The Tour de France 2015 route announcement has certainly met with mixed reaction, with the absence of any meaningful individual time trial and a clear focus on the mountains not to everyone’s taste.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) has already raised doubts over his own participation, saying the course does not suit his characteristics as a rider, though chief rival Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is relishing what he admits will be a difficult race.
The return of the cobbles, which also met with a mixed reaction last year after a rain-soaked stage saw Vincenzo Nibali stretch his overall advantage, is likely to meet with a similar response too.
But while the GC men mull over a course which, on paper at least, looks perfectly suited to 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar) – if he stays safe on the cobbles and in the team time trial – there is better news for the sprinters.
Ample opportunities for stage wins, a revamp to the points classification scoring system and even – if they can avoid losing too much time against the clock on stage one – the possibility of the yellow jersey in Zeeland await.
With time bonuses now on offer for the stage winners of stage two to eight up for grabs too, there could well be a few new faces in the yellow jersey next year.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) is certainly keen on the route, where he will look to add to his 25 career stage wins, after his 2014 Grand Tour season amounted to one day, one crash and no victories.
So, what should we be expecting from the race in July?
The absence of Froome will be a major blow to British fans, race organisers and – given their ‘Three Grand Tours’ proposal – Tinkoff-Saxo too it would seem.
A British challenge for the yellow jersey therefore seems unlikely, though it would be good to see one or both of the Yates’ brothers supported in a push for the top ten by Orica-GreenEDGE.
Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas (both Team Sky) could also push for a top ten place, but Sky are much more likely to back Richie Porte or new signing Leopold Konig in the absence of Froome.
Two British winners in two years and then neither involved two years later is not a great stat for those looking at the legacy of the recent success – but there is one jersey a Brit has a great chance of bagging.
The maillot vert may have been in the sole possession of Peter Sagan for the last three years, with the Slovakian’s all-round ability a league above his sprinting rivals.
But two changes for next year will boost the hopes of Cavendish and Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), in particular.
First, the revamp to the points classification will mean greater reward is attached to winning one of the flat stages – of which there are nine classified as such next year.
Finishes on the Mur de Huy and Mur de Bretagne can hardly be considered flat for the pure sprinters, but with 50 points up for grabs for the winner on each flat stage it is certainly a big opportunity.
That alone, however, is unlikely to actually count too badly against Peter Sagan – for a start, his all-round ability will continue to come to the fore when the peloton tackles the stage four cobbles and the aforementioned uphill finishes.
In fact, were the new rules in place in the last three years – where Sagan has dominated the points classification – it would have made little difference to the overall standings as shown below.
Tour de France 2012: points classification with new rules
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Liquigas-Cannondale – 393 (actual: 421)
2) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol – 269 (actual: 280)
3) Matt Goss (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE – 250 (actual: 268)
4) Mark Cavendish (GBR) – Sky Procycling – 229 (actual: 220)
5) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – Sky Procycling – 126 (actual: 160)
Tour de France 2013: points classification with new rules
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale – 368 (actual: 409)
2) Mark Cavendish (GBR) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – 289 (actual: 312)
3) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol – 254 (actual: 267)
4) Marcel Kittel (GER) – Argos-Shimano – 232 (actual: 222)
5) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – 140 (actual: 177)
Tour de France 2014: points classification with new rules
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale – 381 (actual: 431)
2) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – 255 (actual: 282)
3) Marcel Kittel (GER) – Giant-Shimano – 238 (actual: 222)
4) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Team Europcar – 225 (actual: 271)
5) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – 167 (actual: 211)
The gap does close a little in each case, however, enough to provide motivation for the likes of Kittel especially to challenge for more intermediate sprints.
And the gap is likely to close further as a result of Peter Sagan’s winter switch to Tinkoff-Saxo.
Cavendish, in 2012, realised the effect of being hamstrung by commitments to the yellow jersey and if Alberto Contador is to challenge for the maillot jaune, Sagan may have to forego some personal ambition.
Keeping Contador safe on the cobbles, where El Pistolero lost a lot of time overall last year, will be more important than Sagan challenging for a stage win.
Could this, then, be the year Cavendish storms back to the green jersey to follow his 2011 triumph?
He certainly has a chance and do not rule him out of a shot at the yellow jersey either.
The last time Cavendish and Kittel raced a short time trial, on stage 8a of the Tour of Britain, they both finished within 30 seconds of stage winner, and the man who was to go on to be crowned world time trial champion, Sir Bradley Wiggins.
With ten seconds available on the finishing line on stage two in Zeeland and crosswinds expected to play a huge part – conditions under which Omega Pharma-Quickstep excel – a similar result next year could make things very interesting for the fast men.
In Cavendish’s illustrious career, 2014 will probably be ranked well towards the bottom of the pile despite winning 11 individual races and topping two points classifications.
Next year, therefore, could well be the year he bounces right back to the top. His excitement at next year’s Tour de France route is well justified – watch this space!