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Climb-heavy 2016 Tour de France route unveiled

PARIS (AFP) — Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, will take a starring role in the 2016 edition of the Tour de France, whose complete route was unveiled in Paris on Tuesday.

Next July, Great Britain’s Chris Froome will spend three days staring at the Alpine behemoth, which rises to more than 4,800 meters above sea level, as he attempts to defend the most prestigious title in cycling, which he won for the second time earlier this year.

The race departure from the world famous Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy on July 2 has been known already for a year, but that first 188-kilometer stage will also doff its cap at history with a finish at Utah Beach, one of the D-Day landing sites during World War II.

It’s a Tour described as “a sporting challenge in beautiful surroundings” by Tour director Christian Prudhomme.

The opening stage will pass the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, which former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once described as the “most beautiful kilometer in France.”

Notably for the hosts, the finish to the 12th stage on July 14, France’s Bastille Day, will take place on the epic Mont Ventoux, a windswept, 15.7km climb that averages a punishing 8.8 percent gradient.

Froome, 30, will likely let a smile crack over his lips in anticipation of that 185km stage, as it was by winning there during the 2013 Tour that he tied up his maiden success at the Grand Boucle.

Froome started that day, the 15th stage, 2:28 ahead of Bauke Mollema, but finished it with 4:14 in hand on the Dutchman and his more likely rivals, such as Colombian Nairo Quintana — whose second-place result on the stage left him almost 6:00 out of the GC lead.

Quintana would recover time and form to finish second overall — a result he repeated this year — but even in winning the penultimate stage he still ended up more than 4:00 behind Froome when the race reached Paris.

Sprint finishes

After the nervy, challenging first week of the 2015 Tour that took in wind, cobbles, driving rain, and many difficulties, the 2016 edition will be more inviting and appealing to the sprinters.

The opening stage is almost certain to end with a sprint finish, as are the third and fourth stages.

But the second stage from Saint-Lo to Cherbourg includes a final 3km kick up that should suit a specialist puncher, such as world champion Peter Sagan or 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Dan Martin.

The Tour heads unusually quickly to the mountains, where it will dip into Spain and Andorra during the Pyrénéan stages before also visiting the Swiss Alps later on.

The fifth stage will offer the first mountainous challenge in the Massif Central, although the finish into Le Lioran is largely downhill.

But the seventh stage will take the peloton into the Pyrénées, where a number of monsters loom on the horizon, including the Col du Tourmalet, the stage 9 finish up to Andorre Arcalis, and the Port d’Envalira at the start of the 10th stage, which at 2,407 meters will be the highest point of the race.

In total, there will be four summit finishes, one less than this year, but several stages which include a short but tricky or technical descent to the end after a tough climb.

“The Tour is always for the climbers,” insisted Prudhomme, with 28 high-categorized climbs on the 2016 Tour’s menu, three more than the last two years.

There are two individual time trials: one at 37km, long which could provoke significant gaps among the contenders, and another at just 17km, but which comprises 15km of climbing, including the 2.5km long Cote de Domancy with its 9.4 percent average gradient.

That’s one of three stages in which a view of Mont Blanc will be almost omnipresent.

“Three days around Mont Blanc will be fantastic,” said Prudhomme.

2016 Tour de France

Stage 1: July 2, Mont Saint-Michel to Utah Beach Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, 188km
Stage 2: July 3, Saint-Lo to Cherbourg-Octeville, 182km
Stage 3: July 4, Granville to Angers, 222km
Stage 4: July 5, Saumur to Limoges, 232km
Stage 5: July 6, Limoges to Le Lioran, 216km
Stage 6: July 7, Arpajon-sur-Cere to Montauban, 187km
Stage 7: July 8, L’Isle-Jourdain to Lac de Payolle, 162km
Stage 8: July 9, Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon, 183km
Stage 9: July 10, Vielha Val d’Aran (Spain) to Andorre Arcalis (Andorra), 184km
July 11: Rest day
Stage 10: July 12, Escaldes-Engordany (Andorra) to Revel, 198km
Stage 11: July 13, Carcassonne to Montpellier, 164km
Stage 12: July 14, Montpellier to Mont Ventoux, 185km
Stage 13: July 15, Bourg-Saint-Andeol to La Caverne du Pont-d’Arc, 37km (time trial)
Stage 14: July 16, Montelimar to Villars-les-Dombes Parc des Oiseaux, 208km
Stage 15: July 17, Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz, 159km
Stage 16: July 18, Moirans-en-Montagne to Berne (Switzerland), 206km
July 19: Rest day
Stage 17: July 20, Berne (Switzerland) to Finhaut-Emosson (Switzerland), 184km
Stage 18: July 21, Sallanches to Megeve, 17km (time trial)
Stage 19: July 22, Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, 146km
Stage 20: July 23, Megeve to Morzine, 146km
Stage 21: July 24, Chantilly to Paris Champs-Élysées, 113km