Ragot start pushing decent-sized moves along and the péloton’s big teams have to decide how willing they are to let that group gain time.

When we do get to the Côte d’Or, we only have a couple of hills to traverse, but they could potentially be decisive if raced hard; not in terms of seeing likely solo breaks or anything but certainly ini terms of something like we just saw in the mid-race stages of the Giro Rosa, where a team like CCC will force the pace in the expectation that they can get rid of most of the purer sprinters and improve their chances of winning the stage with Marianne Vos. The two categorised climbs I have included are more or less back to back, at 25km and 21km from home respectively.


Scenery in the Côte d’Or hills we traverse

The first hill is just a kilometre in length, but there’s only a couple of kilometres’ vague downhill sauntering before the second climb, which is a genuine puncheur type ascent of a couple of kilometres in length at a not inconsiderable 8% - starting a bit steeper and then getting more gradual. There are options for big guns to make moves here, but with the stages upcoming I suspect it will be more an option for punchy baroudeuses without designs on the ultimate GC to make some attacking moves (again, some of those names I mentioned earlier will come into this, as will, say, Emilia Fahlin, Eugenia Bujak, Lizzy Banks, Małgorzata Jasińska, Janneke Ensing and that kind of style and calibre of rider - potentially dangerous stage hunters. Simultaneously, a team like CCC is likely to lift the pace for Vos, to try to make this a sprint of the likes of Vos, Deignan, Leleivyte and Sierra types, though they’ll have to work pretty hard to rid the group of the likes of Bastianelli, Kopecky and Rivera.

In their favour is that the first part of the descent could be tricky. Working against them is that the second part isn’t - however, especially if some secondary contenders are badly placed, this could work to their advantage; in women’s cycling, often descents are just as attractive a proposition for putting together an attack move as climbs, and if some of the strong descenders in the group like Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma push the pace, this may make it harder for dropped riders to chase back on. The last 12km is not especially technical, however, and any attack move will be in view most of the time for the chasers, so I don’t expect there will be too much impetus in any groups formed by moves on the descent once they get into the Saône valley, unless somebody unexpected struggles with the Combe d’Été climb - albeit that does remain a possibility given we’ll be almost 140km in by the summit with still around 20km remaining - and is faced with a mad dash on the flat to get back on, therefore my expectation is that the most likely outcome is a sprint on the streets of the wine town of Beaune, which would probably be won by Marianne Vos of course.



Although Beaune only has a population of around 20.000 it is a city of some importance, as the centre and unofficial capital of the Burgundy wine region; its Hospices host France’s biggest and most important annual wine auction. The city’s original iteration was as a Roman fort, but the strength and suitability of the region for vineyards meant that it grew as a wine region and this sustained it as a town of some wealth throughout the middle ages. The city itself does not have a Grand Cru vineyard but as the main market town for the area, the majority of the region’s most prestigious viticulturists have congregated on the city for centuries, lending it great importance to the trade. This has expanded into a general fine foods market centred around the town and meant that the city’s old walled town has remained a centre for traditional French high culture gastronomy for centuries, with people attracted from all over l’Hexagone to view its scenic tiled roofs and medieval preserved centre.

Beaune is surprisingly little-used in cycle racing, though this beautiful old city somehow manages to have its legacy in a very different type of racing; the Chevrolet family, though originating in Switzerland, moved to Beaune in the 1880s; Gaston Chevrolet, the youngest of the three brothers, was born there. After Louis, the oldest of them, emigrated to the USA, he set up the Chevrolet motor company, and sent for his brothers to join him. They established the Frontenac corporation, a company to make bespoke racing parts, and Gaston won the Indianapolis 500 in a Frontenac in 1920, the last Frenchman to win it for almost a century - Simon Pagenaud broke the French drought in 2019, 99 years after Chevrolet’s triumph. Gaston was killed before the year was out, however, tumbling over the embankment at a temporary board track in Beverly Hills, and the Frontenac corporation lasted only one more year - winning at Indianapolis once more - before the remaining brothers retired from racing and concentrated on the Chevrolet company instead. Which seems to have gone alright for them. Bringing things back to bike racing, the city does have a newly installed BMX facility, so perhaps they may want to show that off.

Usually if a bike race is stopping off in this part of the world, it is picking a stage town like Semur-en-Auxois for the scenery. That town hosted the start of a 2007 Tour stage to Bourg-en-Bresse (won by Tom Boonen), along with the 2008 French national championships - Nicolas Vogondy won the men’s race and 49-year-old Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli won the last of her 45.239 national titles among the women. Nearby Nuits-Saint-Georges has also cropped up on the route of the 2011 edition of Paris-Nice and the 2017 Tour de France route. However, I wanted to ensure a nice safe run-in and didn’t want to go up toward 180km in distance or put the climbs too close to the finish just yet, so I’ve gone with the local region’s capital. The run-in is pretty straight but there are three corners in the last 1200m, the most crucial will be the left-hander onto Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, onto the city centre cobbles that will be home to the reduced sprint finish.

 
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The too-hard Tour de France, beginning in Stuttgart. I made this years ago so it needs some work.
Minimal transfers, I guess it's a hybrid of 90's tours and this decades editions.

1. Stuttgart to Stuttgart, 180 km.
Criterium over roads as narrow and with as many corners as possible. Hose the roads down to make sure it’s wet if it doesn't rain.
2. Stuttgart to Karlsruhe, 207 km.
Sprinters stage, pad out the distance to make the total route distance respectable.
3. Landau to Saarbrücken, 187 km.
Rolling stage over the Palatinate, hard enough to distance the sprinters.
4. Metz to Sedan, 154 km.
Obligatory short fast sprinters’ stage before the toughie.
5. Charleville-Mézières to St-Amand-les-Eaux, 221 km.
Travels via Cambrai, Douai, Mons-en-Pévèle with the last cobble being the Trouée d’Arenberg about 5 km from the end. Expect mass carnage and kvetching from riders.
6. Arras to Rouen, 197 km.
Sprinters stage with a few small hills. Meh.
7. Barentin to Alençon, 180 km.
Flat stage with a cat 3 hill, Signal d’Ecouves near the end. Too tough for sprinters.
8. Laval to Vitré, 54 km ITT.
Apparently too long for the Tour these days.
9. Châteaubriant to Mûr-de-Bretagne Mont des Alouettes, 126 km.
Obligatory short fast non-sprinters’ stage, though it isn’t stage 19 this time.
Rest day La Rochelle
10. La Rochelle to Libourne, 196 km.

Flat stage with possible crosswinds.
11. Mont-de-Marsan to Loudenvielle, 210 km.
First mountain stage, long but relatively easy over the Aspin and Val Louron. No MTF yet
12. Montréjeau to Plateau de Beille MTF, 186 km.
Harder Pyrenean stage over the Ares, Portet d’Aspet, Core, Latrape, Agnes with a MTF at the Plateau. This route is overused as hell so 0 points for originality here.
13. Mirepoix to Perpignan, 175 km.
Easier hilly stage over some cat 2’s and 3’s.
14. Perpignan to Millau MTF, 228 km.
Tough Giro-style stage with the Col du Layrac and a MTF at cat 1 Causse Noir.
15. Millau to Alès, 168 km.
Downhill stage with some cat 3’s, last possible sprinters stage before Paris.
16. Bollène to Digne-les-Bains, 190 km.
Another hilly stage over the Col du Macuègne and Col de Pierre Basse before a descent to Digne.
Rest day Digne-les-Bains
17. Digne-les-Bains to Sestriere MTF, 189 km.

Includes the steep Col du Pontis before the Izoard, Montgenèvre and Sestriere.
18. Cesana Torinese to L’Alpe d’Huez Les Deux Alpes MTF, 178 km.
The Mont Cenis isn’t used enough in the Tour so over it goes, followed by the Télégraphe, Galibier and not the Alpe.
19. Grenoble to Morzine, 245 km.
If I was the ASO this stage would be 120 km with 2 climbs but feck that. We have the Tamié, Croix Fry, Colombière, Ramaz and the Joux Plane. I know they hate this general route because it was when Landis won in 2006, but if the Tour wants stages to compete with the Giro’s mythology, here’s a nice start. 7 hours of suffering to go the previous two day’s summit finishes.
20. Cluses to Mont Chéry, 25 km Mountain TT.
They used it in the Dauphiné a few years back, so this is the obligatory short mountain stage the ASO loves so much. Climbs the Mt Chéry via the Côte de Chatillon.
21. Melun to Paris, 135 km.
Now with an 80 km neutral section, the final Sunday snoozefest will be as schmoozy as ever.

Total distance 3625 km.
 
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Stage 3: Nuits-Saint-Georges - Besançon, 135km





GPM:
Col de la Grande Côte (cat.3) 3,2km @ 6,2%
Côte de Marchaux (cat.3) 1,8km @ 8,3%
Côte de Montfaucon (cat.2) 2,1km @ 10,2%

First day for the GC big guns to come out and play in La Course, you would think, with a stage that fits in to the hillier side of the typical profile of a women’s cycling event, and one that will see the puncheuses have their day. The final climb here is of a different nature to that used on other days, so this should create a slightly different outcome, though it will also give us our first indication of who the main GC players are likely to be.



I glossed over Nuits-Saint-Georges in my summary on Beaune, and that was because it hosts the start of stage 3, transitioning through the Saône basin from the Côte d’Or hills to the foothills of the Jura. Built on the site of an old Gallo-Roman trading town, this town of 5.500 sits just under halfway from Beaune to Dijon and owes much of its heritage to the monks of the Cistercian Abbey established near Nuits in the 11th Century. It is at the heart of the 14 villages and communes which constitute the Côte des Nuits wine region, and lends its name to the region accordingly. Six of the 14 are Grand Crus, including the smallest of all Grand Cru appellations, La Romanée. At one point, there was even a sparkling red wine produced in Nuits-Saint-Georges, very much an anomaly in wine tradition, although the method of production was lost during World War II and so this is now a curio lost to time. As mentioned, it has played host to cycling at the highest level twice in the last few years, both times hosting sprint stages; in 2011 Paris-Nice the Côte de Bécoup came 12km from home which burned off a few of the more rotten climbers among the sprinters; Matt Goss beat his new-found compatriot Heinrich Haussler (Haussler had switched his allegiance from Germany to Australia shortly before this) and later-disgraced Russian sprinter Denis Galimzyanov to the line. When racing returned in 2017, it was the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France, and there was no potential sting in the tail this time. Instead it was a fast and flat stage all the way which was won by Marcel Kittel.

The first 2/3 of the stage are very flat indeed, traversing the Val de Saône and crossing the river itself in Auxonne, which grew to prominence in the late middle ages when it became a border town between the somewhat confusingly named Duchy of Burgundy and County of Burgundy; the former was under French control and reflects in modern Bourgogne; the latter was part of the Holy Roman Empire, had a mixed Franco-German population and corresponds largely to modern Franche-Comté. As a result, the city is heavily militarised and fortified; the town aggressively resisted French control before succumbing in the late 15th Century. After this point it retained a tumultuous history and was viewed with suspicion and concern by successive French kings, until Louis XIV conquered the County of Burgundy and took the question of the border issue out of Auxonne’s hands. It makes a good spot for the first intermediate sprint because of its historical importance.



Shortly afterward, we move from the Côte d’Or département (Bourgogne) to the Jura département (Franche-Comté) for a brief transition across into Doubs, where we will spend the rest of the day’s riding. At Champagney we meet the Ognon river, a tributary of the Saône, and then follow along its path eastward for around 50km, meaning we pass by to the north of Doubs’ provincial capital of Besançon. The last 35km are us looping around the east of Besançon in order to arrive back in town for the finish, and doing so via a couple of climbs designed to break the stage up a little.

The climbs are split by a bit of a stretch of valley road; two climbs, less likely to impact the GC, before it, and one, more likely to impact the GC, after it. The first is a very creatively named one… there are a few hills that spread eastwards from Besançon, and the northernmost of these is a single mountain ridge which stands above them. It is called Grand Côte. Yes. The main summit of the Grand Côte is above a small hamlet called Braillans; there is a second summit on its shoulder to the east and a further to the northeast of that. Two roads cross between the primary and secondary summit and between the secondary and tertiary summits; the latter, from Moncey in the north to Chaudfontaine in the south, is not significant enough to merit a col sign; the former, however, from Vieilley in the northwest to Marchaux in the southeast, is called the Col de la Grand Côte. Which is a pretty grandiose name for a climb which is just 3,2km @ 6,2%, really, although there are some stronger ramps near the bottom and it eases out toward the top. Fortunately, we can chain it immediately to a second climb directly out of Marchaux towards Amagney; this climb is only 1,8km long but it averages over 8% - it is however surprisingly consistent for a climb of this type. However, it has a very fast and potentially interesting descent and these two climbs back to back plus the incentive of bonus seconds in the Doubs valley road below ought to hopefully break the race up a bit here so that there’s already some action underway by the time we hit our final climb.

Roche-lez-Beaupré doesn’t really fit the profile of an important race stop-off; it’s only just outside Besançon, and it has long been a relatively isolated community that has only grown as the nearby city has and it has become a minor commuter town. Until recently, there wasn’t even really anybody notable to mention in connection with Roche-lez-Beaupré that might be of interest to the stage summary. But now there is, and her family and friends will likely be on the roads to cheer her on.



As I mentioned in the preamble to this race, one of ASO’s initial hopes with setting up La Course was to piggyback the success and popularity of Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. That may not have worked out in the long run as she has elected to specialise in MTB after spreading herself too thinly across different disciplines when injuries started to mount. However, France has a new generation of prospects ready and eager to step into that role, and chief among them and likely to be holding France’s GC hopes at least partially on her shoulders, will be young Juliette Labous of Team Sunweb.

Franche-Comté as a region is doing very well for itself in women’s cycling at the moment in terms of youth prospects. Like several of those prospects, Labous got her start in cyclocross, but swiftly moved to the road after collecting bronze medals in both the European and World Championships Junior ITTs in 2016, at the age of 17. She was one of the youngest ever riders on a World Tour team, joining Team Sunweb in 2017 at the age of 18 years and 57 days, and they wisely largely kept her to smaller races and shorter stage races, though she did get to race a couple of Ardennes classics. The Tour de Yorkshire was a one day race that year, but she impressed many by being part of the decisive group that day, and even outlasting Ellen van Dijk and Anna van der Breggen, and later won a stage of the Tour de Féminin-Krásná Lipá, the same race that had made Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s name a couple of years earlier. A World Tour stage race top 10 in Norway later, and a friendly battle was afoot between Labous and Lippert to be the jewel in Sunweb’s prospect crown (neither will be particularly enthused by the signing of Lorena Wiebes in that respect!). Largely specialising in stage races is a difficult role to have in women’s cycling, however, though Labous did move forward to finish 11th overall in 2019’s Giro Rosa, after finishing 13th alongside specialist climbers like Katie Hall and Ane Santesteban on Passo Torre di Fraele, 5th in the Teglio not-quite-an-MTT ahead of the likes of Niewiadoma, Hall and Spratt, and 10th on Malga Montasio, alongside featherweight escaladora Eider Merino and ahead of the likes of Niewiadoma once more. Trouble in the gravel on stage 2 derailed her chances to improve on that in 2020 and she finished 3rd on the final stage behind fellow French prospect Evita Music as her best showing as she largely took a subordinate role to Liane Lippert, but being still only 21 years old, the best is definitely yet to come from Juliette and she has got some serious stage racing potential in her, so she will be leading the tricouleur charge and passing through her hometown may give her some additional motivation to make things happen when it comes to the final climb of the day, the tricky ascent up to Montfaucon.



Famous for its 11th Century castle ruins, the town of Montfaucon overlooks Besançon from the southeast and is accessed by a nice wide, undulating road. But we aren’t interested in that road. We’d rather take the narrow and Vuelta-tastic Chemin des Vignes/Chemin de Chevriot-Dessous route. You can see details of it from Catena Cycling here. The overall climb from La Malate up to the castle ruins is 3,8km at 9,3%, however we are only going into the town itself and stopping the ascent at the first D143 junction, so as not to disrupt major traffic routes, which makes for a climb of 2,09 kilometres, during which time we ascent 215m. I rounded the distance up to 2,1km above, which brought the average down from being rounded up to 10,3% to being rounded down to 10,2%. Still: it’s Mur de Huy level except a bit tougher. And bearing in mind the summit is just 6,9km from the finish, we should see some real fireworks here as the known GC climbers like the van Vleutens, van der Breggens, Longo Borghinis, Niewiadomas and Uttrup Ludwigs of the world try to fend off the puncheuses who may not last the distance on mountain stages but can certainly give themselves something to work with, like the Deignans of this world, and those that represent everything in between, such as Lippert, Vollering and perhaps those who really come alive on the steepest and nastiest of ascents, like Clara Koppenburg.

The descent is short and two stepped; there is a very straight downhill on the D143, then a flattening out through some twisty turns onto the RD-571 (which becomes the N57 upon leaving town) which takes us down to the bend in the route of the Doubs river and the Vauban-designed fortifications and Citadel for with Besançon is famed. With just over 110.000 inhabitants it is one of the largest cities we will see in the race, possibly even the second biggest after Paris. The fortifications are key to one of the sources of its strengths; with the Jura mountains rising behind it it became an important natural barrier and a key strategic point as a result, dating back to the Pre-Roman Gallic tribes, with the Sequani founding the city as a defence against their rivals in trade, the Aedui. As part of the division of the Frankish kingdoms it was part of Lothringia and as a result it was part of the County of Burgundy (or, more precisely, an Imperial Free City within it) during the Holy Roman Empire times. For half a millennium it was a free city, but this ended with the Peace of Westphalia, and then it became the source of conflict between France and Habsburg Spain for 30 years before the Spanish were decisively beaten and forced to cede the city, with the French then heavily fortifying the city even beyond its previous levels and embarking on a strong policy of Gallicization, which included the renovation of its city centre, now renowned as one of the most beautiful in all of mainland France, and Vauban’s fortifications are now inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



Besançon is also pretty unusual among French major cities in that its primary sport is neither football, nor rugby which is regionally popular especially in the south of the country; debatably handball is a major sport here, but largely the city specialises in outdoor pursuits, from endurance disciplines like trailrunning and cycling to adventure sports like hang-gliding and cliff-diving. The city has an enduring connection with cycling and is a frequent supportive city for ASO, having appeared around 20 times in the Tour de France as well as infrequent additional appearances in races like the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour de l’Avenir. It has been part of Tour de France lore since 1905 when it first appeared on the route as a stage town; the 299km stage from Nancy to Besançon that day was won by great pioneering racer Hippolyte Aucouturier. After this, however, Nancy was replaced by Metz as a frequent stage town in the east, and so Belfort became the stage host du jour in this corner of France to maintain stage distances at the typical length, and though it was passed through frequently, it would be 1938 before Besançon would see a stage finish again, this time with Marcel Kint triumphant. Since then, winners in Besançon include Ferdi Kübler in the first post-war Tour, André Darrigade, Jacques Anquetil (in a chrono, of course), Patrick Sercu, Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, Jean-Paul van Poppel, Olaf Ludwig (the first and only Tour stage won representing East Germany), and more recently two race-winning ITTs, one by Lance Armstrong in 2004 and one by Bradley Wiggins in 2012. In 1996, a rider called Jeroen Blijlevens won, and he went on to be a major proponent for women’s cycling, running the women’s team that has gone through many iterations from DSB to Nederland Bloeit to Rabobank to WM3 to Waowdeals to CCC.

Besançon is also home to the former rider Jean de Gribaldy, le Vicomte. A reasonable if unspectacular professional, de Gribaldy’s road career in the 40s and 50s had as its pinnacle a bottom-end top 10 in Paris Nice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a win in his local Tour de Doubs. He is, however, more famous for his work as a directeur sportif and as a team owner. De Gribaldy was both a pioneer, whose training methods were ahead of his time, and a maverick who would search for prospects well outside of traditional cycling heartlands and use uncharacteristic means to pick up riders for his teams. He is famed for the discovery of Joaquim Agostinho and of Séan Kelly, who tells of him turning up at the family farm unannounced with a contract because Séan had rebuffed him about turning pro and de Gribaldy felt he couldn’t afford to risk a talent like Kelly falling into another team’s hands. Le Vicomte - so called, initially sarcastically and later affectionately, because of his aristocratic background - was a cycling workaholic who was still an active DS all the way to his death from a car crash in early 1987, so the only GT win he ever managed to preside over was Éric Caritoux’s shock Vuelta win in 1984. He’ll make a nice name to pay homage to as we reach the end of the first part of the race.
 
Stage 3: Nuits-Saint-Georges - Besançon, 135km





GPM:
Col de la Grande Côte (cat.3) 3,2km @ 6,2%
Côte de Marchaux (cat.3) 1,8km @ 8,3%
Côte de Montfaucon (cat.2) 2,1km @ 10,2%

First day for the GC big guns to come out and play in La Course, you would think, with a stage that fits in to the hillier side of the typical profile of a women’s cycling event, and one that will see the puncheuses have their day. The final climb here is of a different nature to that used on other days, so this should create a slightly different outcome, though it will also give us our first indication of who the main GC players are likely to be.



I glossed over Nuits-Saint-Georges in my summary on Beaune, and that was because it hosts the start of stage 3, transitioning through the Saône basin from the Côte d’Or hills to the foothills of the Jura. Built on the site of an old Gallo-Roman trading town, this town of 5.500 sits just under halfway from Beaune to Dijon and owes much of its heritage to the monks of the Cistercian Abbey established near Nuits in the 11th Century. It is at the heart of the 14 villages and communes which constitute the Côte des Nuits wine region, and lends its name to the region accordingly. Six of the 14 are Grand Crus, including the smallest of all Grand Cru appellations, La Romanée. At one point, there was even a sparkling red wine produced in Nuits-Saint-Georges, very much an anomaly in wine tradition, although the method of production was lost during World War II and so this is now a curio lost to time. As mentioned, it has played host to cycling at the highest level twice in the last few years, both times hosting sprint stages; in 2011 Paris-Nice the Côte de Bécoup came 12km from home which burned off a few of the more rotten climbers among the sprinters; Matt Goss beat his new-found compatriot Heinrich Haussler (Haussler had switched his allegiance from Germany to Australia shortly before this) and later-disgraced Russian sprinter Denis Galimzyanov to the line. When racing returned in 2017, it was the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France, and there was no potential sting in the tail this time. Instead it was a fast and flat stage all the way which was won by Marcel Kittel.

The first 2/3 of the stage are very flat indeed, traversing the Val de Saône and crossing the river itself in Auxonne, which grew to prominence in the late middle ages when it became a border town between the somewhat confusingly named Duchy of Burgundy and County of Burgundy; the former was under French control and reflects in modern Bourgogne; the latter was part of the Holy Roman Empire, had a mixed Franco-German population and corresponds largely to modern Franche-Comté. As a result, the city is heavily militarised and fortified; the town aggressively resisted French control before succumbing in the late 15th Century. After this point it retained a tumultuous history and was viewed with suspicion and concern by successive French kings, until Louis XIV conquered the County of Burgundy and took the question of the border issue out of Auxonne’s hands. It makes a good spot for the first intermediate sprint because of its historical importance.



Shortly afterward, we move from the Côte d’Or département (Bourgogne) to the Jura département (Franche-Comté) for a brief transition across into Doubs, where we will spend the rest of the day’s riding. At Champagney we meet the Ognon river, a tributary of the Saône, and then follow along its path eastward for around 50km, meaning we pass by to the north of Doubs’ provincial capital of Besançon. The last 35km are us looping around the east of Besançon in order to arrive back in town for the finish, and doing so via a couple of climbs designed to break the stage up a little.

The climbs are split by a bit of a stretch of valley road; two climbs, less likely to impact the GC, before it, and one, more likely to impact the GC, after it. The first is a very creatively named one… there are a few hills that spread eastwards from Besançon, and the northernmost of these is a single mountain ridge which stands above them. It is called Grand Côte. Yes. The main summit of the Grand Côte is above a small hamlet called Braillans; there is a second summit on its shoulder to the east and a further to the northeast of that. Two roads cross between the primary and secondary summit and between the secondary and tertiary summits; the latter, from Moncey in the north to Chaudfontaine in the south, is not significant enough to merit a col sign; the former, however, from Vieilley in the northwest to Marchaux in the southeast, is called the Col de la Grand Côte. Which is a pretty grandiose name for a climb which is just 3,2km @ 6,2%, really, although there are some stronger ramps near the bottom and it eases out toward the top. Fortunately, we can chain it immediately to a second climb directly out of Marchaux towards Amagney; this climb is only 1,8km long but it averages over 8% - it is however surprisingly consistent for a climb of this type. However, it has a very fast and potentially interesting descent and these two climbs back to back plus the incentive of bonus seconds in the Doubs valley road below ought to hopefully break the race up a bit here so that there’s already some action underway by the time we hit our final climb.

Roche-lez-Beaupré doesn’t really fit the profile of an important race stop-off; it’s only just outside Besançon, and it has long been a relatively isolated community that has only grown as the nearby city has and it has become a minor commuter town. Until recently, there wasn’t even really anybody notable to mention in connection with Roche-lez-Beaupré that might be of interest to the stage summary. But now there is, and her family and friends will likely be on the roads to cheer her on.



As I mentioned in the preamble to this race, one of ASO’s initial hopes with setting up La Course was to piggyback the success and popularity of Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. That may not have worked out in the long run as she has elected to specialise in MTB after spreading herself too thinly across different disciplines when injuries started to mount. However, France has a new generation of prospects ready and eager to step into that role, and chief among them and likely to be holding France’s GC hopes at least partially on her shoulders, will be young Juliette Labous of Team Sunweb.

Franche-Comté as a region is doing very well for itself in women’s cycling at the moment in terms of youth prospects. Like several of those prospects, Labous got her start in cyclocross, but swiftly moved to the road after collecting bronze medals in both the European and World Championships Junior ITTs in 2016, at the age of 17. She was one of the youngest ever riders on a World Tour team, joining Team Sunweb in 2017 at the age of 18 years and 57 days, and they wisely largely kept her to smaller races and shorter stage races, though she did get to race a couple of Ardennes classics. The Tour de Yorkshire was a one day race that year, but she impressed many by being part of the decisive group that day, and even outlasting Ellen van Dijk and Anna van der Breggen, and later won a stage of the Tour de Féminin-Krásná Lipá, the same race that had made Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s name a couple of years earlier. A World Tour stage race top 10 in Norway later, and a friendly battle was afoot between Labous and Lippert to be the jewel in Sunweb’s prospect crown (neither will be particularly enthused by the signing of Lorena Wiebes in that respect!). Largely specialising in stage races is a difficult role to have in women’s cycling, however, though Labous did move forward to finish 11th overall in 2019’s Giro Rosa, after finishing 13th alongside specialist climbers like Katie Hall and Ane Santesteban on Passo Torre di Fraele, 5th in the Teglio not-quite-an-MTT ahead of the likes of Niewiadoma, Hall and Spratt, and 10th on Malga Montasio, alongside featherweight escaladora Eider Merino and ahead of the likes of Niewiadoma once more. Trouble in the gravel on stage 2 derailed her chances to improve on that in 2020 and she finished 3rd on the final stage behind fellow French prospect Evita Music as her best showing as she largely took a subordinate role to Liane Lippert, but being still only 21 years old, the best is definitely yet to come from Juliette and she has got some serious stage racing potential in her, so she will be leading the tricouleur charge and passing through her hometown may give her some additional motivation to make things happen when it comes to the final climb of the day, the tricky ascent up to Montfaucon.



Famous for its 11th Century castle ruins, the town of Montfaucon overlooks Besançon from the southeast and is accessed by a nice wide, undulating road. But we aren’t interested in that road. We’d rather take the narrow and Vuelta-tastic Chemin des Vignes/Chemin de Chevriot-Dessous route. You can see details of it from Catena Cycling here. The overall climb from La Malate up to the castle ruins is 3,8km at 9,3%, however we are only going into the town itself and stopping the ascent at the first D143 junction, so as not to disrupt major traffic routes, which makes for a climb of 2,09 kilometres, during which time we ascent 215m. I rounded the distance up to 2,1km above, which brought the average down from being rounded up to 10,3% to being rounded down to 10,2%. Still: it’s Mur de Huy level except a bit tougher. And bearing in mind the summit is just 6,9km from the finish, we should see some real fireworks here as the known GC climbers like the van Vleutens, van der Breggens, Longo Borghinis, Niewiadomas and Uttrup Ludwigs of the world try to fend off the puncheuses who may not last the distance on mountain stages but can certainly give themselves something to work with, like the Deignans of this world, and those that represent everything in between, such as Lippert, Vollering and perhaps those who really come alive on the steepest and nastiest of ascents, like Clara Koppenburg.

The descent is short and two stepped; there is a very straight downhill on the D143, then a flattening out through some twisty turns onto the RD-571 (which becomes the N57 upon leaving town) which takes us down to the bend in the route of the Doubs river and the Vauban-designed fortifications and Citadel for with Besançon is famed. With just over 110.000 inhabitants it is one of the largest cities we will see in the race, possibly even the second biggest after Paris. The fortifications are key to one of the sources of its strengths; with the Jura mountains rising behind it it became an important natural barrier and a key strategic point as a result, dating back to the Pre-Roman Gallic tribes, with the Sequani founding the city as a defence against their rivals in trade, the Aedui. As part of the division of the Frankish kingdoms it was part of Lothringia and as a result it was part of the County of Burgundy (or, more precisely, an Imperial Free City within it) during the Holy Roman Empire times. For half a millennium it was a free city, but this ended with the Peace of Westphalia, and then it became the source of conflict between France and Habsburg Spain for 30 years before the Spanish were decisively beaten and forced to cede the city, with the French then heavily fortifying the city even beyond its previous levels and embarking on a strong policy of Gallicization, which included the renovation of its city centre, now renowned as one of the most beautiful in all of mainland France, and Vauban’s fortifications are now inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



Besançon is also pretty unusual among French major cities in that its primary sport is neither football, nor rugby which is regionally popular especially in the south of the country; debatably handball is a major sport here, but largely the city specialises in outdoor pursuits, from endurance disciplines like trailrunning and cycling to adventure sports like hang-gliding and cliff-diving. The city has an enduring connection with cycling and is a frequent supportive city for ASO, having appeared around 20 times in the Tour de France as well as infrequent additional appearances in races like the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour de l’Avenir. It has been part of Tour de France lore since 1905 when it first appeared on the route as a stage town; the 299km stage from Nancy to Besançon that day was won by great pioneering racer Hippolyte Aucouturier. After this, however, Nancy was replaced by Metz as a frequent stage town in the east, and so Belfort became the stage host du jour in this corner of France to maintain stage distances at the typical length, and though it was passed through frequently, it would be 1938 before Besançon would see a stage finish again, this time with Marcel Kint triumphant. Since then, winners in Besançon include Ferdi Kübler in the first post-war Tour, André Darrigade, Jacques Anquetil (in a chrono, of course), Patrick Sercu, Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, Jean-Paul van Poppel, Olaf Ludwig (the first and only Tour stage won representing East Germany), and more recently two race-winning ITTs, one by Lance Armstrong in 2004 and one by Bradley Wiggins in 2012. In 1996, a rider called Jeroen Blijlevens won, and he went on to be a major proponent for women’s cycling, running the women’s team that has gone through many iterations from DSB to Nederland Bloeit to Rabobank to WM3 to Waowdeals to CCC.

Besançon is also home to the former rider Jean de Gribaldy, le Vicomte. A reasonable if unspectacular professional, de Gribaldy’s road career in the 40s and 50s had as its pinnacle a bottom-end top 10 in Paris Nice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a win in his local Tour de Doubs. He is, however, more famous for his work as a directeur sportif and as a team owner. De Gribaldy was both a pioneer, whose training methods were ahead of his time, and a maverick who would search for prospects well outside of traditional cycling heartlands and use uncharacteristic means to pick up riders for his teams. He is famed for the discovery of Joaquim Agostinho and of Séan Kelly, who tells of him turning up at the family farm unannounced with a contract because Séan had rebuffed him about turning pro and de Gribaldy felt he couldn’t afford to risk a talent like Kelly falling into another team’s hands. Le Vicomte - so called, initially sarcastically and later affectionately, because of his aristocratic background - was a cycling workaholic who was still an active DS all the way to his death from a car crash in early 1987, so the only GT win he ever managed to preside over was Éric Caritoux’s shock Vuelta win in 1984. He’ll make a nice name to pay homage to as we reach the end of the first part of the race.
Great stage, realistic design. As an alternative, after the Côte de Montfaucon via La Malatte is a steep descent and a wall: the first part of la Montée de la Chapelle des Buis (2.5km @ 7.8%). Sharp descent to la Côte de Chaudanne, a.k.a. “ La Montee de Gribaldy”. 2km @ 6.2%. This climb is raced yearly the day before the start of the TdF, “en ligne” and ITT. The record is 5’29” by Jean-Eudes Desmarets (2” faster than Christophe Moreau BTW).
 
Stage 4: Louhans - Louhans, 20,0km (ITT)





The second, final and main time trial of the race is this 20km test around the city of Louhans, which marks the transition of the GC battle from jostling for spots near the top to the all out battle for victory we all crave. A few of the time trial specialists such as Ellen van Dijk might be close enough to take the maillot jaune with a good time here, as she can likely stay in pretty good contact on the final climb in the Besançon stage, though most likely the jersey will be on the shoulders of a major GC contender by the time we’re done - based on the péloton at time of writing that means most likely Annemiek van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen or Elisa Longo Borghini. A lot of the other top GC names are far from poor time trialists, but nevertheless their aim here will be to come out of the stage as near as they possibly can be to the maillot jaune, with nothing but GC stages to come.



The host I have chosen for the race’s main chrono is the small city of Louhans, the capital of the Bresse-bourgignonne département and a scenic market town. It’s a bit of a trek (though less than 100km) from Besançon, but this and the following stage host does mean that somewhere like Dôle - which also hosts a post-Tour criterium at present - could be a feasible place for riders to set up and stay in the same hotel for three straight nights, offering the kind of stability and budget savings that can be incredibly beneficial to the bottom line in women’s cycling. Hell, it can be in men’s cycling too, and indeed the fact that riders can stay in the same place throughout is one of the Tour Down Under’s selling points. Likewise races like the Thüringen Rundfahrt and the Emakumeen Bira work off the principle of doing circuit stages or stages radiating from or focused around a specific point - Bira will start and finish typically in Iurreta, a small town subsumed by Durango, and accessible from Bilbao and San Sebastián on Euskotren or capable of hosting most of the teams in and of itself; Thüringen will host 7 stages or so which are loops around a host city, and then the teams will select a city in the middle of these hosts somewhere and base themselves out of that city for the whole week. Obviously here we aren’t basing the riders out of the same place for the whole week, because you can’t really do a point to point week long race (of the Paris-Nice style) without going from place to place, but here we can save on some logistics for a few days in the middle of the race.

Louhans itself is likely too small to incorporate all of the trappings of the race - although it has steadily been growing over the last century, it is still only around 6.500 in population. Bresse-bourgignonne, of which Louhans is the capital, is a historical region which helps add to the paradoxes around this part of the world; the former Bresse province was split between the Ain Département and the County of Bourgogne, with the former being the ‘true’ Bresse as it included Bourg-en-Bresse, and so the latter was relegated to the status of “Burgundian Bresse”, rather like the Belgian province of Luxembourg, Iparralde/“French Basque Country”, “Rioja Alavesa” or “French Flanders” type names. Fortunately, to save confusion, it was within French Burgundy rather than the County of Bourgogne, so we didn’t have the additional confusion of putting “bourgignonne” in the name of the area and then it being in what was renamed Franche-Comté rather than what became Bourgogne!!!

With its cobbled streets and its Burgundy tiled roofing along a network of old French style shopping arcades constructed in the 15th Century, it is a picturesque town whose prominent market status has led to a strong gastronomic reputation. The market of Louhans has been given the status of Site remarquable de goût by the Conseil National des Arts culinaires thanks to the high level of food available and the culinary prestige conferred by being awarded a spot on the Louhans marketplace. The poule de bresse is a protected denomination of origin, renowned as one of the highest quality chicken meats in the world only allowed to be made from pure white chickens of the Bresse breed within the province and with strict rules about how the chickens can be treated, raised and bred; other specialities of the area include the prestige pastry Corniotte, high quality frog’s legs, and the tête de veau. A particularly popular dish is the Pôchouse, a stew of freshwater fish in a white wine sauce, derived from the Arpitan reflection of pêcheurs, i.e. “fishermen”. Fernand Point, the first chef to ever receive three Michelin stars and considered a pioneer of ‘nouvelle cuisine’, was born in Louhans and its gastronomic heritage obviously influenced his life greatly.

However, as entertaining as the “Munch for the Bunch” section was when doing the Race Design Challenge for the 100th Giro design, I didn’t pick Louhans to host a stage because of any great culinary tradition but in fact because of its primary - and realistically only - cycling heritage being through the Route de France, which appeared in the town twice, in 2008 and 2015. In 2008, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg won a sprint in Louhans before the following day’s stage to Gueugnon departed from the town (Martina Corazza won a two up sprint ahead of Anke Wichmann with a group of 20 just a few seconds behind, which allowed Grace Verbeke, one of said group, to take the leader’s jersey, for the record). 2015’s stage into Louhans also ended in a sprint, but it was a bit messier, with Loren Rowney and Annette Edmondson being awarded a time gap ahead of Roxane Fournier and Leah Kirchmann, and they in turn being granted a time gap ahead of 5th place. Thankfully for the organisers, Elisa Longo Borghini was safely in the group at 3” and had authoritatively won the preceding stage into Avallon, so confusion was short-lived.

There isn’t really much to say about the route itself here; it starts by the Arcades and ends by the Place de la Libération, which also offers ample parking for the trappings of the race. It’s a completely flat time trial lasting exactly 20km, first heading south and negotiating the outer edges of Louhans before heading east before successive left-handers return us to the city to finish.

There don’t tend to be many ITTs at the World Tour level; in fact in 2019 the only full length ITT on the calendar was the MTT in the Giro Rosa. We do see frequent ITTs in .1 and .2 races, however in Europe at least these are commonly semitappes, which the World Tour doesn’t allow for. There are some standalone ITT events in the North American calendar, and also the Omloop van Borsele’s non-UCI ITT, but 20km as part of an overarching stage race doesn’t happen often these days. This one should be good enough for the specialists - but as we know, those specialists also include some GC women. And there could be some significant time gaps generated here too - plus a chance to append a high profile race like this including significant time trial mileage might be attractive to some of the North American teams that come across at this time of year to race things like the Tour de Féminin Krasná Lipá and make their mayfly shows at the Worlds a bit less mayfly-y.

And set up the GC for some climbing battles once some gaps have already been established, not that the women usually need much inviting to break things up when the climbing starts.
 
Stage 5: Lons-le-Saunier - Station de Ski La Vattay, 118km





GPM:
Côte de Prenovel (cat.2) 11,6km @ 3,6%
Côte de Lamoura (cat.1) 14,0km @ 5,0%
Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes (cat.1) 11,7km @ 6,4%
Station de Ski La Vattay (cat.2) 6,1km @ 5,1%

Ah yes, the climbing begins in earnest today, with a stage which isn’t about the punchy ascents anymore but features some genuine cat.1 ascents. In fairness, there is a case to be made that the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes, a cat.1 ascent in the Tour de France, could be a legitimate HC in women’s cycling where climbs of this size are infrequent and decisive. The stage town from which we depart today is Lons-le-Saunier, which is in fact closer to Besançon, stage 3’s finish town, than Louhans, around which we travelled in the ITT. It’s also not especially far from Beaune, therefore I would not be surprised if teams choose to locate themselves out of Lons for several consecutive days here. The alternative would be nearby Dôle, which presently holds a post-Tour crit, and naturally with Franche-Comté being pretty keen on cycling at present the region makes a convenient host.



The capital of the Jura département within Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Lons-le-Saunier is a city in decline, having decreased in population from its peak in the 1970s at 21.000 to its current population of just over 17.000, and was built on the Vallière river. However, its complete urban population is nearly 60.000 once outlying villages and suburbs are incorporated. Originally a castle town attested from the 11th Century, it grew after being the home of Jean de Chalon in the 13th Century. In the 17th Century, it was besieged and captured by the French during the Ten Years’ War and its castle destroyed. After a century of subsequent development, the city was restored. It was provisionally renamed Franciade and holds a particular place in the heart of the nation in a strange respect - its role in the revolution was relatively minor, but also long-lasting for the army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle was born in Lons-le-Saunier in 1760. Rouget de Lisle was however no distinguished high ranking officer; he was a mere captain. He was even a royalist. However, after France declared war on Austria and upon overhearing a local Baron bewailing France’s lack of a military anthem, Rouget de Lisle composed a patriotic poem and set it to music under the name of Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin, but you and I know it better under its subsequent appellation of Le Marseillaise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was also the home of the conman Jean-Claude Romand, a failed medical practitioner who persuaded his family and friends he was a successful doctor, developing expert knowledge by studying medical texts in order to fool people further, cooping up at Geneva airport on “business trips”, and eventually after his ruse was exposed 18 years later, murdering his parents, wife and children before torching his house.

More recently, Lons-le-Saunier has become a sports city. In 1992, kayaker Sylvain Curinier became the first Lédonien to win an Olympic medal, taking a silver in the slalom. More recently we have David Linarès, a defender who won Ligue 1 with Olympique Lyonnais as part of a 15 year professional career that also took in Troyes and ASC Dijon, before he moved into coaching at the latter club where he remains to this day; Félix Lambey, a tall and very noticeable rugby player (he is more ginger than anybody that Scotland or Ireland have ever fielded as well as being nearly 2m tall); and more recently two junior standouts in my two favourite sports. Firstly, we can mention the junior biathlon prospect by the fanciful and remarkable name of Martin Bourgeois République. Yes, that name is real. A standout prospect on the Samse Coupe de France after growing up taking the snow in the nearby stations at Les Rousses (Prémanon-Les Tuffes), La Vattay and Chaux-Neuve, he decided to take up the rifle as the success of Martin Fourcade made biathlon more popular among France’s nordic skiing population, and since then, in 2019 he won gold in the Individual and silver in the Pursuit at the Junior World Championships, and he has been a regular visitor to the podium at the IBU Junior World Cup for the last two years. But more than him, the reason Lons-le-Saunier appears on our parcours is, just like Besançon and Roche-lez-Beaupré, if we’re pushing women’s cycling to a wider audience in France, then we could stand to benefit from going to the areas where they have a home talent to get out onto the roadside and support.



Évita Muzic started out as a cyclocross specialist, but as is often the case at present, she turned the skills she learned in the field to make herself a strong prospect on the road. Still just 21, she is definitely one of the riders the French will be keenest to follow in the coming years. That’s especially valid for a race like this, as she has shown herself to be noticeably more adept the more difficult races get. She turned pro with the FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine-Futuroscope team in 2018, managing top 20 in the Tour de Yorkshire and the Thüringen Rundfahrt,with her best result being in the HTF on the Dörtendorfer Berg. And 12th in the Giro dell’Emilia with its steep finish at San Luca showed the direction she was potentially heading. In her team profile she describes Strade Bianche as the race she loves most, but it seems she may have to rethink that as she grows older, as the benefit her cyclocross background gives her on the white roads gives way to her strength in longer climbs; she was 14th and best young rider at the Emakumeen Bira, and finished 26th in the Giro after making the top 20 on the Altopiano di Montasio MTF, beating some respected climbers and climbing prospects such as Guderzo, Nosková, Harvey, Amialiusik, Aalerud and Nilsson; the finisher in front of her was Kasia Niewiadoma. She was then 10th in the Mont Lozère stage of the Tour de l’Ardêche, again best young rider.

This year, she has continued her upward trajectory with a top 10 in the Giro dell’Emilia, although consistency has been a slight issue this early in her nascent career. She rode very well at the Giro Rosa, which was capped by getting into the decisive break that was allowed to settle the final stage of the 2020 Giro, where Brodie Chapman rode to get rid of the fast finishers, and then Évita outpunched and outsmarted Niamh Fisher-Black and compatriot Juliette Labous on the uphill finish in Montecorvino to take a first GT stage - as well as, with the help of the three and a half minute advantage the break had been given, manoeuvring herself up from about 15th to 10th in the final GC. She was subsequently 20th in the World Championships in Imola, suggesting that she would have won bronze in a hypothetical U23 championships.

Of course, at present though she may be duelling with Labous for the role as France’s best stage racing prospect in women’s cycling, Muzic will likely not be contesting the GC in her own right, rather defending the honour of France’s biggest women’s team (which is also a growing team) through the medium of expending her energy to protect and preserve the GC position of your heroine and mine, the high-octane energy ball of a grimpeuse that is Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. This is a good role for her for the time being, learn her own GC potential and then use her climbing skills to stagehunt if need be. In the medium to long term, with good climbing ability and technical skills she is definitely a potential major star for the French, and as FDJ capitalise on the success that bringing Cille in has brought them, it takes a bit of pressure off her to allow her room to develop, as well as giving her a stronger team to learn from too. And perhaps ASO are interested too - when a delegation of FDJ’s women were invited along to the Tour’s presentation, the three chosen were Cille, Évita and fellow young French prospect Jade Wiel. With the prospects of an ASO French stage race on the horizon, it may well be no coincidence the riders that were chosen.

Évita will like this stage, because it is up and down all day, and that will suit her. There are no super-status climbs in the stage (or in fact in the race in general), but this is plenty tough enough. In fact, it begins almost from the word go with an uncategorised climb, 3,5km averaging 4,5% - this is not a particularly tough climb but it’s one that would have been categorised in the earlier stages. There’s then a plateau into Nogna before a slight descent and then a long, multi-stepped gradual climb up to the Côte de Prénovel, a small resort village with cross-country ski trails.



The climb is uncomplicated, though the last 4km at just under 6% is the hardest part for sure. The climb is an easier ascent parallel to the Col de la Joux, which featured in the similarly-designed 2017 Tour de France stage to Station Les Rousses. That stage then descended from the Col de la Joux into the village of Prénovel; we then follow the route of that stage along the descent from Prénovel to Saint-Claude, a town of a little under 10.000 inhabitants which served as a haven for the Jewish population during Nazi occupation for many years; owing to its proximity to the Swiss border, Jews fleeing the persecution would frequently congregate ono Saint-Claude, and then hike to the relatively unprotected Swiss border in the Jura mountains to safety. Because the town was also a stronghold of resistance, the townsfolk were renowned among the underground networks for their willingness to assist, harbour, hide and protect the escapees, many Jews, political prisoners and other minorities reached freedom via Saint-Claude; as a result the Gestapo moved in and on April 9th, 1944, all males in the town from ages 18 to 45 were rounded up in the Place du Pré and deported to Buchenwald, where over 60% of them were executed. My main reason for including Saint-Claude, however, was because it is the hometown of one of the more interesting characters in recent years of (men’s) cycling, Pikachu himself, Alexis Vuillermoz.



Vuillermoz was originally a mountain biker, who was a late starter in road cycling, who also attested to essentially getting his place on Sojasun because of coming with sponsorship money, making him akin to the pay riders we sometimes see in the ProContinental scene and that motorsport fans will be very familiar with. However, Alexis Vuillermoz is at least three or four cuts above most of the riders that get their jobs because of the sponsorship they bring or the riders they are family or friends with; he is not an anonymous pack fodder rider, let alone conspicuously out of his depth like, say, Ran Margaliot or Ramón Carretero, and even before he reached the pro ranks he had two top 5s in Alpine stage races. He moved to Ag2r-La Mondiale for 2014, and has since gone on to pretty significant results, with a best GT position of 11th, achieved in the 2014 Giro d’Italia when he was the centre of some controversy (he was the one rider that truly did make significant gains out of the neutralised Stelvio descent), and counts two top 20s in the Tour de France among his palmarès. Specialising as a puncheur-cum-grimpeur, Vuillermoz is at his best on short punchy ascents, which he has used to finish just outside the podium in Lombardia and 8th in Paris-Nice, but his best period was in 2015 when he won the GP Plumelec and his career’s crowning moment, stealing a march on the GC battle to triumph on the HTF at Mûr-de-Brétagne on stage 8 of the Tour de France.

Here, we divert away from the course of the 2017 Tour stage - that race continued through the valley a little longer to take on the Côte de Viry, which is south of the Bienne river; we, however, continue as though we are going to our penultimate climb (final climb in that Tour stage), except we leave it not long after it begins and head left where the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes heads right, and instead head up towards Station Les Rousses via the village of Lamoura. When Station Les Rousses first hosted the Tour, in 2010, the race actually chose to go via this climb as it brought the summit very close too the finish. However, the second half of the ascent is fairly low gradient which dissuaded attacks, and Sylvain Chavanel won solo, ahead of a fairly tame bunch and the remnants of an escape, from which Rafa Valls attacked for reasons I’m not really sure of (maybe he suspected Chavanel and thought he could acquire the win, a bit like Efimkin’s rather pointless attack behind Riccò in Bagnères-de-Bigorre in 2008?). Around 35 riders came in together at +1’47”, and this was the last day on which Lance Armstrong was considered a GC contender; the following day, his downfall on the bike would be completed.



In women’s cycling, this kind of climb can be more decisive and simply by its length - 14km of consistent ascent - is a justifiable cat.1 even though the gradient is not too strenuous. 49km remain at the summit so I anticipate it will not see too much action, although we might see breakaways hauled back unceremoniously and an intriguing battle over the QOM points, especially if, as with the recent Giro Rosa, you have people like Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Elisa Longo Borghini contesting it. Plus there may be some strong climbers falling by the wayside in the GC with the time trial mileage who have designs on it - some mid-stage points from riders who are great climbers but not multi-dimensional enough to be realistic GC contenders, such as Eider Merino, Katrine Aalerud or Ane Santesteban could go quite some way for them by the time the race is done.

Where that race crossed the crossroads in Lamoura however, we turn left and loop around on the plateau before descending through Le Haut-Crêt back to Saint-Claude, which this time around hosts our first intermediate sprint (bonus seconds!). This is a very technical and twisty descent, so this will be an excellent opportunity for the likes of Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma who have proven themselves elite descenders in recent times to try to put some pressure on their rivals, pick up some bonus seconds in Saint-Claude (let’s face it, neither of those two is likely to win an intermediate sprint from a bunch) and get a bit of a head start heading into the big climb of the day; furthermore some of the less technically adept descenders in the group - this could include late starters like Mavi García and Lucy Kennedy, for example, or specialist featherweight grimpeuses like Eider Merino - could find themselves put under pressure by the pace and have to work harder than they would like to reach their playthings in the mountains. And then, with 28km remaining, the road will turn uphill once more, and this time things are going to get serious. Very serious indeed.


Lacets of the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes. Photo by Will from www.cycling-challenge.com


Official ASO profile of the run-in to stage 8 of the 2017 Tour de France. We do not do the full run-in, but the climb profile is the important part.

Although the Station des Rousses had previously hosted the Tour in 2010 as noted, the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes was a very new discovery in 2017; the only time that I can trace it having previously hosted racing, in fact, was earlier that very same year, in a stage of the Tour du Jura - not the Swiss race which is much older, as that is a one-day race, but a brand new (2017 was its first edition) 2.2-rated short stage race in France. The profile of the stage to Station Les Rousses was very, very similar to the Tour stage a couple of months later, and effectively served as a dress rehearsal; Pierpaolo Ficara won from a group of 3 ahead of the Wanty-Groupe Gobert duo of Guillaume Martin and Thomas Degand. The Tour stage was a more widely recognised affair, of course, and was won in style by Lilian Calmejane and while most of the favourites finished together there were a few salvos on the climb that at least made it a reasonably interesting day’s racing, considering it was unlikely riders would go all-out with the Mont du Chat stage the next day.

At 11,7km @ 6,4%, however, the Montée de la Combe de Laisia is a savage beast for women’s cycling, finishing just 16km from the line - I know that’s further than in the men’s stage, but I have my reasons. The women have of course tackled harder climbs - Monte Zoncolan in the 2018 Giro Rosa, Mortirolo in the 2016 Giro, Mont Ventoux in the Tour de l’Ardêche, Monte Beigua in the 2013 Giro - but a lot of those times those stages have been Unipuerto or similar; here I’m going for a more integrated multi-climb stage in which this climb will be the focal point but not the only climb of the day. The shape of the climb means that even if nobody drills it super hard there are a couple of clear places to use for platforms to attack from - that early kilometre at 8,1% if one is a) distanced enough by time trial mileage to need to use the climb to maximum effect; b) a one-dimensional climber who is better served riding to their own tempo and trying to grind people off your wheel than constant shifts up and down reacting to others, like Mara Abbott; c) Annemiek van Vleuten and you can attack wherever you damn well want to. The second option is that after the slight easing off in the middle, the 2km at 7,6% about 2/3 the way up will provide a platform to go from. I suspect we will see racing akin to how the bunch was behind Annemiek van Vleuten on Passo Torre di Fraele in the 2019 Giro Rosa - maybe a couple of riders per major team for the first part of the climb and then breaking down to the stars and specialists in the final part of the climb. It should be enough to be pretty good at breaking the contenders up - but because the ramps are not too brutal, not so difficult as to render the GC completely moot with the stages to come.

Now, a mountaintop finish here would have been a very simple way to go from this, and indeed a finish at Station des Rousses would have been feasible (I doubt ASO would accept there being enough room to finish at Les Molunes, even for a smaller race, but then the Route de France was trying to arrange an MTF at Peyra Taillade, so who knows?). But I wanted to move things on a bit further. So while we continue along the plateau to Le Manon, we don’t descend back into Lamoura to finish; instead we continue along the plateau a little longer before a small uncategorised kick to the Col de Magnard, sometimes called the Côte de Lajoux. It’s basically 1,5km at 3,5% from the north, so not really worth considering for categorisation, but it then gives way to a 4km descent into the small town of Mijoux - we’re basically undertaking this profile in reverse. 6,1km remain when we arrive in Mijoux; not too late for a quick bonus sprint to award some bonus seconds to those that get there first.



In some respects you could consider it cruel to put a meta volante here. After all, bonus seconds are already likely to be going to people who are gaining big time on the GC, placing the people already at an advantage at an advantage, right? Well, my thinking here was that after the summit of the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes, there are 5-6 flat kilometres; if the action doesn’t kick off big time until those last few kilometres of the climb, there might be some riders who aren’t distanced too much - so this will incentivise those riders to go hard on the plateau and descent to try to catch the riders up ahead and prevent them gaining more, and incentivise riders who crested the previous summit first to keep going if they have a small advantage, rather than sit up and try to drive home their climbing advantage on the final ascent. After all, as a couple of potential situations, you could have, like in the Giro Rosa recently, Anna van der Breggen and Elisa Longo Borghini off the front as they were the best climbers in the queen stage. Longo Borghini doesn’t want to work with van der Breggen and then lose the time in the bonus sprint. So she could refuse to collaborate on the flat, allowing 3rd-placed Mikayla Harvey and potentially 4th-5th placed Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Kasia Niewiadoma back on. Or, she could push on, but then try to gap van der Breggen on the descent. For Cille and Kasia, they aren’t going to win any sprints, but if they can get across to Harvey on the plateau, they could definitely pick up the remaining bonus second, especially Kasia if she pushes it on the descent - plus of course they could race themselves back into contention if those up front play games with one another, so it’s in their interests to collaborate. But then that might cost them on the final climb… so there are intriguing options there because in women’s cycling Combe de Laisia is difficult enough to get rid of most teammates and have the GC candidates having to think on the fly, and isn’t that what we all would rather see than a train?

Finally, after leaving Mijoux, we have a climb which heads toward the Col de la Faucille, but instead of finishing there I’ve chosen to eradicate the flat final couple of kilometres of that side by finishing not at the Alpine resort of Faucille (which was scheduled to host a stage of the Tour de l’Avenir this year, and has also held Tour de l’Ain stages in 2018 and 2019, won by Arthur Vichot and Alexandre Geniez respectively), but instead the neighbouring La Vattay.



There are two reasons I chose La Vattay. Firstly, it hosts a mountain bike park that may wish to promote itself through road cycling (in similar fashion to the Kent Cyclopark in the Women’s Tour, or IrriSarriLand in the Vuelta a Bidasoa), and secondly because, you know, I’ve done a lot of investigating this kind of resort in the Nordic Series so I knew I liked the connectivity here (I have also used the Côte de La Vattay, basically the top of the climbing before the last 600m false flat from the junction to the ski station, in a separate Nordic Series post here). The climb is not a difficult one - 6,1km @ 5,1% might be larger in size than we often see as decisive climbs in women’s cycling, but the fact the final climb is not that difficult opens up further options elsewhere in the race. I’m hoping that we get something of a small group of the elites come together by Mijoux, and they then fight each other with no domestiques in sight on the slopes of La Vattay - it’s basically the same climb as the Col de la Faucille for the first 5,5km, then another 500m northeastwards at low gradient to the finish, so it’s not very decisive in and of itself, more a climb for attrition - but then if you’re all racing alone because the gaps were formed on the Montée de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes, then it’s more likely to be decisive in and of itself. La Vattay is still part of the Mijoux-Col de la Faucille resort which is enjoying paying to host bike races in recent years, so hopefully hosting there rather than at the Col de la Faucille will be little problem, similar to how the Station des Rousses finishes have both been at La Combe du Lac/La Serra, a far smaller station within the Station des Rousses network than Les Rousses, Prémanon or Les Jouvencelles/La Jacquette.

If not, then fine, we can add a kilometre of flat at the end and finish at the Col de la Faucille, it doesn’t change things that fundamentally, I guess.
 
These are nice ideas for La Course. You are pacing it really well with the ITT's in the first five days, and with nothing too decisive in-between, but then going pretty big on stage 5. By the way, the run in to Besancon looks interesting on stage 3, though I am actually surprised that you found hills rather than mountains in that region.

I am guessing that stage 6 will be your queen stage, with stage 7 medium mountains (like a final P-N stage).

Thanks for the info on the not too recent past including decent women's stage racing in France: I had no idea.

I hear your issue with the women racing their TDF at the same time and course as the men as being a "warm-up event", but personally I believe that where the sport currently sits, being that event would be a positive, and logistically not impossible.

I have an idea for you too for a future course design. Design a TDF for women that highlights many aspects of course design for men that you like the least! Because I actually think that many of these stages could result in great racing with the women's field having less depth. You must include finishers at Arcalis and in Pau :D

I won't force you to go over the Tourmalet though.

P.S. My bad, I was getting Besancon confused with Briancon.
 
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Stage 6: Lélex-Monts-Jura - Station de Ski Menthières, 98km





GPM:
Côte de Champfromier (cat.2) 5,4km @ 7,0%
Col de Belle Roche (cat.1) 8,8km @ 5,9%
Col de Bérentin (cat.2) 5,0km @ 5,6%
Col de Menthières (cat.1) 13,4km @ 5,5%

The shortest full road stage of the race is also the nearest thing to a mountaintop finish in the race. There’s very little by way of transfer, since Lélex is very close to yesterday’s finish seeing as it is also a Jura ski resort. As a result, its permanent population is very low but there are a lot of holiday homes and let properties for holidaymakers, and its history and economy is largely linked to the skiing industry. In fact, the only famous son of the town is Edgar Grospiron, who became the first Olympic gold medalist in freestyle skiing when he took the title in Albertville in 1992. But let’s face it, freestyle flips and tricks are just X Games BS, and have no place in a legitimate Olympic competition, therefore Grospiron’s achievement is lessened by being in an irrelevant circus sideshow discipline rather than in proper skiing.

For most of you, though, the town’s name will be familiar from the Tour de l’Ain, since Lélex’s ski resort has hosted the local race regularly in recent years. In fact, since 2002 the only years in which Lélex has not hosted either a départ or an arrivée in the Tour de l’Ain have been 2004, 2010 and 2019. I have used some of these stages to inform mine, as typical Lélex stages take one of three forms. Older stages would go over the Col de la Faucille and then descend through Mijoux to the finish. More recently it has been more common to go over the Col des Menthières and then follow this with an Aprica-like gradual and inconsistent climb up to the Lélex resort, such as this stage from 2020; elsewise stages can start in Lélex and head elsewhere, such as the 2020 Col de la Faucille MTF or the 2017 stage to Culoz. Winners in Lélex in the last 20 years include Patrice Halgand in 2007, Linus Gerdemann in 2008, Wout Poels in 2011, Thibaut Pinot in 2012, Luís León Sánchez in 2013, Pierre Latour in 2015 and Primož Roglič in 2020. Perhaps most impressive is Ludovic Turpin winning here twice, in 2003 and 2009, though that was before the race really increased in importance in the early 2010s.



My stage begins basically cloning the start of that 2017 stage to Culoz. That means we start the stage with a descent, although very little of it is likely to be of any consequence, seeing as most of it is very straight and downhill false flat with only a couple of ramps that are more serious. The stage’s first climb is the Côte de Champfromier, which is part of a sort of double summit, the other side of which is the Côte de Giron. It’s in reality a bit like the Coll d’Ordino or the Col de Joux-Plane in that the actual summit is the Champfromier side, but there’s effectively a mini summit, flat, slight kick up to it from the other side so when it is raced from that side, such as in the 2016 Tour de l’Ain when it led into an ascent of the Col des Menthières and then a finish at Lélex, they choose to categorise it at the Côte de Giron (the secondary summits for those two comparables I mentioned are the Collet de Montaup and the Col du Ranfolly, for what it’s worth). This is a cat.2 climb, being 5,4km @ 7% with a couple of steeper stretches but nothing too challenging. There is the option to ascend above Giron for a sort of mini Pescocostanzo-shaped finish, to the Espace Nordique de Giron-La Frasse/Ludique, but that is unlikely to create any differences and just extends the stage out on a plateau so instead we simply turn left in Giron and follow the route of the 2017 Tour de l’Ain stage, descending through the conventional side of the climb into Saint-Germain-de-Joux, home of the poet Jean Tardieu.

In 2017, the men then crossed the Combet river and climbed straight up to the Col de Bérentin, which would be a serious cat.1 ascent, measuring in at 11,5km @ 5,5%. However, to go around to the finish that I have chosen this would have yielded a stage of little over 70km in length - too short in my opinion unless the finishing climb was going to be a monolith, like in 2010 when they finished atop the Passo dello Stelvio, or necessitating a different mountaintop finish and looking at my options in the area they were either not hard enough to be the main MTF of the race (Valromey-Retord, Gite de La Praille/Col de la Rochette), or difficult enough that they would likely hurt the racing prior to this or imbalance the parcours (Sur-Lyand, Grand-Colombier, although I was tempted by the former though I feel there is insufficient space there realistically as you would have to put the finish at the dirt track entrance above the station otherwise you’d be preventing all of the race caravan from entering onto site). Therefore, instead, we will head along the valley and around the Lac de Sylans, as far as our first intermediate sprint in Les Neyrolles. From there, our second climb of the day starts, something that would be a cat.2 ascent in Le Tour or the Dauphiné I believe, but is likely cat.1 in the Tour de l’Ain and definitely for a women’s péloton that doesn’t get to see 9km climbs very often and when they do they can often be very decisive, such as Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio taking everybody to the cleaners on Jaizkibel.



The Col de Belle Roche is a surprisingly unheralded climb here, largely because the Bérentin overshadows it in this neck of the woods. It has never been used in the Tour, and I’m honestly struggling to find any examples of its being used in the Tour de l’Ain, Tour de l’Avenir or other events which might reasonably stop by this neck of the woods for a stage. It’s prime medium mountain territory, nothing too steep but long enough to be potentially decisive if the riders want to push it that way, and wearing its toughest gradients at the foot with a kilometre at 8% immediately upon leaving Les Neyrolles. It’s at just past the halfway point here, so I don’t expect it will be particularly decisive other than burning away some domestiques, however there will be some legs feeling it after this one. The descent is then shallow and gradual, largely fast and straight, and links up with another road from Les Neyrolles, the D55D which heads to the Col du Bérentin. The 2017 Tour de l’Ain stage used the main D55, which is the more direct and steeper route; we descend via the D55C, and this joins the D55D from Les Neyrolles in Le Replat, just below Lalleyriat, where both roads merge into the main D55. As a result we essentially race the last 6km of this profile, from Le Replat, with a feed zone in the uppermost frazione of Lalleyriat, Le Poizat, to allow the riders to replenish supplies on the shallower slopes. The remaining climb is 5km @ 5,6% which I have awarded cat.2 status to, and this crests at 33,5km from the line. It has only been used once in the Tour de France, when it was climbed from the Les Neyrolles side, split into two categorised sections and included right from the start of stage 9 in the 2017 Tour. Thibaut Pinot was first over the summit.



The next seven or eight kilometres or so are along the verdant hills of the Plateau de Retord’s northern edges, close to the Combe de la Grande Montagne. This is the opposite end of the same massif which includes at its pointier, southern edge the Valromey-Retord / Les Plans d’Hotonnes nordic skiing and biathlon centre which was one of my first ports of call in the Nordic Series. We pass over the Col de Cuvéry, before setting off on a long and complicated 14km descent which will no doubt have the likes of Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma chomping at the bit to try to open up an advantage or at least pressure rivals to put them on the back foot ahead of our finale. And to give themselves a chance to grab some bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine at the bottom of said descent, which has in the last 2 years been reorganised into a new commune called Valserhône. Bellegarde is a city which grew in the mid-19th Century with the coming of the railways, being used as a stop-off point on the route from Lyon to Geneva.

Bellegarde-sur-Valserine has only once been used in the Tour de France; this was in the much-reviled 2012 edition, first to be eliminated from the Grand Tour game, when the Grand Colombier was introduced in ineffectual fashion in stage 10, which was won by eventual GPM winner Thomas Voeckler. It has also appeared in the Tour de l’Ain twice - a mountain stage in 1999 won by Chris Jenner, and a sprint in 2003 won by Max van Heeswijk. It has also appeared a few times in the Tour de l’Avenir. Its most famous export is likely the footballer Younès Kaboul, who spent most of his career in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, but also collected a few caps for France. The town’s population is around 11.000 and it sits at the mouth of the Valserine river, where it flows into the larger and stronger Rhône.


Ancienne biscuiterie

From here, we turn uphill once more, and it’s for good this time. I have categorised the final ascent as a pretty long one but that disguises the real ascent if we’re honest, because it’s not a straight ascent. It’s a two stepped ascent which consists of around 5km uphill at various difficulties, a kilometre and a half that is more or less flat, and then the final coup de grace.


Climbing until the 2km mark. Finish is marked “Menthières” around a kilometre from the summit, before the final kick up

I could have split this into two categorised climbs, but decided against it. Realistically the climb to La Grande Côte (again, hardly the most inspired of names) is a separate climb, it amounts to 4,9km averaging 4,6%, so not really anything to get excited about. This part will likely be pure grinding, tempo riding and seeing the big guns trying to manoeuvre themselves into position, ready for that final section, which is the ‘real’ mountaintop finish where the Col des Menthières is considered.

This stretch, from Confort to just after Le Bouans, is 6,5km @ 7,8% in the steepest section; 7km @ 7,5% overall. That’s not a super hard climb of course, but I feel this puts the climb as an overall in the same kind of ballpark as Verbier, the Puerto de Orduña, Mirador del Fito, or the Alto da Senhora da Graça, and this is the right kind of size for a genuine MTF in women’s cycling on a stage like this. Certainly enough to create gaps - we saw the gaps created by a shorter but steeper ascent in the Giro Rosa - and not necessarily gaps big enough to ruin the racing in tomorrow’s stage either. In fairness, the Torre di Fraele climb is around 9km @ 7% so isn’t too unreasonable to use as a bit of a guide for this, since it was used in the 2019 Giro Rosa; obviously van Vleuten stands out like a sore thumb on that results sheet, but behind her there were 15 riders within 2 minutes, and that was fairly tamely raced with an ITT the next day.



There is a mountain pass above the Station de Ski Les Menthières, as that final kick up in the profile will show you. The other side of the climb is around 9km at 5,9%, so there is the option to return to Lélex. That is, in fact, how the station is usually used in professional cycling, with stages in the Tour de l’Ain being typically like this one from 2020, going over the crest of the Col des Menthières around 21km from the line, before descending its narrow northern side and then doing the gradual, multi-stepped ascent to Lélex. However, though the ski station is small, it is large enough to host bike racing, as it showed in 2001, when the Tour de l’Ain finished with this same mountaintop finish; Christophe Oriol, then riding for Jean Delatour, won the stage and assumed the lead of the race, 23 seconds ahead of his teammate, Bulgarian climber Ivaïlo Gabrovski, some 11 years before he provided widespread hilarity with a comically overpowered attack at the Tour of Turkey. Since then it laid unused for several years before coming back into regular circulation in the Tour de l’Ain since 2009, although this has never translated to being used in the Tour or the Dauphiné. However, being part of the same Monts-Jura network of resorts as Lélex means there isn’t really the necessity to return to Lélex within the payment, as they can advertise both resorts in one stage. Created in 1987, this small resort was created with the cooperation of several nearby towns as part of a regeneration plan, and with the climb only having been rediscovered comparatively recently by the Tour de l’Ain, this is the perfect opportunity to test out its suitability for bigger races within the ASO umbrella.

And potentially give ourselves some proper GC action in the process, especially the day after a tough stage like the one to La Vattay. The summit isn’t quite the finish, though - Les Menthières is less like a typical French ski station and more like a Spanish climb, with around a kilometre before the summit of the climb and the stage finish. The climb is a lot easier than most of these, but it definitely deserves consideration (as a style of finish after the climb itself, not as an actual ascent) along the lines of Anglirù, Los Machucos, Arrate, but not quite as bad as Xorret del Catí, in terms of having that crest and then a bit of flat/slight downhill to negotiate alone as you ride in for the finish. That shouldn’t dissuade anybody from making a move of course.
 
Reactions: gregrowlerson
A stage for the Tour of California but maybe better suited to a one day. It's tough. Starts 286 feet ( 87.17 meters) below sea level.



The ride is 136 miles (219 km) long and has an actual elevation gain of 15,800 feet (4,800 m), one of the longest and most sustained elevation differences in American cycling. There are three major hills...Townes Pass, climbing up from Stovepipe Wells; Hillcrest, climbing from Panamint Springs; and the Whitney Portal Road, which leaves the town of Lone Pine, California to climb to the Portal.

Townes Pass is an agonizing 16.6 miles (26.7 km) long with an 5,000'+ (1,524 meter)elevation gain.
Hillcrest is 11.9 miles (19.2 km) long, with slightly over 3,000'(914.4 meter) elevation gain.
The Whitney Portal road gains close to 5,000' (1,524 meter)in 12 miles (19 km).

In addition to long distances and heart-breaking hills, the temperature can play a major factor. At the start in Badwater, temperatures can routinely be as high as 130 degrees,( 54.4 degree Celsius) but the temperature quickly drops as the riders pedal higher and higher. Below freezing temperatures can be encountered near the Portal at night, making a temperature swing of over 100 degrees (37.7 degree Celsius) in a single day.
Is that a 1 day race? I honestly would love to see a 3 week race in the US. Colorado, California, Tennessee to make 3 states have some climbs that rival or surpass climbs in the 3 GT races. And gardes that are 8% or more sustained as well. And with the old cart and horse roads in some states you could have some very interesting cobble or cobble type stages.

I really want to see the Tour of California, Tour of Utah and Tour of Colorado merge into 1 big race. I don't know if it will happen or if the UCI and ASO would do it... but it could be amazing if it happened.

Back to the topic, I love this stage. You did some research and found a very good section of climbs that even top climbers would likely be slightly worried about.
 
Stage 7: Culoz - Ambérieu-en-Bugey, 129km





GPM:
Col des Fossés (cat.2) 6,5km @ 5,4%
Côte d’Ordonnaz (cat.1) 10,1km @ 6,5%
Côte d’Arandas (cat.2) 5,5km @ 5,8%
Côte du Chanay (cat.1) 6,4km @ 7,6%
Col de Nivollet (cat.2) 5,9km @ 5,3%
Côte du Tiret (cat.3) 1,3km @ 6,1%

The last contested stage of the race is a multi-climb one with plenty of opportunity for the GC to be settled in any direction as there is the scope for an ambush or a pajará that could see minutes won and lost if the riders go all out. No super-sized climbs here, but also barely any flat all day, so this will be akin to a queen stage at an Emakumeen Bira, but scaled up. Perhaps the best comparison point is something like the 2015 Morbegno stage, but again potentially scaled up somewhat. On that particular day, a group of 10 (plus two stragglers, Armitstead and Roxane Knetemann, who had tailed off after doing their work for the team) came in just under 30” behind lone survivor of the escapees Mayuko Hagiwara; Sabrina Stultiens came in alone 3 minutes down, then a small group including Claudia Lichtenberg came in a further minute down, then it was back to 9 minutes for the likes of Brand, van Dijk and Amialiusik, and eleven and a half for Cauz, Wiles and Jasińska. Or maybe my beloved 2016 epic stage to Madonna della Guardia, with Niewiadoma trying to ride the whole stage solo, and Abbott and Stevens chasing across to her on the penultimate climb of the day, a manic chase on the flat and then carnage on the final climb once the other favourites caught the trio, with Evelyn Stevens winning, Guarnier, van der Breggen, Lichtenberg and Abbott spread over the first minute, then Guderzo at 1’18, Niewiadoma at 3 minutes, only 14 riders inside 10 minutes and only 22 inside 20 - with the likes of Longo Borghini losing 17 minutes and Lucinda Brand over half an hour. So there’s really still plenty to play for here.



Culoz is a stage host that for the most part should put just one thing in the mind of a fan: the Grand-Colombier. The trademark climb of the Tour de l’Ain in the same way as Burgos has Lagunas de Neila, Algarve has Malhão, Langkawi has Genting Highlands and the Tour Méditerranéen had Mont Faron, and is an almost annual pilgrimage for its local race, with winners such as Marek Rutkiewicz, John Gadret, Rein Taaramäe, Thibaut Pinot (both aged 21 and recently since the race’s increase in status), and most recently Primož Roglič. This small town of around 3.000 is, however, a relative newcomer to cycling at the very top level - it has only hosted the nation’s most famous race twice, once in 2016 with the finish in the town after climbing the Grand Colombier from Lochieu, descending into Anglefort, then having a circuit which climbed part of the Culoz side of the climb (a shame as doing that circuit in reverse might have been more enticing with some steeper ramps on the Anglefort side, and no flat at the end, if that was the case, but these are minor gripes in what was a very good stage design). The break took the stage, with Jarlinson Pantano beating Rafał Majka on the line, a few seconds ahead of Alexis Vuillermoz and Sébastien Reichenbach, and Wout Poels leading most of the favourites in 3 minutes later. The subsequent passage of the Grand Boucle through the town was with it paying for the summit finish at the Grand-Colombier in the 2020 Tour. Jumbo-Visma elected to play it super safe, making sure there was no risk of them losing time by taking on a strategy designed not to gain them any time either; almost everybody was happy with the situation as Egan Bernal and Nairo Quintana both suffered from jours sans, and despite the stage actually finishing on a steep climb, Sepp Kuss was granted the day off doing any work since it was his birthday, so instead everybody rolled in behind Tom Dumoulin until 700m to go.

Fortunately, though, we have two mitigating factors to prevent such negative racing breaking out: firstly, we are not climbing the Grand-Colombier on this occasion, so there is no reason for a paralysing fear of the final climb to stifle earlier racing as we saw in the Tour’s stage there this year; secondly, we have the women’s péloton at our disposal, rather than the men’s; a combination of the wider disparity between the strongest and weakest rider on a given stage and a more aggressive nature of racing will help here - indeed on the same day as that Tour stage, the women had a 700m uphill ramp into Assisi to deal with in the Giro Rosa, and they actually gave us a similar distance of actual racing between favourites and, with some of the biggest names poorly placed coming into the steep final climb, similar levels of time gap, too. I’ve also decided to incentivise racing from the gun by placing the first intermediate sprint just 11,2km into the stage, so if there’s a competition for the points jersey, or if anybody fancies some cheap bonus seconds, then there’s the option. The first few kilometres aren’t exactly flat either - not really climbing gradients, but reasonably challenging enough that a Vos might want to get rid of a Wild, say. After this there’s another false flat rise from the riverside up to Contrevoz, then another flattening out before our first real climb of the day, the Col des Fossés.

A mostly steady climb of 5km at 6,5% or so before a false flat final 1500m, this is a decent cat.2 climb which I can only trace coming up in racing before on one occasion, from the opposite side in this stage from the 2015 Tour de l’Ain. A two stepped descent then leads us to our second climb, which is the longest obstacle of the day.



I don’t actually know the name of this climb as I can’t find one, frustratingly. I have therefore taken on the traditional French race tactic of naming it after the nearest settlement, however at the same time Ordonnaz is a climb of its own; the Col de Portes has only been used once in the history of Le Tour, in 2003 as the first climb in the Lyon-Morzine stage which was won by Richard Virenque, who initially missed the break allowing Paolo Bettini to take the summit, before he joined them to collect GPMs in his usual fashion. Then, they descended into Ordonnaz from the summit. We are climbing the steeper side from Serrières-le-Briond, which means sharing the first 9km or so with this side of Ordonnaz, which from this side has a bit of an Arrate-like character of flattening out and descending to the ‘summit’. However there is another side road slightly higher up so instead of turning right to take the final kilometre of ascending the traditional Ordonnaz climb, we have a slightly steeper kilometre toward another junction, where we descend through the Combe Mutant toward Comand. The side through Ordonnaz to the summit also cropped up in this year’s Tour de l’Ain, in the Saint-Vulbas stage, while the side I’m climbing - save for the last kilometre - also appeared as a transitory climb in the 2017 edition.


This profile, until the signpost for Comand

Some technical descending follows, at least as far as Charvieux, after which things widen out and straighten up, so the gradient becomes less steep but the pace likely increases. There’s still 65km remaining at the feed zone at the bottom of the descent so this is going to still be on. A nice flat stretch will help the legs recover further before the cat.2 Côte d’Arandas, a climb into a small village of the same name on a plateau, which consists of 2,9km at 5%, a brief false flat and then 2km at 7,5%. 55km remain. The descent from Arandas into the town of Argis is very technical so this is a great chance for some pressure to be put onto the less adept descenders among the favourites if there is still a GC battle going on; there’s then a very dramatic ascent from Tenay up to Évosges, which entails using a different climb to the typical Col d’Évosges ascent you will see profiled elsewhere; Évosges sits below a couple of plateaus known for Nordic skiing, so from the south the summit is a little above the village, which also hosts our final intermediate sprint.


Dramatic rises directly out of Tenay

According to Strava, this climb is 6,4km @ 7,6%, a worthy cat.2 in a major men’s race and a cat.1 here, especially as it steepens, with a stretch of 3km @ 9,1% in the middle there. Because the climb to Évosges from the other side actually has a col, I named this side for the hamlet we pass shortly before the summit. This is the toughest climb of the remaining stretches and crests with 39km remaining so I foresee the major action happening here. It doesn’t look like any women’s pros have taken this one on on Strava, so no comparative in terms of completion time, but Geoffrey Soupe, hardly the péloton’s most accomplished grimpeur, holds the men’s record at present with a 21’30 and I can imagine that the elite climbers among the women could reasonably be around that, albeit maybe not after several previous climbs in the day, we shall see. We therefore descend through Évosges village and then through the more well-known side of the climb back into the Albarine valley and into Saint-Rambert-en-Bugey.

From here we could head directly to our finish town off Ambérieu, but of course we’re not doing that. Don’t want the hardest climb being the last, it might mean everybody holds off until then. Instead, therefore, we turn off the valley road for a further climb. Sadly, the road to the Château des Allymes, which descends straight into Ambérieu, is not really race-ready, but the neighbouring Col de Nivollet is. Not to be confused with the much more spectacular high alpine pass that links Piemonte and Aosta but is only paved on one side and is famed from the Italian Job as well as appearing in part in the 2011 Giro Donne (won by Vos) and 2019 Giro d’Italia (won by Ilnur Zakarin), this is a much smaller ascent which will therefore hopefully not deter earlier action and crests with 21km remaining.



From here we descend into Saint-Jean-le-Vieux, and turn left for what could be a manic chase down if the GC is on the line - the run-in to Ambérieu-en-Bugey is very straight with only the narrow streets of Ambronay in the middle to break up the long distance sights. But there’s one last sting in the tail - the last village we pass through isn’t really a village anymore as it has been consumed by Ambérieu, but its name is Tiret. Turning left here on to the Rue de Tiret takes us onto a narrower suburban road with flint cottages either side; this gradually turns uphill and in the middle there is a 700m stretch at 8%. The overall stats - 1,3km @ 6,1% - are hardly difference making on their own, but given we should have riders strewn all over the road in small groups by this point it should be decisive. We then descend the wide open Rue du Maquis to finish at the Ambérieu sports complex, with a rugby ground and nautical complex etc. to give plenty of parking and room and more importantly ensure a safe run-in.

As a cantonal town and the largest town in the Belley arrondissement, Ambérieu-en-Bugey is a city of around 14.000 which rapidly grew to something approximating its present size in the 19th Century, when it became an important railway junction town, where the Lyon-Genève line split from the line up to Mâcon, Beaune and other Saône valley cities. Until this it had been a relatively sleepy outpost changing hands periodically between France and Savoy, but the coming of industrialisation and the railways transformed it into an important and busy town which sees some of the most rail traffic in France. Although some of those lines are now defunct, the “Étoile d’Ambérieu” as its station was often known remains an important part of the city and a railway museum dedicated to this prominence is one of the city’s star (pun very much intended) attractions. This also made it immensely strategically important in modern war; as a result, it was under the tutelage of the local man Marcel Demia the centre of an important maquis in the French Resistance, which came to a head on June 7th, 1944, when local maquisards and rebel infrastructure workers dismantled tracks and locomotives to render them unusable and disrupt Nazi communications; the city was decorated with the Croix de Guerre in 1945. Ten years later, the appellation of “-en-Bugey” was added to the city’s name to honour the historical province of which it had been part, which had been rendered obsolete by the restructuring of the French state.



Ambérieu-en-Bugey doesn’t have extensive cycling heritage; its position at the Jura foothills, so often under-utilised in the Tour and the Dauphiné due to their proximity to the much larger and more romantic Alps, means that the race seldom travels by, and when it does it usually just passes through. In fact, sports-wise, the city is much more famous for swimming, thanks to a single family - competing in freestyle and backstroke, Laure Manaudou won a complete set of medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics along with three World Championship golds and nine European Championship golds; her younger brother Florent won 50m freestyle gold at the 2012 London Olympics. The city’s Olympic-size pool is named for Laure. That’s not to say there’s no cycling background though - the city has hosted the Tour de l’Ain three times in the last 11 years, each time hosting a stage start which, due to its position on the fringes of the mountains and Ain’s role as a sort of half-floodplain, half-mountain range province means it would typically host flat stages; however, in 2010 it was a prologue so it also hosted the finish; an incredible, unbelievable feat took place as Radioshack looked to avenge their non-invite for the Vuelta a España, and a man nobody even knew existed - Haimar Zubeldia - took the victory, his first individual victory in over ten years (since the 2000 Euskal Bizikleta GC in fact). It has also hosted a stage start in the Critérium du Dauphiné, in 2013 when Edvald Boasson Hagen won a sprint in Tarare.

This ought to be a more dramatic stage than any of those (although some would argue nothing is more dramatic than actual physical evidence of Haimar Zubeldia), with the GC on the line, so let’s make the final Sunday stage a dramatic one and try and maximise that audience interest!
 
Stage 7: Culoz - Ambérieu-en-Bugey, 129km

[...]

From here we could head directly to our finish town off Ambérieu, but of course we’re not doing that. Don’t want the hardest climb being the last, it might mean everybody holds off until then. Instead, therefore, we turn off the valley road for a further climb. Sadly, the road to the Château des Allymes, which descends straight into Ambérieu, is not really race-ready, but the neighbouring Col de Nivollet is. Not to be confused with the much more spectacular high alpine pass that links Piemonte and Aosta but is only paved on one side and is famed from the Italian Job as well as appearing in part in the 2011 Giro Donne (won by Vos) and 2019 Giro d’Italia (won by Ilnur Zakarin), this is a much smaller ascent which will therefore hopefully not deter earlier action and crests with 21km remaining.
Why not? It looks fine on streetview, a bit narrow at times, but nothing that haven't seen before. And as an ASO race it might not be too much to ask for the occasional road works, even if it is women's racing.
 
Why not? It looks fine on streetview, a bit narrow at times, but nothing that haven't seen before. And as an ASO race it might not be too much to ask for the occasional road works, even if it is women's racing.
Funnily enough, back when I was originally looking at routing in this area it seemed like there were some really bad stretches, but a lot of that was on the sections with images captured 2011, now re-viewing it there's updated streetview and it looks like the road is a bit more reasonable. Mind you, doing that climb would have precluded the final ramps unless I added a long enough circuit that it wouldn't fundamentally change the stage from what I have anyhow.
 

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