The full route of the 2015 Tour de France will presented (and streamed live on Cyclingnews.com) on Wednesday in Paris, but the 102nd edition of the race is expected to start with a testing first 10 days in the Netherlands, Belgium and Northern France.
According to various leaks and reports in local media gathered by the Velowire website and others, the opening nine stages will include a finish on the Mur de Huy in Belgium that hosts the Fleche-Wallonne Classic in April, a stage to Cambrai in Northern France that could include several short sectors of cobbles, a finish on the Mur-de-Bretagne uphill finish and a team time trial as the final stage in Brittany before the transfer to Pau and the Pyrenees.
In recent years, race organiser ASO has look to emulate the Giro d'Italia and shake up the route by adding testing finishes in the first week that test the overall contenders. Last year riders faced a hilly stage from York to Sheffield on stage 2, with Vincenzo Nibali winning alone from a select front group of just 21 riders. Nibali then strengthened his overall race lead with a perfect ride on the cobbles on stage 5 to Arenberg, showing that bike skills are as important as climbing and time trials in modern Grand Tours.
Utrecht start, strong team needed
The 2015 Tour de France will start in the Dutch city of Utrecht with a 13.7km individual time trial, followed by a road stage Neeltje Jans on the exposed western coast of the Netherlands. If the cross winds do not split the peloton, the climb of the Mur de Huy on stage 3 surely will, with the double-digit final gradient coming after a long fight for position.
Team support is also expected to vital on stage 4 from Seraing to Cambrai. While the number and length of the cobbled sectors is unknown, it is likely they will be fewer and less incisive than in 2014, when Nibali finished third behind Lars Boom and gained two minutes on many of his overall rivals.
In an interview with SBS television in Australia, race director Christian Prudhomme dropped a heavy hint that the cobbles would return in 2015, saying, “We go to the Pyrenees and the Alps every year but not to the north. Considering that we're in the north this time, there's no reason not to have a stage with the pave.”
Three days in Brittany
The Tour de France follows an anti-clockwise direction in 2015 with a return to cycling-heartland Brittany for three key stages after passing through Normandy via Amiens and Le Havre.
Stage 7 is expected to end in Fougères on Friday July 10, with the following day's finish on the climb to Mur de Bretagne. In 2011 Cadel Evans out sprinted Alberto Contador and Alexandre Vinokourov to win the uphill finish before going on to win the Tour. The short climb will mean another nervous day for the overall contenders.
The first half of the Tour is expected to end with a team time trial between the small towns of Vannes and Plumelec. A straight line stage would mean a TTT of 25km, going further out into the countryside could extend the distance even further, with side winds possibly playing a part.
There was no team time trial at the 2014 Tour de France, but such a distance would add another twist and another opportunity for overall contenders to gain or loose time on their rivals even before the Tour even reaches the Pyrenees.
The full route of the 2015 Tour de France will be unveiled on Wednesday morning with live streaming on Cyclingnews.com.