When the 1996 Tour de France route was being designed, then race director Jean-Marie Leblanc mulled over the idea of re-introducing time bonuses atop mountain passes to encourage more aggressive racing. The plan was quietly discarded, however, amid concerns that it would be perceived as an express attempt to thwart Miguel Indurain's bid for a record sixth Tour victory. And, as it turned out, mountaintop time bonuses were not required to unseat Indurain, whose run of dominance was ended by Bjarne Riis the following summer.
Twenty-three years on, the measure will finally be implemented, as race director Christian Prudhomme confirmed on Thursday that the 2019 Tour de France will feature eight bonus sprints placed atop climbs over the course of the three weeks. "These are," he said, "invitations to attack."
In 2018, bonus seconds were awarded to the first three riders at special sprints on the first eight road stages. In 2019, the same rewards – of 3 seconds, 2 seconds and 1 second – will be on offer, but the bonus points have been placed in more strategically important locations. As was the case this year, these special, time bonus sprints will not count towards the points classification.
"Last year, we had eight bonus points, but they were on flat stages. This time around, we'll put them on the top of the hills and cols, and on stages where there will be a fight for the general classification," said Tour de France technical director Thierry Gouvenou.
"There will be eight bonus points, often close to the finish, like on the Galibier or the Iseran. We have placed bonus seconds at points where the racing will be really intense, to reward attacking riders."
The first bonus point of the 2019 Tour comes on stage 3 atop the Côte de Montigny, 15km from the finish in Épernay. On stage 6, the Tour's first mountain leg to La Planche des Belles Filles, the bonus point comes atop the Col des Chevrères with 19km to go.
On stage 8, the bonus point comes atop the Côte de la Jaillière, which precedes the drop to the finish in Saint-Etienne. A day later, the Côte de Saint-Just – the final climb on the road to Brioude – is the site of the bonus point.
There are two further bonus points in the Pyrenees, on the climb of Hourquette d'Ancizan on the road to Bagneres-de-Bigorre on stage 12, and atop the Mur de Péguère, the climb preceding the summit finish at Prat d'Albis on stage 15.
The Tour traverses the Alps in its final days, meanwhile, and there will be bonus seconds on offer atop the Col du Galibier on the road to Valloire on stage 18. The following day, the Col d'Iseran – some 2,770 metres above sea level – will also feature the eighth and final bonus point of the Tour.
With summit finishes at the Col du Tourmalet, Tignes and Val Thorens, this will be the first Tour in history to feature three mountaintop finishes with altitudes in excess of 2,000 metres, but Gouvenou warned against placing too much emphasis on the race's demanding finale in the high Alps.
The route designer pointed to the back-to-back summit finishes in the Pyrenees on the race's third weekend as a pivotal moment in the 2018 Tour. After finishing atop the Tourmalet for the third time in Tour history on stage 14, the peloton tackles the climb of Prat d'Albis above Foix for the very first time. Though just 1,205 metres in altitude, the climb is 11.8km in length with an average gradient of 6.9%, including sustained pitches above 10% around a third of the way up.
"It's the novelty of this Tour," Gouvenou said. "It's a typical Pyrenean road, the gradient is irregular, and it will hurt riders. People talk a lot about the high-altitude finishes, but I think the key to the race is the Pyrenees with the two successive summit finishes."
The big weekend in the Pyrenees is preceded by the Tour's lone individual time trial, a rolling 27km test around Pau. The rest of the Tour's racing against the clock comes in the form of a 27km team time trial in Brussels on stage 2. The careful rationing of time trialling kilometres is in keeping with the recent trend on the Tour.
"Everybody has noted that the gaps are getting smaller and smaller between the big favourites in the mountains," Gouvenou explained. "If we make the time trials too long, the race will be decided by the time trials."
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the dearth of time trialling will have on Tom Dumoulin's racing programme for 2019, given that next year's Giro is slated to have three individual time trials on the route. Gouvenou, however, evinced confidence that the Dutchman would not be dissuaded from riding the Tour. "Dumoulin does not need a time trial to win a Tour," he said. "He has already proven that he is also a strong climber."
2021 Grand Départ in Copenhagen?
Nice has already been confirmed as the host of the 2020 Grand Départ, while Copenhagen has put forward its candidacy to welcome the Tour to Denmark for the first time in 2021. Confirmation of the location of the 2021 Grand Départ is not expected until early next year, but Christian Prudhomme appeared to give a vote of confidence to Copenhagen when asked about its prospects by a Danish broadcaster.
"You heard what ASO president Jean-Etienne Amaury said in his speech: we want to intensify the link between daily bike use and cycling champions," Prudhomme said, adding: "You have a city that knows how to do that."