There are those who think that this year’s Tour has one of its toughest starts in nearly 40 years. And if one of the three British stages is to blame for that, you would have to single out stage two, the 201-kilometre trek from York to Sheffield on Sunday 8 July.
The Tour’s organisers have ranked no fewer than 10 climbs through Yorkshire as category four or higher. The single toughest climb on stage two is Holme Moss, 7.4 kilometres long, tackled some 150 kilometres in. It has been one of British cycling’s most famous ascents long before the Tour even thought of coming to the UK.
In total on stage two, riders will have to tackle 3,000 metres of vertical climbing – around two thirds the total of an average Alpine mountain stage. To find such a tough day so early in the Tour you would have to go back to 1977, when the peloton rode over the Pyrenees on stage two – and it shattered the field.
Born and raised in Mirfield, Yorkshire, Brian Robinson – the first British winner of a Tour de France stage, in 1958 – knows all the ascents like the back of his hand. “Holme Moss is ‘my’ climb,” the 83-year-old told The Independent on Sunday. “I’ve ridden up it at least once a month on club runs.” He is equally familiar with other tricky ascents, such as Jenkin Road, just 800 metres long, but he says “one to watch out for, because it comes so late in the day, when you’re all low on energy” – just five kilometres before the finish in Sheffield.
Jenkin Road also has gradients touching a ridiculously steep 33 per cent in places, or as Robinson puts it, “really, really hard”.
“The real problem for the riders, though, is not that any of the climbs are particularly long. You can ride up Holme Moss in six minutes,” says Robinson. “It’s that there’s no respite between them. The real business of the race, though, will be done between Holme Moss and Sheffield, where it’s very up and down all the way to the finish and they’re on really narrow, twisting roads. If you have a problem, a mechanical incident or a puncture the chances are you’re not going to see the bunch again.”
“The favourites really have to be on their guard at the front, too, it’ so easy for other riders to slip away. You’ve got to stay in the first 20 or you’ll risk being in trouble.
“I don’t think it’s going to split the Tour de France peloton apart totally. Myself, I’d predict a front group of around 30 riders together at the finish at most. That’s very rare so early in the Tour.”
And, Robinson warns: “The biggest factor could be the weather. If it rains – and we’re all praying it doesn’t – then you’d maybe only have half that number at the finish. It’s not a day when you can win the Tour de France, but it’s certainly a day when you could lose it.”