PORTO VECCHIO, France (VN) — Corsica is one of the most wild and remote outposts in Europe. Desolate mountains, pristine beaches, and untouched forests make the Mediterranean island one of Europe’s most fascinating destinations.
It’s against this dramatic backdrop that the 100th Tour de France clicks into gear Saturday for the first of three stages before heading to the mainland.
Geography is an essential, fundamental element of the Tour de France, and three days of racing across the dramatic backdrop of Corsica are sure to have an impact on the final outcome of the fight for the yellow jersey.
Everyone agrees the start of this year’s Tour is one of the hardest in decades.
Tour technical director Jean-Francois Pescheux characterized the Corsica start as the “most difficult Tour start since 1992 in San Sebastián [Spain].”
The Tour won’t be won on Corsica, but it certainly could be lost.
Avoiding disaster is the top goal for the top riders in the race’s opening weekend.
“There are a lot of objectives on these first few stages. The most important is limiting losses and then get on to the rest of the race,” said pre-race favorite Chris Froome (Sky). “That’s the objective here in Corsica.”
Given the treacherous roads, coupled with a hyped-up, nervous peloton, a race-changing moment is bound to unfold. It seems almost inevitable that at least one GC favorite will see his hopes dashed in the opening days of racing across tight, technical roads, and demanding topography.
Some riders were shocked when they got their first glimpses of the roads this week. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) told Dutch journalists that Corsica was too hard for the opening stages of the Tour.
“The roads are too narrow. It’s too dangerous,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for the start of the Tour.”
Avoiding a crash and getting gapped are the most important priorities for the GC favorites.
A number of the pros have raced on Corsican roads during the three-stage, two-day Critérium International held each March. The race moved to Corsica from the French Ardennes in 2010, a switch that helped paved the way for the Tour start this year.
Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) said the narrow roads could produce some surprises for the Tour pack.
“A lot of the roads are very narrow. At Critérium, the peloton is pretty small compared to the Tour, and the roads are small for that race,” Bookwalter said. “It’s not the roads we typically see at the Tour, but you’re seeing more and more lately, they’re putting us on some pretty rough roads in all the races.”
Sky scouted the Tour routes back in March when the British team went one-two at Critérium International with Froome and Richie Porte.
What can the peloton expect?
Saturday’s opening leg is relatively straightforward and by far the easiest of the three stages. After looping south of Porto Vecchio, with a short, fourth-category climb in the first hour, the course is mostly flat on perhaps the best roads of Corsica, along the wide-open east coast. With the yellow jersey on the line, a bunch sprint is all but assured.
With no opening prologue, sprinters will get a rare chance to snag the yellow jersey. It’s all but guaranteed that Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Lotto-Belisol will bring it home for a mass gallop to give Mark Cavendish and André Greipel shots at yellow.
“The yellow jersey is not just one of the most iconic symbols in cycling, it’s one of the most iconic symbols in the world of sport,” Cavendish said. “To be able to wear that for a day in your life, it’s a thing to make any rider’s career. It’s a thing you dream about as a child. It’d be a beautiful thing.”
Sunday’s and Monday’s stages are quite another story.
Stage 2 drives across the rugged center of “Haute Corse,” hitting a string of three rated climbs in the middle part of the course, including the 1, 163-meter summit at the Cat. 2 Col de Vizzavona.
Monday’s third stage is the trickiest of the three Corsican offerings, hugging the rugged west coast between Ajaccio and Calvi. The stage is laden with traps — narrow roads, punchy climbs, and exposed roads — with a hard, second-category climb just 13.5km from the finish line.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) said that despite the difficulty of the parcours, he doesn’t expect things to slip away from the GC favorites, including his teammates Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen.
“I think all three stages will see sprints,” Gilbert said. “Saturday for sure, but even Sunday and Monday, some riders will not make it, but I see relatively big groups to contest the stage.”
It looks like the weather should hold. There were some minor showers Friday evening, but forecasters are calling for cool temperatures, with highs in the upper 70s F, and light winds. Racing on the narrow roads in the wet would be harrowing, to say the least.
Even if the three stages end in reduced bunch sprints, we’re likely to see changes in the yellow jersey each day. With Tuesday featuring the stage 4 team time trial in Nice, it’s just the kind of start the centenary Tour deserves.