Alasdair Fotheringham: Three brutal climbs and sole time trial make it tall order for favourite to retain crown
There are none of the set-pieces like the team time trial at which Sky excels
Five summit finishes and only one big time trial in the 2014 Tour de France route sounds, on paper, as if next summer's race will favour the climbers and leave Britain's defending champion Chris Froome in the ideal position to take a repeat title in Paris on 27 July.
After all, just 54 kilometres of time trialling around Bergerac on the 20th stage is exactly what a strong all-rounder like Froome should need if – perish the thought – the race has not gone in his favour in the mountains.
And is that so likely? Let's not forget that Froome took time out of all his rivals from the minute the route began to steepen in this year's Tour. After his stunning victory at Ax 3 Domaines, the first stage in the Pyrenees this July, it felt as if the race was over. After his even more exceptional Mont Ventoux triumph, we knew it was over.
But next year there will be opportunities galore to unsettle Froome and Sky's domination. They start as soon as stage two on home soil in Yorkshire, where the Peak District hills have been compared by Tour director Christian Prudhomme to the Ardennes climbs of the Liège–Bastogne–Liège race. That is one of the hardest and least predictable of the one-day classics of the season – and not a race where Froome, 36th in this year's Liège, has excelled in the past.
What's more, there is no prologue and no team time trial in this Tour, both set-piece stages of the kind at which Sky excels. Instead, there's the Tour's insertion of 15km worth of the much-feared cobblestoned sections of the backroads of northern France on stage five. That's the most in any recent Tour, all in the crucial second half of the stage and guaranteed to shatter the peloton into separate units and make controlling the race virtually impossible.
In 2004 and 2010, the cobbles' last appearances in the Tour, they wrecked the chances of two top favourites, Fränk Schleck and Iban Mayo, and Froome criticised their inclusion last week as making the race more of a lottery. (It would have been intriguing to hear what his team-mate Sir Bradley Wiggins, makes of them given he is an expert at "cobble racing".)
The third big unknown factor for Froome – and this is just in the first week – is the inclusion of the Vosges mountains alongside the Alps and Pyrenees. Three full-scale climbing stages in the little-known mountains of north-eastern France represent a great opportunity for Froome to take a stranglehold on the race. But with a new set of mountains to climb, they also mean three more tough days for Sky – and the team looked, at times, seriously overstretched in last July's Tour. Will they be able to face up to what is effectively nearly 50 per cent more days in the mountains compared to 2013?
The final time trial, on paper, could be Froome's trump card, particularly given that he finished second behind Wiggins in both Tour time trials last year and was superior to all his overall rivals in both time trials in 2013. But coming so late in the Tour, differences between top riders – all of whom are near exhaustion by that stage – tend to be minimal. And before that, Froome will have had to keep control of all his rivals on a Tour route that looks designed to be as unpredictable as possible.
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