The route for the 2019 Tour de France will be officially unveiled in the Palais des Congrès in Paris on Thursday. Always a big event, many stars of world cycling will descend on the Palais des Congrès as it becomes clearer how the next edition of the sport's biggest race might play out.
While details of the Brussels Grand Départ – the opening few stages – have already been confirmed, the rest of the route is still under wraps. However, rumours abound in the lead-up to the big reveal, with local newspapers often reporting that one of the towns on their beat will be one of the start or finish locations. This year is no exception and, as ever, Thomas Vergouwen at the VeloWire website has built up a picture by collating media reports and checking hotel reservations.
Cyclingnews will be in Paris on Thursday to bring you all the latest from the launch.
The 106th edition of the Tour de France will start in Brussels, marking the 50th anniversary of the first of Eddy Merckx's five victories and the 100th anniversary of the first maillot jaune – the famous yellow jersey, which was only introduced at the 1919 Tour, 16 years after the race's first edition, to help spectators pick out the race leader.
Eddy Merckx and Christian Prudhomme (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)
It has already been officially announced that the Belgian Grand Départ will consist of two stages: a road stage and a team time trial. The opening stage will run 192 kilometres, starting and finishing in the centre of Brussels, and heading south to Charleroi for the half-way point. The stage will feature the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen early on, but there's little else in the way of climbing, and so the first maillot jaune should go to a sprinter.
The team time trial will take place on a 28km course that starts at Brussels' Royal Palace and finishes at the Atomium building. It's a rolling, city-based course that represents an early hurdle for the general classification contenders.
Stage 3 is set to start in Binche, south of Brussels, according to Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure, before crossing the border into north-east France. Local newspaper L'Union reports that the stage will finish in Epernay, while stage 4 will depart from Reims the next morning in a stage that would head south, remaining close to the eastern border. Both are likely to be largely flat stages culminating either in full bunch sprints or punchy uphill sprints.
In any case, the two stages appear to lead towards the Vosges mountains for the first real climbing action of the 2019 Tour. It has already been widely reported that the race will revisit La Planche des Belles Filles, where Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru have won in recent years, although this time using an unpaved hiking path to extend the climb beyond the usual finish line.
In August, route planner Stéphane Boury posted a photo of a wooden pole sticking out of the ground at the roadside, with the cryptic message: "A stage of the 2019 Tour will be decided here… gradients of 24%... 100m from the line… there will be spectacle." Reporters from France Bleu soon tracked the wooden pole down and provided photo evidence, seemingly confirming that the first major scrap between the overall contenders will take place on this new road at the very top of La Planche des Belles Filles. Most local newspaper reports suggest this will happen on stage 6, with the preceding stage 5 featuring a route based around the Vosges range.
There are relatively few details about the following two stages, but it appears they will both head south, with VeloWire suggesting a finish in Chalon-sur-Saône on stage 7, based on hotel reservations in the area. Stage 8 should see the race head further south, past Lyon and towards Saint-Etienne, with numerous publications reporting a finish in Brioude – hometown of AG2R La Mondiale's Romain Bardet – on stage 9, which also happens to be Bastille Day. That stage could go over the Col du Béal or other climbs in the Livradois-Forez natural park, setting up the possibility of a selective finale.
The first rest day usually comes on the Monday after the first nine stages, but there's some doubt about that this year, with various reports suggesting it will be pushed back to the Tuesday to accommodate a stage to Albi – direction Pyrenees. That's not unprecedented, but is unusual and would mean the riders would cover 10 of the 21 stages and be almost at the half-way point before the first of the two rest days.
Pyrenees then Alps
The order of appearance of France's two major mountain ranges is a subject of annual intrigue. This year, despite coming close to the Alps a few days previously, it appears that the race will head for the Pyrenees first – unlike last year – before swinging back across southern France for a denouement in the Alps.
Many major media outlets are reporting a stage to Albi, so this seems likely – if not before the rest day, then after it. Another relatively flat stage is likely to follow, with VeloWire confident of a stage 11 finish in Toulouse, based on hotel bookings.
The race would then enter the Pyrenees, although there are many conflicting reports as to the make-up of the stages in the southern mountain range. There are some suggestions of a summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet, which would be one of the most eagerly anticipated points of the race. The Tourmalet – the highest col in the Pyrenees at 2,115m – is a Tour de France staple, but has only twice been used as a summit finish.
Thibaut Pinot and Rafa Majka on the Col du Tourmalet at the 2016 Tour (Getty Images)
According to La Dépêche, another key mountain stage could finish at Prat d'Albis – a sort of plateau above Foix, where Warren Barguil won in 2017, and reached by a steep and narrow road. The other Pyrenean stage is unclear. While local newspapers have reported that Pau – the most visited location in Tour history – will not feature this year, VeloWire suggests it will host an individual time trial in the middle of the second week.
What seems clearer is that the race will spend a couple of days in Nîmes after leaving the Pyrenees. Regional paper Midi-Libre reports that the race will leave the mountains on stage 15 on the third Sunday for a finish in the city, which will also act as the base for the second rest day on Monday July 22.
It's unclear how the third and final week will begin. The Dauphiné Libéré newspaper claims that the race will leaves Nîmes on stage 16 and head straight for the Alps with a stage to Gap. However, reports in papers closer to Nîmes suggest that the race could hang around in the city for another day. Midi-Libre's report affirms that a traditional road stage will start and finish there in on the Tuesday, while Objectif Gard reports an individual time trial. With the team time trial having taken place way back on stage 2, it's unlikely that there would be two ITTs – especially so close together – so it remains to be seen where the all-important time trial does indeed lie – whether in Pau, Nîmes, or indeed elsewhere.
Whichever day they arrive in the Alps, the Dauphiné is fairly clear that the final three stages before the final procession to Paris will play out in the mountains of the Savoie region of the French Alps.
The first of those three stages, it reports, will finish at the Valloire ski resort, which is located near the Col du Galibier and the Col du Télégraphe. A stage start in the Maurienne valley below should follow and, while there have been few reports of a finish location, VeloWire suggests the ski resort of Tignes.
The Dauphiné then reports a summit finish at Val Thorens to act as the climax in the fight for the yellow jersey. At 2,300 metres, Val Thorens is Europe's highest ski resort, but has only ever hosted one Tour finish – back in 1994 when Colombian Nelson Rodriguez won. The Dauphiné says the stage will start in Albertville, just under 65km away, so it remains to be seen which other climbs the organisers include, but either way the haul to Val Thorens will be a long and bruising finale to the race.
The race will then transfer up north for the traditional final-day procession into Paris and a high-speed sprint on the Champs-Elysées before the winner is crowned in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome celebrate Thomas' victory at the 2018 Tour de France (Getty Images)