Roundtable: Will 2018 route favor Froome? How many can Sagan win?

Oh-Em-Gee, ASO revealed the 2018 Tour de France route Tuesday, and boy is it a doozy! There are dirt roads, pavé, and even a super-short 65km climbing stage. Are our French friends boldly thinking outside of the proverbial grand tour box, or is this route simply a newfangled gimmick? Let’s roundtable!

What was your first reaction when you pulled up the map of the 2018 Tour de France?

Chris Case @chrisjustincase: Hey, that looks like France to me! What’s that? A 65km stage? Oh, so like a third rest day?

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Hmmm, had I seen this somewhere before? No, not really, but the suspense of the ‘big show’ to announce the Tour route has been somewhat been diminished from all the leaks and reporting that slowly drips-drips-drips details about the route in the months leading up to today. But that aside, it’s a fantastic route overall, with real challenges, risk-taking design, original planning, without forgetting the history of the Tour. It’s a near-perfect Tour course.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: This gravel movement is officially over — even the Tour de France has gotten on the bandwagon. Pretty soon they’ll be selling cycling fanny packs and 32mm ties at Urban Outfitters.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsThis is like putting an oversized spoiler and spinner rims on a classic car like a Jaguar E-Type. ASO put a lot of gimmicks into the world’s biggest bike race. It isn’t a good look. But hey, maybe we’ll finally get an exciting race for yellow?

What rider is this route designed to favor?

Chris: I was expecting to see more time trial miles, increasing the likelihood of a duel between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. Or, perhaps the thinking is that Dumoulin can handle the cobbles more than other contenders. Or maybe the short, punchy stages are an attempt to give Froome the heebie-jeebies. In any case, the best riders will rise to the occasion. This route, though unique on paper, is still the Tour de France. Ultimately, I think Froome is the man to beat.

Andrew: The survivor. On paper, it might favor the climbers, especially with all the climbs packed into the final half of the Tour. But that run from the Vendée to Roubaix is going to see a few big names out of the frame, as well as some significant time differences even before hitting the climbs. The 2018 Tour winner will be multi-faceted, strong, consistent, and very lucky.

Fred: I think it is designed to not favor any specific GC rider of this generation. It has a challenge for everyone. Since Froome is the most well-rounded grand tour rider right now, then I have to say it suits him best.

Spencer: I guess it favors Sky’s Gianni Moscon because he can finish fifth in Paris-Roubaix then smash the world’s best climbers in the Vuelta? In all seriousness, it favors pure climbers who have enough teammates to keep them safe in the first week and on even time after the TTT. That stage 20 individual time trial is hilly as well.

Which stage will have a bigger impact: Stage 9 and its 21.7km of cobbles or the ultra-short 65km stage 17?

Chris: Much of it will depend on the race situation during those two respective stages, as well as the weather for stage 9. It would be incredible to see another day like we did in 2014 when Vincenzo Nibali crushed it over the slick cobbles, dropping Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara along the way. My God that was awesome.

Andrew: The cobbles will only matter if some big GC riders lose time. Stage 9 is a day to endure and to limit losses. The ultra-short mountain stage in the Pyrenees is one to press the advantage, be it someone looking to defend a lead, or a rival looking to revive their GC ambitions. Aggressive racing, however, will pay off on both days.

Fred: Stage 9 has the potential to have the biggest impact. I’m already preparing for the sad post-stage interviews with Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, and Romain Bardet.

Spencer: It seems like Tour cobble stages are often duds. That day in 2014 was one exception. I’m expecting fireworks on stage 17 — it climbs right out of the gate and doesn’t relent. Maybe I’m taking a shine to these gimmicks after all …

How many stages will Peter Sagan win this Tour?

Chris: Zero. He will be disqualified on stage 6 for taking on “unauthorized refreshments” from a roadside fan.

Andrew: Two. This year’s course features plenty of lumpy terrain, but it mostly comes in the first half, so the sprinters and stage-hunters won’t be giving away any of their chances. Sagan will be in the top-five nearly every stage that doesn’t finish on a summit or against the clock. Two, maybe three stage-wins, plus the green jersey.

Fred: Three. He can win the cobbled stage, a flat stage, and then one of the punchy stages during the first week.

Spencer: Sorry Sagan, you’ll only win one in 2018. This will be Fernando Gaviria’s Tour when it comes to the sprints.

Which stage will most decide the overall?

Chris: I have to agree with Froome that stage 12 and its 71km of climbing over the Col de La Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer, and Alpe d’Huez offers someone like him the chance to take control of the race by the scruff of its neck.

Andrew: Paris. You gotta survive this “Tour de Ambush” to win, and that means all the way through the final time trial. The boobytraps come thick and often, all the way to Paris. No sleep ’till the Champs.

Fred: I’m with Chris and Chris. l’Alpe d’Huez is a spot where guys can and will lose minutes. Set your TiVo, cycling fans, that stage is one to watch.

Spencer: It’ll come down to the final time trial on stage 20. That day is preceded by a heinously difficult Pyrenean stage — Aspin, Tourmalet, Aubisque. Plus, the TT will be hilly and technical. How appropriate to have a spicy finish in Espelette, the place where they grow pimento peppers.

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Roundtable: Our 2018 Tour de France wishlist

Tour de France organizer ASO will announce the race’s 2018 route on Tuesday, October 17. We know a few things by now. It will start in the Vendée region of western France with a road stage from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte, including a ride over the infamous Passage du Gois. Stage 2 is another road stage, from Mouilleron-Saint Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon. Stage 3 is around Cholet, suggesting a team time trial could be back in the Tour. There are also rumors of a return to the cobblestones near Roubaix and a trip up Alpe d’Huez.

The rest of the 21-stage “Grande Boucle” is unknown. That’s where we come in. Our panel of experts is taking this opportunity to dream up our wishlist of ways to make the 105th edition the best Tour yet. Let’s roundtable!

Pick two things you want to see in the 2018 Tour route — one practical idea and one WACKY idea.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: We all know that dirt is cycling’s hot trend. So the Tour de France needs to fire up the Future Bass playlist and live in the now, dammit. I say for 2018, the Tour adds some long sections of the Belgian grass/dirt roads that are used in Schaal Sels for the first week of the race. Then, in week three, there’s a day of big, long, dirt climbs in the Pyrenees.

That final stage of the 2017 Hammer Series was so unorthodox and bizarre, and boy did I love it. So my wacky idea is for the TDF to install a bizarre TTT format where the teams leave the start gate like 30 seconds at a time and then are allowed to group together and attack each other as a full TTT squad. The first five riders across the line win! Nacer Bouhanni is already practicing his left hook.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: I want two mountainous stages that are shorter than 120km, ideally one in the Alps and one in the Pyrenees. If you want to get wacky, let’s also run a team time trial on the Roubaix cobblestones early in the race, but make sure those pavé sectors are nice and long — I’m thinking 40km of racing with 39km of cobbles.

Chris Case @chrisjustincase: I’d love to see a big, painful, uphill time trial. Maybe that’s Alpe d’Huez but probably not this year. Better yet, have them tackle the Galibier or Tourmalet. Yes, I want more agony. But what I really want to see is a team competition interlude à la the Hammer Series, with a climb, sprint, and chase component. The video explaining the rules of the Hammer Series is almost two minutes long, so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, it will bring a much-needed wacky respite from the doldrums created by Team Sky’s smothering tactics.

Andrew Hood @eurohoody: OK, so we’re doing this eight-rider per team thing this year. But let’s keep an open mind about it. Teams and riders say it is not good for their job security, or for their ability to finish the race. If safety is the true concern, there is a lot more the UCI and race organizers can do. If major grand tours don’t have a discernable safety improvement after this year, bring it back to nine-man teams.

Wacky: How about making this the Tour of short climbs? We’ve seen that the shorter, multi-climb stages are the most thrilling and decisive. So why not pack this Tour with a lot of them? There still have to be longer stages to make it a race of attrition, but when it comes to the mountains, pack in a string of shorter, 100-125km stages, one after another. Three in the Alps, and two more in the Pyrenees. Remember, short is the new long.

Dan Cavallari @browntiedan: I want super-short, super-steep climbing stages on successive days, followed immediately by short, fast sprinter’s stages. Keep the excitement over the course of four or five days to shake up the race and help prevent that feeling of it being a foregone conclusion during the final week. For my wacky idea, let’s kick it old school: flat pedals only on one stage.

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Commentary: Our rules for motorized cheaters

By now you’ve probably read that French amateur Cyril Fontayne was busted with a motorized bike in a race on Sunday near Périgueux. The French Cycling Federation and local authorities, led by ex-pro Christophe Bassons — known for clashing with Lance Armstrong back in the day over doping allegations — mustered all of their resources to catch the cheat. According to some reports, Bassons jumped into his car to chase the guy down, making Bassons the closest thing cycling has to an anti-doping superhero.

And who is this nefarious cyclist? Fontayne, 43, is a local tradesman. The perp says he only wanted to get back into racing after a herniated disc this spring.

“I didn’t want to be the champion of Dordogne or win a lot of races. I just did it to feel good again,” he told France Bleu Périgord radio. “I’ve not sold drugs or killed a child. I’ve simply placed a motor in a bike. I will be made an example of, but that’s to cycling’s benefit as I’m not the only one to do this.”

It is a stretch to sympathize with Fontayne. Part of his argument rests on his belief that the motorized cheater bicycles are now commonplace. Yeah, he’s that guy on the group ride who believes that everyone who beat him must be cheating.

Personally, I’m somewhat dubious of Fontayne’s claims. But let’s embrace debate and assume that these nefarious bikes have completely inundated the amateur peloton. Every weekend the Masters 50-plus category at your local gran fondo is composed of guys zipping along at 40mph without pedaling. In this dystopian scenario, it would be incumbent on cycling’s governing body to create some regulations for the new technology.

If I were charged with regulating cheater bikes in amateur racing, here are the rules I would levy on the motorheads:

1. No chamois allowed

Bike racing is all about discomfort. He (or she) who can endure the most pain and suffering should win, right? Not with a cheater bike. A motor in the bike makes things a little too cushy for cyclists. So my new rule: Motorheads are forbidden from racing with a pad in their shorts. Back in the day, the only pro rider who could endure this masochistic level of pain was Tinker Juarez. He went chamois-free for most of his races. So if you’re going to pound out 100 miles on your motorized bike, prepare to go full-Tinker and plant your heinie on the ass-hatchet with nothing but a paper-thin layer of lycra in-between. Sure, you may finish 20 minutes ahead of your buddy, but you will spend double that time applying Alocane to your chapped nether regions.

Unexpected upside: Skin balm becomes a new sponsor category for gran fondos.

2. You better weight for everyone else

Cycling is also a math equation. If there’s a climb, the ratio of your wattage relative to your weight determines whether you are the proverbial hammer or nail. Of course, a motorized bike blasts its rider to the top of the climb, no matter how heavy he (or she) may be. But what if the motorized rider was, like, SUPER heavy? Here’s my answer: mandatory weight vests for the motorheads. Just stop by your local gym or scuba diving shop and buy some wearable lead weights. Sure, they may be uncomfortable, but hey, it’s a light price to pay in order to race a cheater bike. And it’s not like a weight vest will totally slow you down. This guy won a Spartan race with one on!

Unexpected upside: Built-in body armor for those out-of-control motorheads.

3. Breathtaking riding required

Gym rats have a lot of great ideas for leveling the playing field with motorized riders. Have you ever seen those $90 training masks that purport to build your lung capacity by restricting your air intake? I know — seems like really sound science. Motorized riders like Fontayne are doing a fraction the effort as their competitors. So why not force them to simply take in a fraction of the oxygen? I’m sure these riders will accept the challenge. After all, they get to look really tough, like Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Unexpected upside: We inadvertently create a group of super-human athletes who can win bike races AND do push-ups!

So, to wrap things up, I’m all for allowing cyclists like Fontayne to race their motorized bicycles in sanctioned amateur events against those of us who prefer to pedal our bicycles, endure the pain, and win or lose based on the merits of our legs, lungs, and brains. So long as riders like Fontayne are willing to subject their bottoms to awful, terrible chafing, load themselves down with lead, and siphon off their airflow, then hey, it’s all good. If these riders aren’t willing to go there, then maybe they should stay the hell away from our sport.

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Garbage takes: Sagan slim-fast; ‘Belgian guy’ of the week returns

Any given week, there are oodles of cycling stories flying around in the news. So here’s a quick-hit summary of this week’s happenings, plus my own garbage opinions on each. Much like my gambling advice, these takes are for entertainment purposes only!

Sagan’s slim-fast program

Peter Sagan’s Slovakia kit has barely gone into the laundry after he won his third consecutive world championships, but he’s already talking about 2018. Sagan said it’s possible he could win an unprecedented fourth rainbow jersey in Innsbruck, Austria. To do that, or win hilly spring classics, he admitted he’ll need to lose some weight. I smell a sponsorship opportunity for the always-savvy champ. The wacky European weight-loss companies will be all over Sagan in hopes of marketing their systems. He already starred in some cooking videos for Bora. If you’re channel-surfing late at night and see a smirking Slovak on the screen hocking special powders and freeze-dried foods in rainbow-striped packages, you know Sagan has cashed in — yet again!

Contador’s injustice has nothing to do with cycling

Speaking of watching what you eat, Alberto Contador complained this week that the disqualification of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia was “a huge injustice.” That was seven years ago, man! I’ve got a bone to pick with Alberto, but it has nothing to do with stripped grand tour titles or tainted beef. My grievance: He hid his singing talents from us for far too long. Imagine if he had belted out this little number atop the Vuelta al Pais Vasco podium, wearing a traditional Basque txapela! Eurovision 2018 is coming up in May. If Contador starts posting Strava rides from the Lisbon area, you can bet he’s preparing for a new kind of competition.

Belgian guy of the week: The man who banned beards

Back in the spring, I was handing out “Belgian guy” awards on a weekly basis. When I heard that Sport Vlaanderen director Walter Planckaert had banned his riders from sporting beards, I knew it was time for a comeback. Citing a need to preserve “the elegance of cycling” Planckaert drew a line in the sand. Classic Belgian guy move. It isn’t about the aesthetics, a potential electric shaver sponsor, or a secret obsession with the New York Yankees. Nope, this purely about draconian control, letting the riders know who’s boss. After all, the storied Belgian development team only won three major races in 2017. Those Sport Vlaanderen riders better watch out — if they don’t start winning soon, Walter might issue some more diktats. Red meat for breakfast! Wool kits! Elegant steel bikes with downtube shifters! The guy won Tour of Flanders during the Ford administration, so he must know what he’s doing.

Cipollini is bored

In a story on Cycling Weekly, our faithful European reporter Gregor Brown wrote that Mario Cipollini is bored with bike racing these days. He criticized rival teams and riders for not taking the fight to dominant stars like Peter Sagan and Chris Froome. It’s hard to get mad at cycling’s most charismatic rider ever, but come on, Cipo, we need some constructive criticism here. It’s not so simple to just attack and isolate Sagan and Froome. Maybe we need other ways to stir up some cycling excitement, less racing-oriented approaches. Let’s put Cipollini in charge of designing race leaders’ jerseys. Perhaps he can give Sagan some hairstyle tips? (That buzz cut… Ouch!) And as always, tasteful nudes never go out of fashion.

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Commentary: Interbike is us — If it wasn’t good, we’re not good

It’s not too difficult to come up with a word to describe the 2017 Interbike trade show, the last bike gathering to be held in Las Vegas. Diminutive. Lilliputian. Small. For old time’s sake, I bumped into a few people. It was awkward because we were the only ones in the hallway (apologies).

Interbike’s smaller size might confirm our fears about the bike industry. After all, we’ve seen the stats — The National Bicycle Dealers Association’s (NBDA) 2015 Industry Overview reported a decline in the number of bicycle shops in the U.S., a trend that has continued since. Is the industry dying? Should we be worried about the future of our beloved industry?

I don’t think so. That same NBDA report notes that participation in cycling was slightly up. Overall sales have been stable. It goes on to note that cycling’s outlook is “positive.” So why the contraction of the trade show? Interbike’s size and scope are simply a reflection of us, the bike industry, and our desire to participate in an annual gathering. If we choose to embrace a trade show to showcase our brands, Interbike will thrive. If not, it will die.

And while it’s understandable why many bike brands have abandoned the show, there is value in an annual industry-wide meetup. With Interbike set to leave Vegas for Reno next year, now is the time for the industry to decide what, exactly, it needs in a big show.

Some of Interbike’s problems are obvious. Vegas is expensive. With so many brands launching products, it’s tough to cut through the clutter. It falls at a strange time in the product cycle. So, few brands plunked down the coin to attend the show, and even fewer went to Outdoor Demo. Yet to call Interbike 2017 a failure would be to diminish what it really was: A moment to hit the brakes, see the people we love in this industry, and ask ourselves why we showed up at all.

No doubt there’s a need for an industry pow-wow in which media, vendors, shop owners, and fans get together to celebrate what’s great about us. When you distill Interbike to its most basic elements, the only missing component was dollar signs. For years, Interbike was the week when dealers placed preseason orders and media saw what’s new and cool for the year. Shops don’t operate like that these days. With the rise of social media, brands can now launch products on their own timeline. Many major bike manufacturers now prefer to launch product via their own press camps. And why not, considering Las Vegas’s expensive booths, hotel rooms, plane tickets, and food?

On the show floor, there was much head-scratching and hand-wringing. But there was also a sigh of relief: The contraction meant more of what we all came to love about this gathering in the first place: face-time and beverages with each other; a sneak peek at the new and cool; media, vendors, athletes, and shop owners all mingling, trading ideas, and discussing solutions to the contraction that affects us all. The show floor can and should be a breeding ground for ideas and partnerships, but that’s on us. It’s unfair to place the blame squarely on Interbike. If we fail, we fail together.

There’s value in getting together with a renewed focus. This is an opportunity for the industry to become proactive, to address cycling’s biggest roadblocks to growth: infrastructure and cycling safety. It’s also an opportunity for bike shop owners to come together to develop a strategy for survival and best practices. Interbike holds conference seminars that address e-commerce and advocacy. That’s a good start, but most lectures focus on granular topics like bike fit and store design.

Perhaps instead of fixating on near-term business goals or product updates, we should focus on how to improve infrastructure in the United States so new cyclists (perhaps some on those e-bikes) actually have a safe place to ride. Advocacy events like the National Bike Summit have been doing this for years. Interbike, however, is an opportunity to bring more of the bike business community together to tackle these challenges.

Attendees largely called the smaller Interbike a success. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the individual attention those vendors were able to give to media, bike shops, and other show attendees. Pivot Cycles, in particular, seemed to come out on top: It had the longest lines at Outdoor Demo and the booth in the show hall was packed from start to finish.

That’s great for Pivot, and it might be a selling point for Interbike moving forward. Or, it could have a different impact entirely. The next step in a bike brand’s evolution seems to be a personalized event on home turf, much like Trek’s yearly event in Waterloo. It’s an enticing proposition that could save vendors some much-needed cash, and it affords them a truly captive audience. The model seems to have worked out well for Trek and other large companies who hold events with the focus squarely on its own brand. Those vendors who won big at Interbike this year will probably head back to meeting rooms and discuss if there are any other benefits to showing up at Interbike besides a little bit of extra attention.

Admittedly, my take on Interbike is tinged with nostalgia. I first came to Vegas and stepped onto the Interbike floor in 2005 as a wrench for a small Arizona bike shop. My week consisted of a lot of free schwag, invites to special events like movie premieres and private limos to punk clubs, a lot of free booze, and face time with all the top industry celebs, from Floyd Landis to Geoff Kabush, Lennard Zinn to April Lawyer. In other words, it was fun. For a young shop rat like me, it was a crazy escape from the travails of an unforgiving real world. If it isn’t that anymore, that’s only because we’re not willing to let it be.

Interbike has always been a mirror image of ourselves as a community. If the big guys make moves based solely on dollars and cents rather than the greater good, we fail. If bike shops make moves based solely on history and what’s been done before, we fail. Like a team time trial, we’re only as good as our slowest guy. Let’s help each other out.

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