IF this year’s Tour de France route was a declaration of war on Team Sky, this is the invasion.
Even for a man accustomed to being the hunted, Chris Froome’s heart must have skipped a beat when the 2018 Tour de France was unveiled in Paris’ Palais des Congres on Tuesday.
The 105th edition of the world’s biggest bike race will feature 21.7km of brutal Paris-Roubaix cobbles, gravel, coastal roads, roads known for fierce crosswinds and a potentially explosive 65km mountain stage.
It is a route missing only the kitchen sink and the latest by Tour organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), to break Froome’s dominance of the three-week race.
Australian cycling great and Paris-Roubaix champion Stuart O’Grady was moved to tweet: “This is the craziest TDF ever. Xwind, Cobbles, TTT, Iconic Mtns, Gravel climbs, a 65km Mtn stage! The French want a French Win.”
The Frenchman most likely remains Romain Bardet, but a 2017 Tour that featured precious little time-trialling (his weakness) and an abundance of descending (his strength) only just netted him third on general classification.
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Tour director Christian Prudhomme’s hopes 12 months ago of a “more open, less controlled race” was buried in July by a methodical Sky who held the yellow jersey for 19 of 21 days.
The British team’s legion of highly-paid, well-drilled super domestiques have a stranglehold on the Tour that shows no sign of weakening.
But this looms as their biggest test in the same year Grand Tour rosters are cut from nine to eight.
Froome has won four of the past five Tours. The year he failed (2014) was the last time the race ventured across the cobbles of northern France.
The world’s premier stage racer said next year’s Tour de France could be “torn to pieces” in the first week.
“It’s tough and I wouldn’t expect anything else from the Tour de France organisers, especially the first eight or nine days,” Froome said.
“It’s going to be very dangerous in the northwest of France, before we hit any of the big mountains. The wind could be a massive factor up there.
“There’s the inclusion of quite a substantial cobble stage and we could see a lot happening. Then there’s the stage with a gravel section and there’s a lot to get ready for in that sense.”
Race director Christian Prudhomme confirmed ASO’s desire to shake up the racing whenever possible.
“We especially wanted to emphasise stage variety and the routes that may prove decisive, combining legendary climbs with brand new ascensions or ultra-dynamic formats, to provide a vision of modern and inspired cycling,” Prudhomme said.
The 21-stage race will also feature a 35km team time trial on Stage 3, a hilly 31km individual time trial on the final weekend and a return to the iconic Alpe d’Huez and three tough Pyrenean days in between.