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Ever since team time trials were first included in the Tour de France in the 1930s they have always played a significant role. That’s why the return of the TTT to the Tour in 2018, after being absent last year and this coming July, is the most significant news coming out of Tuesday’s announcement by race organizer ASO that the opening four stages will take place in the flatlands of the Vendée and Pays de Loire departments of western France. The Grand Départ is scheduled for June 30, 2018, on the island of Noirmoutier, with the ceremonial start taking place, as it did in 2011, on the infamous Passage du Gois, the 4-kilometer-long causeway linking the island to the mainland that’s covered at high tide.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada & James Startt
From the Passage du Gois—where a mass pileup delayed several Tour favorites when it was crossed mid-stage on the third day of the 1999 Tour—the 105th Tour de France opens with a stage of 195 kilometers. This stage heads south and east along the Atlantic Ocean’s Côte de Lumière to a stage 1 finish in Fontenay-le-Comte, which is hosting a Tour stage for the first time. With a finale on sometimes-narrow roads across a marshy area similar to the Dutch polders, prevailing west winds could cause echelons to form and split up the peloton before the flat finale, spelling potential danger for some of the Tour favorites.
A sprinter will almost certainly win stage 1 and the following day’s stage 2—which starts at the small town of Mouilleron-Saint Germain and makes a circular route around the Vendée department to finish in La Roche-sur-Yonne. Before World War II, this town of 50,000 people was a regular stop on the Tour, hosting five consecutive stages from 1934 to 1938, the last stage winner being Belgium’s Éloi Meulenberg, the 1937 world champion.
Stage 3 is the team time trial, which is taking place at Cholet in the Pays-de-Loire department. Cholet has hosted three stages of the Tour, most recently in 2008, when it saw the start and finish of a 29.5-kilometer individual time trial, won on the day by German Stefan Schumacher—who was later disqualified for doping, giving the stage win to Luxembourg’ Kim Kirchen. Next year’s TTT is a healthy 35 kilometers in length, some 10 kilometers longer than the most recent TTTs at the Tour, which adds to the stage’s significance in 2018. As on the earlier days, the winds should be a factor in the TTT, making precise positioning extra important, especially because the looping course will be making continual changes of direction.
There have been 10 team time trials at the Tour this century. The first six, between 2000 and 2005, were all between 65 and 70 kilometers in distance and created large time gaps. The last of those TTTs was won by the Discovery Channel team of Lance Armstrong at a then record speed of 57.324 kilometers per hour. That record was broken three years ago on a much shorter 25-kilometer course at Nice—where the Orica-GreenEdge team set a speed of 57.841 kilometers per hour, one second ahead of the Omega Pharma squad, with Team Sky at three seconds.
Doing well in the TTT is an important part of winning the Tour. When the TTT was last longer than 30 kilometers, in 2009, eventual race winner Alberto Contador was given a huge boost when his Astana team finished 40 seconds ahead of the Saxo Bank team of eventual runner-up, Andy Schleck. So, assuming that the current Tour protagonists are again a force in 2018, Chris Froome’s Team Sky and Nairo Quintana’s Movistar squad will need to pack their Tour selections with strong rouleurs as well as climbers. The last TTT held at the Tour, in 2015, was won by BMC Racing, just a second faster than Team Sky and four seconds better than Movistar.
Following the TTT next year, the race transfers to the other side of the Loire Estuary for a stage 4 start in the beach resort of La Baule on the coast of Brittany. That stage will head north toward Rennes, probably with another stage finish favorable to the sprinters. That destination and the program for the rest of the 2018 Tour won’t be revealed until the complete route is presented at the Palais des Congrès in Paris this coming October 17. But given the northerly direction of the course announced Tuesday it’s likely that the Tour will take a clockwise loop around France, taking in the Alps before the Pyrénées, with the traditional finish taking place on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday, July 22.
Opening stages of the 2018 Tour de France
Saturday, June 30: Stage 1: Noirmoutier-en-l’Île–Fontenay-le-Comte, 195km
Sunday, July 1: Stage 2: Mouilleron-Saint Germain –La Roche-sur-Yon, 185km
Monday, July 2: Stage 3: Cholet–Cholet (TTT), 35km