What already promises to be one of the most explosive stages of next month’s Tour de France could prove to be even more fascinating with the revelation that race organisers ASO will be experimenting with a grid-style start similar to that used in cyclo-cross and in Formula 1 motor racing.
Stage 17 from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary Soulon, with an unprecedented summit finish on the Col de Portet – the third of three big climbs that day – is at 65 kilometres the shortest mountain stage of this year’s race, and the shortest in more than three decades.
Race director Christian Prudhomme has described it as potentially a "dynamite stage," even before details of the novel way of starting it came to light.
Typically, shorter Grand Tour stages in the mountains – this one is expected to last no more than two and a half hours – make for exciting racing, especially when they come this late in the race, with the overall battle approaching its climax.
Usually there is also frantic racing from the off as teams without riders fighting for the GC look to get into the break, while team mates of overall contenders may also try and slip into it to act as a bridge for their leaders later on.
But in an added twist, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad has revealed that the riders will line up in a grid-style formation, with the holder of the race leader’s maillot jaune effectively in pole position.
The second-placed rider will be positioned to his left, the third-placed man to his right, with the top 10 riders taking up position on the start line.
Behind them, the riders in 11th to 20th position overall will form a second row, then the following 20 riders will be placed in what is described as a ‘cage’, then the remaining riders in groups of 40 according to GC position – although outside the top 20, each group will be bunched, rather than riders having to line up in strict adherence to their precise place in the overall standings.
While some may see it as a gimmick, route director Thierry Gouvenou believes the innovation will can enhance the tactical aspect of the start of the stage as teams and riders decide how best to handle the departure of the stage.
“It’s a bit of a start like in Formula 1, or in cyclo-cross,” he explained. “We only do that day. Just before the start of such a short stage there will be tension in the air anyway. This special starting formula accentuates that.”
There will be no neutralised zone, and instead organisers will make provision for riders to be able to warm up on rollers, with the road heading straight uphill from the start as they head towards the foot of the 15-kilometre climb of the Montée de Peyragudes.
“Anyone who wants to sprint to the foot of that bottleneck can do so,” explained Gouvenou. “Any leader who prefers to wait for his team mates can also do that. It’s at your own risk.”
Once the descent of the Peyragudes has been negotiated, the riders then take on the second Category 1 ascent of the day, the Col de Val Louron-Azet, crested with 28 kilometres remaining.
After coming down from that, they then have to contend with the climb of the Col du Portet, covering 16 kilometres at an average gradient of 8.7 per cent.
That unique start therefore introduces an “extra element,” according to Gouvenou, to what was always likely to be a gripping stage, and although shorter, the stage has a profile not too dissimilar to that of the final 80 kilometres of Stage 19 of last month’s Giro d’Italia, where Chris Froome launched his solo attack to seize control of the race.
Could we see a similar out-and-out attack from a rider here to which the leaders of rival teams will have to respond, isolated from the start from their team mates?
Or will the likes of Team Sky and Movistar, both of which could well have three riders in the top 20 given their strength in depth, be able to try and control the racing, albeit with fewer riders than usual?
Could it be that due to the unpredictability caused by the new format of the stage start, the overall contenders will quietly agree to take it easy at the start to allow their full teams to assemble, while letting riders in the following groups who aren’t a threat on GC charge off up the road?
And what of the men towards the bottom of the overall standings including the sprinters, who with three big cols to tackle on a stage that could be over within a shade over two hours may struggle to make the time cut and will have the added handicap of starting the stage right at the back of the bunch?
We’ll find out on Wednesday 25 July.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.