2020 Tour de France preview

Is anyone else expecting the 2020 edition of the TDF to be one of the most unpredictable in modern history? All we hope though is that it’s not for all the wrong reasons. No-one wants to see riders or teams being sent home for positive cases or at worst case the race being pulled before it even arrives to Paris. Shorter stage races like the Dauphine made it through unscathed so we must stay positive!

It will definitely be a different scene though this weekend with past winners such as Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas both absent from the start line. All riders have also had far from ‘normal’ preparations and with so many tough mountain stages, including unusual summit finishes in the first week of competition plus new summit finishes, we think there will be plenty of surprises along the parcours. Not to mention our initial Pre-Covid thoughts that the overall course with limited time trial stages was already looking for a Thibaut Pinot pódium for France.

So what should we all be looking out for? The Nice race start with several quality local climbs and a mountain stage finish on Stage 4 should have all the main GC riders already lined up in the top 10. Scrutiny on the best riders and the tensión that it brings will be on them right from the word go. Shortly thereafter there is Stage 6 with 30+ kilometres of uphill finish to Mont Aigoual to sign-off what should be a pretty dynamic week one of Le Tour.

Probably the stage that we are most interested in watching play out is Stage 13 up to the extinct Puy Mary volcano. The stage includes 4400m of elevation gain over 7 climbs ranging between 3km and 10km in length. Traditionally this type of elevation gain would be found linking longer traditional climbs such as Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier for example. Anyone else think that Julian Alaphillipe has been written into the script again after his 2019 heroics? We expect to see some awesome racing and team tactics on display during Stage 13 that will shuffle the GC standings and keep things ‘alive’ for the final week.

Tour de France
Julian Alaphilippe – the man of the moment during the 2019 TDF!

Stage 15 which comes on the eve of the second rest day should also be pivotal in the quest for the maillot jeune. There are multiple climbs on the road that leads to the Grand Colombiere stage finish. It’s 17.5km at 7% average grade statistics puts it right in the same category as other famous climbs like Tourmalet so expect fireworks but without the Bastille day celebrations on this occasion. Seeing new roads introduced is always exciting and the Stage 17 summit finish has even had a new road built for cyclists only up to Col de la Loze. In the final 4km of this 22.5km climb there are ramps up to 20%. The winner of Stage 17 will also take home the Souvenir Henri Desgrange for the highest elevation reached during the 2020 edition peaking out at 2304m. I cannot wait for this one! But even more importantly I am dreaming of being able to guide Sierra clients on this cycling friendly road in the near future.

When it comes to time trial racing everything has been left until Stage 20. The penultimate race stage includes a finish on La Planche des Belles Filles so the final climb actually removes the chances for the pure individual time trial specialists. Did you know that Pinot lives only 20km from La Planche so he will have ridden this 6km climb (8.5% grade) more than anyone else. Will it serve as extra motivation or added pressure? Without the big crowds allowed this year it may just be the perfect scenario for the Frenchmen to go in relaxed this time round!

What else do we think could be different in 2020? Well the race is starting almost 2 months later than normal which could have weather implications. The French mountains during September can be covered in mist and heavy cloud cover near the summits and the likelihood for rain is greater than July. With such a mountainous parcours hopefully the riders stay upright as the descending skills could become even more important than previous race editions.

We usually like to go out and give some Top 3 predictions but in this upside down Covid world we simply hope that the riders have the chance to dispute the final sprint on the Champs Elysees. How’s that! We were able to slip the word sprint in there at last. There will probably only be four real sprint chances this year so most teams will be bringing extra climbing resources to support their GC contenders.  Hopefully a successful TDF should also mean that the rest of the condensed 2020 racing season can be contested. Fingers crossed!

Tour de France, Col du Galibier
Fast and furious finish in Valloire during 2019!

2019 TDF – A Moment on Tour!

The 2019 Tour de France was an intriguing battle all the way to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. From sweltering temperatures, massive storms in the final stages and a tough final week in the French Alpes the 2019 TDF edition truly was a race of attrition! Our cycling tour group though picked things up in Nice and the first ride crossing Gorges du Verdons and cycling into Provence was a real highlight! There is a lot to like about Provence and cycling through small villages like St Saturnin, Gordes and Roussillon provide excellent contrasts to Le Geant de Provence which is always lurking nearby. Yes, Mt Ventoux was the first serious test and to conquer this Hors Categorie climb is simply put an achievement and a half!  But to find out where it all happened around the Tour de France race read below: 

Col du Galibier


[Setting the scene] – Who remembers Stage 19 of the 2019 TDF when the heavens opened up and to everyone’s surpise washed out the summit finish to Tignes? Our tour plan was to watch the peloton pass over Col de l’Iseran (the penultimate climb and Europe’s highest mountain pass at 2770m). The Gendarmarie (French police) were nervous all day and we settled to watch the race from Bessans still 20km from the top of Iseran. With the poor weather hovering we had discussed coming back the next morning to conquer the beast.

As the peloton passed us by we re-assessed the weather conditions and the storm was holding-off on our side of the mountain. So with the support van providing close cover our guests, with only a handful of other cyclists, decided they were keen to give the mighty Iseran a go! At the point where the road becomes a real ‘mountain pass’ the Emergency Service crews had closed all access to vehicles due to the intense storm the TDF was experiencing on the other side. We were also stopped but we put our case forward that we only wanted to ride up to the summit and then back down the same way. And just like that we were given the green light to proceed!

So the climb was obviously great but what was even better was what happened next. A 13km descent to where we had the support van waiting. Not a single car on the road and the chance to feel like a pro rider for 20 minutes descending with only which glacier to look at to worry about! And while all of this was taking place the TDF was experiencing total CHAOS and we were still riding in warm weather and short sleeves!

Col de l'Iseran

Tour de France – Assessing the Race Rumours

The Tour de France is arguably, year after year, the world’s biggest sporting event! With that attention brings constant speculation as to where the following year’s route will travel, which climbs will be featured, any new climbs to be revealed, innovations to the race structure, any gravel road finishes like recent editions of the Giro d’Italia or any narrow ‘goat-like tracks’ to lofty summits as rolled out at La Vuelta a España??

When it comes to waiting for the next edition of the Tour de France most cycling enthusiasts resort to keeping an eye on the A.S.O. website (Le Tour race organizers) for the date of the following race route presentation. The 2019 TDF race edition for example was presented just a couple of weeks ago on 25 October 2018 in Paris. This approach seems the most sensible as trying to hunt-down start and finish towns over 21 cycling race stages is a somewhat ‘Mission Impossible’ task.

But surprisingly enough there are cycling fans out there whose curiousity gets the better of them. As soon as the bikes zoom around the Champs d’Elysees for the final Stage 21 sprint finish their attention must quickly turn to the next Tour de France race edition! It was not until we begun our cycling tour business Sierra Sports & Tours that we uncovered an incredible website dedicated to TDF race route rumours which tracks down information piece by piece. The www.velowire.com website in a way takes the small pieces of information it collects to try and create the full Tour de France jigsaw puzzle well before the official presentation in Paris. The website creator is not affiliated with the A.S.O. race organisation, is not a professional or ex professional cyclist nor works for any of the pro cycling teams but just another cycling fan like you or me.

So how does the www.velowire.com website do it?

  1. When you look at the stage by stage TDF analysis you find that they have been scrolling the local French newspapers with a fine toothcomb looking for details. The Tour de France is a magnet for national and international tourism so the towns and cities are very proud when selected to host a stage start or finish. So broadcasts to the media (print or radio) are excellent ways of finding out TDF race route information.
  2. The Tour de France is also a moving road show with the professional teams, race organizers, media circus and sponsors all requiring huge amounts of accommodation along the race route. An in-depth analysis of hotel reservations over the ‘July TDF pilgrimage period’ is another way of either finding out or confirming possible stage start or finish towns!
  3. At times social media plays a part with the A.S.O. organizers uploading a photo or comment to their feeds. Such details are often ambiguous and require further examination and if you are lucky one might uncover some further race information following these avenues.

So did velowire.com hit the mark with the 2019 Tour de France race route?

It wasn’t until 24 September 2018 that velowire.com began to publish its possible 2019 Tour de France race route which was one month before the official race presentation. At this time A.S.O. had already released the first two stages in Belgium. During October 2018 velowire.com made additional modifications as they uncovered more information. At the end of the process it is quite remarkable that 24 hours before the official release velowire.com had 41 of the 42 start and finish locations correctly reported. Only the Stage 15 start in Limoux was erroneous (they reported nearby Foix) which I think we can forgive them for!

To take the analysis back to the first 2019 TDF rumour release on 24 September 2018 and they had 10 stage start and finishes correct out of 19 possible stages (2 stages were already confirmed for the Belgium start). Another 6 stages had either the start or finish town correct which again provides very useful information for a tour operator like Sierra Sports & Tours looking at planning Tour de France cycling tour itineraries!

We would love to know the number of hours spent by velowire.com as they sit and research the highly anticipated Tour de France route every year. They take what seems to be an almost ‘forensic science’ approach to revealing the TDF route for everyone. To take things full circle and you can even watch a livestream of the official TDF presentation in Paris straight from their very own webpage. If only we could find a similar webpage dedicated to Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a España rumours and race leaks. Chapeau!!

Cycling with a 5 time Tour de France champion!

During 2014 the Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish Pyrenees. The ride took us from the heart of the Irati Forest all the way through to the finish at Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

‘Big Mig’ as he is affectionately known in English (‘Migalon’ en Spanish) stepped onto his first Tour de France podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ Stage 12 to set him up for his first yellow jersey. The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and which started a 5 year winning streak through to 1995.

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the secondary road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort to our hotel for the night.

How the 1991 TDF was won!

On arrival to Formigal Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991. Translated into English it went something like this:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains. When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. 

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

Stage 12 of the 1991 TDF

Here is some further background on the defining stage that first brought Big Mig into Le Tour spotlight. On the bikes the professional peloton needed to clear five categorised climbs making it the epic 1991 Tour de France Queen Stage. The pro-cyclists rode 232km from Jaca (Spain) to Val Louron (France) through territory which makes cycling in the Pyrenees a real pleasure. The classic climbs included Portalet, Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Val Louron. In case you don’t know already, the mountain road linking the Aubisque and Soulor climbs is one of the most scenic routes world-wide and to put it bluntly is a ‘must do’ for any cycling enthusiast!

The balcony road from Col du Soulor to Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees

As a quick side note, the following day our cycling tour group replicated a good chunk of the Stage 12 route which included a 100km cycling challenge over the final 5km of Portalet from Formigal into France, the Category 1 climb of Aubisque, the easy side of Col du Soulor and the hors categorie ascent of the Tourmalet. With approximately 3000m elevation gain it was a big ride but after hearing the stories and exploits of Migalon over dinner the previous night it certainly helped push us all on to a day of great feats!

Col du Tourmalet

With the Tourmalet playing centre-stage Miguel Indurain made his attack on the descent and took on the 1991 Tour de France and made the race his own. Col du Tourmalet is as big as they come when it comes to professional cycling history. During 1991 the Tour de France took on the 19km climb from Luz Saint-Sauveur (7.4% average gradient).

The Tourmalet can you believe has around 85 Tour de France race route passings. This magic col has inspired us so much that we have even designed an exclusive Tourmalet cycling jersey as seen in the below selfie.

Tourmalet cycling jersey

From Luz Saint-Sauveur there is nothing overly glamorous during the initial 7km up to the ski village Bareges. A constant test and some long straight sections to contend with as you follow your way alongside the Le Bastan river. Not long after leaving Bareges you arrive at a large car park which flattens considerably and gives the legs a nice reprieve. It is always a good place to regroup or even have a support car positioned. From here the main road begins to transform into a real mountain col as its sinuous path up to the summit now begins. It is also from this point in Le Tour that the caravans start lining the side of the road as the magnificent switchbacks immediately begin after exiting the carpark.

If you are looking for a car-free section though and something special then after Bareges and just before the car park veer off to the right on the still asphalted road which is also known as the Laurent Fignon way (‘Voie Laurent Fignon’). The original D918 road is open for cyclists only and its narrow winding asphalted road still exhibit some faded TDF race markings and the views down to the valley below are simply unrivalled!

[Just in case you didn’t know, Laurent Fignon was a professional French cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984. He was also the leader of the 1984 Giro d’Italia heading into the Stage 21 ITT in Verona. To follow a short story about Francisco Moser & Laurent Fignon and potential sabotage at the 1984 Giro please click here].

Coming back to Voie Laurent Fignon on the Tourmalet and it is only a short 2.4km stretch of road, which gains 200m of elevation and later joins back with the modern road. It is well worth the detour though especially considering it was first used all the way back for the inaugural TDF raid into the Pyrenees.

Looking from the Tourmalet summit towards Luz Saint-Sauveur

Now that we have rejoined the main drag it is the final two kilometres which are definitely the hardest on this western Tourmalet ascent. So keep that in mind as you start nearing the 2000m altitude mark. If you have kept something in reserve it is usually here, during the final kilometre, where you catch many recreational cyclists who are often now pedalling squares. The final big left, hard switchback is gruelling but an awesome piece of construction and the final 200m feel like an eternity. For most the highlight is greeting the giant structure (`Geant`) at the rock-cut summit which peaks at 2115m elevation.

Le Geant statue of Octave Lapize on Col du Tourmalet

Le Geant – Octave Lapize

The giant is dedicated to Octave Lapize the first cyclist to cross the Tourmalet during the TDF over a century ago (1910 to be exact)! Just a miserly 326km stage which took about 14 hours for Octave to complete and win back in the day. A highlight for everyone that reaches this magical destination is to mark the moment with a series of photos around the massive statue.

If time permits and you like cycling history also check out the bar at the top directly in front of Le Geant. Some old school TDF bikes are hanging from the walls and excellent black and white photos recalling just how difficult the race was during its early editions in the Pyrenees.

In a perfect world the statue would remain at the summit all year round but the conditions even during summer can be very harsh. So to keep it exposed to the winter elements would be a major mistake and as such between October and June every year it rests down in the Laurent Fignon centre near Bagneres-Bigorre.

To mark the opening of the cycling season the first weekend of June sees the return of Le Geant to its rightful place atop the Col du Tourmalet summit. Keep your eye out for the Montee du Geant free event where often one thousand recreational cyclists follow behind the giant statue as it travels the 30km from Gedre up to the summit. A true celebration of cycling perfect for cyclists of all abilities.

Time to Descend

After the compulsory photos at the summit you can cruise back down the western face of the Tourmalet and spend some time around Luz Saint Sauveur. From this side you have the Gavarnie National Park with the Col des Tentes and Col du Troumouse climbs which are two non-TDF gems. Nearby there are also many other classic cycling cols rising up from Argeles-Gazost and which are covered in detail in our Cycling the French Pyrenees blog post (to be released January 2021).

Otherwise, from the Tourmalet summit continue your ride east down to Sainte-Marie de Campan and the direction where Miguel Indurain made his historic downhill attack during the 1991 Tour de France. Take some speed off this eastern descent as there are not as many switchbacks and a couple of avalanche structures to pass through. The longer stretches can see you build up considerable speed and there are a few surprising corners to still carefully navigate. Once at the bottom in ‘Sainte-Marie’ the options again are endless with Col d’Aspin and Hourquette d’Ancizan immediately up for grabs. You are now also on the doorstep of Saint-Lary Soulan which in our opinion is one of the best bases for outdoor activities in the Pyrenees. 

Related Road Cycling Articles

To find out more about the Pyrenees and many of these above cols and cycling destinations stay tuned for our complete web-guide to Cycling in the French Pyrenees. There is even some more Miguel Indurain information as we feature the underrated Pont de Larrau climb in the French Pyrenees where Big Mig saw his 1996 Tour de France dreams disappear. Pont de Larrau was part of a tough stage through the Pyrenees and was planned to be a commemoration to Big Mig in many ways as the race also passed through his very own Spanish hometown on its way to the finish in Pamplona.

In addition, if you would like to ride the Spanish & French Pyrenees in the future please check out our detailed Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast cycling tour itinerary. We have designed a challenging but fun itinerary which zig-zags both sides of the Pyrenees showcasing the highlights and cultural differences between these two iconic cycling nations!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain