At first glance, the route of the 2014 Tour de France appears to be neither fish nor fowl, but Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) is convinced that some eternal tenets will hold true once again next July – the riders will make the race, and that race will be inevitably be a tough one.
The presence of just one time trial on the parcours – albeit a lengthy 54 kilometres from Bergerac to Périgueux – will certainly delight the pure climbers, but on the other hand, there are perhaps fewer full-blown mountain stages in the high Alps and Pyrenees than there were in 2013.
This is offset, of course, by an infusion of stages for the puncheurs, days invariably prefixed by such adjectives as "nervous" and "tricky." And, as race director Christian Prudhomme pointed out, the Tour's protracted sojourn in the Vosges – including a summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles – essentially adds a third big mountain range to the mix.
"Last year, maybe there was more of the truly high mountains, but maybe that was all there was, too. I'm not sure if I'd say that it's an easier Tour than recent years. Maybe there are fewer big mountain stages, particularly in the Alps, but that just means that those stages in the Vosges will be even more important," Voeckler told reporters in the Palais des Congrés in Paris on Wednesday.
"It's not harder than last year, but it's certainly not any easier either. It's maybe not as good for the rouleurs because there are fewer time trials, but then they have a long one the day before the finish. Although by that point, maybe a climber with the yellow jersey or a good place on GC might be able to do a better time trial than he would be capable of at the start of the Tour."
While the big mountain stages, the time trial and the cobblestones on the road to Arenberg on stage 5 are the standout features of the 2014 parcours, Voeckler pointed to a number of less obvious difficulties scattered throughout the race.
"We have some hilly stages in England to start with, the cobbled stage, of course, and then there will be crosswinds in the south of France, so there are a lot of dangerous stages," he said.
"When you have a very hard stage on paper, the strategies of various teams and riders can be more cautious and the stage is maybe easier physically than you'd expect. And on the other hand, as we saw in 2013, the stage to Saint-Amand-Montrand [when the race split into echelons and Alejandro Valverde's general classification hopes ended – ed.] was physically more demanding than a lot of mountain stages."
As for his own aspirations, Voeckler was pleased to see a stage finish at Bagnères-de-Luchon, where he won in 2010 and 2012. After a disappointing 2013 Tour, Voeckler was reluctant to talk up his chances of matching his surprise fourth place finish of 2011 or his king of the mountains title of the following year.
"I'm not going to say ‘to do better than last year' because I wasn't at the part at all. I just hope I can find the kind of legs that I had in the years beforehand," said Voeckler. "And at Bagnères-de-Luchon, maybe the proverb ‘never two without three' might hold true."