First started in 2010, Tour de Force is a unique event for those people that have ever wanted to ride the entire route of the Tour de France (without needing a pro contract!).
Riding the 3497km route one week ahead of the race, the riders will roll up the Champs Elysees on 15 July. Lead cyclist Phil Deeker (who also organised the Cent Cols Challenge), will be sending us daily blogs from each stage, which will servce as a interesting preview of the stages before the pros ride them a week later. They're already out on the parcours, so let's catch up with how they're getting on!
4kms of fast straight, smooth road; 1km of smooth cobbles and turns; two 180 degree roundabouts along the meuse.
Fast & technical in places. Great viewing for the people of liege. We lost time at red lights; the pro's have an unfair advantage there!
The 2012 tour launches with a serious leg-buster. After 25 km of gentle prelude along the N61 out of Liege towards Pepinster, the 'undulations' never really stopped. 5 cat 4 climbs may look tame on paper; in fact, none of the climbs were particularly mean, but when they line up one behind the other, you got to have a decent pair of legs on you if you want to arrive back in Liege tidily. An 8% ramp around the F1 Spa-Francorchamps track was the steepest we had to deal with, as formula something-smaller-than-f1 belted round their track through the trees just by us. Out of Malmedy meant a bit of a pull too - just another one - until we got ourselves over a ridge seperating us from Vielsalm. Then followed a long grind up to the Baraque de Fraiture, one of the highest points in Belgium. Even at 'only' 600m, the combination of strong winds and driving rain made this section the hardest part of the stage. More lesser 'bumples' (more than a pimple, but hardly a bump) all the way back to the valley of the Meuse continue to wear down legs until all that is left is a 12km fast flat run-in to the bottom of the final climb. Of course this is where the breakaway is sucked up and the power-climbers line up for the final 4km battle up to the finish. If BMC can't line up Big Phil for a home win, then one questions how much they will be able to do for Cadel in his fight with Skinny Brad. And that would be another piece of good news for the Brit fans!
So, in summary, maybe a solo 'baroudeur' could take this one, but given Gilbert's need of a win this season, my money would be on him.
Better weather today; no rain and almost nice enough to shed the arm & knee warmers, which ain't bad for end of July!
Although we rode this in groups, this stage was hard and took a lot out of riders, fighting against the headwind from the start to the finish. A welcome tourist visit to the Citadelle of Namur makes for a nice twist to mid-stage, but then it's back to more never-ending straight lines across Belgium. The last section of the stage couldn't be more predictable: a 30km piece of flat (really was flat at this point) & straight road, enough to deaden brain & body. But eventually Tournai & the Lutosa "frites" factory come into view & even right up our nostrils and we can smell the stable! 207km is enough for everyone. For the Real Men, it is the perfect pure sprinter stage and the final run into the town centre has the makings for another stage win for Cav. Not too technical, so just needing power & skill of placing to secure this one for him, as well of course, as his boys in blue & black.
Stage 3 starts by crossing the busy urban sprawl of the Paris-Roubaix final-sections area, but thankfully we were spared the pavé sections from the parcours this time! Once out into the open french countryside things really change for the riders. Flat overall until about half-way through the stage when things begin to roll. They rock later too, at the end. This is time for a strong breakaway to make their mark as it is a stage when one of them could steal a win off the bigger names. There are no hills big enough to attack on until about 15km from the end. Up and under the high motorway flyover, the climbs follow marrow farm roads as they twist around the Boulonnais hills. There is a final 1km climb at 7-8% before the route plunges down into Boulogne for the last small ramp at the finish. It could be an ideal stage for Big Phil again if he feels his legs are on at last. Otherwise I can't see any of the big climbers being allowed to take a win here. It will be exciting to watch on the day though. A real fun route for an end-of-stage on week 1.