PARIS – Defending champion Chris Froome can expect a stern challenge from Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in next year’s Tour de France.
Froome is chasing a record-equaling fifth victory to move level with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain.
Froome and Dumoulin won the three Grand Tours last year, with Froome adding the Spanish Vuelta and Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia.
The 105th edition of the Tour features a hilly 31-kilometer (19-mile) time trial through the Basque country on the penultimate day. Froome is a specialist, but Dumoulin is the reigning world time trial champion.
The 32-year-old Froome is still in his prime, while the 26-year-old Dumoulin is approaching his.
“A contest between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders with similar qualities, wouldn’t displease me. It would force one of the two to try something different to surprise the other,” Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. “We’re looking at a new generation that wants to entertain. I think that if Christopher Froome is up against Tom Dumoulin, they will want to do that. They will be more or less equal in the time trials. That’s something very exciting.”
The race starts on July 7 — a week later than usual because of the soccer World Cup in Russia — and opens with a flat 189-kilometer (117-mile) route for sprinters from Noirmoutier-en-l’ile to Fontenay-le-Comte in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic coast.
With the time trial returning after being omitted the last two years, Froome’s Team Sky will be confident of creating early time gaps on Stage 3 — a 35-kilometer (21.7-mile) route starting and ending in Cholet in Western France. But Sky faces tough competition, because Dumoulin’s Sunweb team is the reigning TTT world champion.
The Tour route, which goes clockwise, features 25 mountain climbs — ranging from the relatively difficult Category 2 to Category 1 and the daunting Hors Categorie (beyond classification). Eleven are in the Alps, four in the Massif central region and 10 in the Pyrenees.
“It is a massive challenge and a Tour de France that tests every aspect of cycling,” said Froome, who won the past three races and in 2013. “I wouldn’t expect anything different from the organizers.”
The Tour also has more time bonuses on offer in flat stages over the 3,329-kilometer (2,064-mile) course.
The difficult climbs start on Stage 10, the first of three straight days of grueling Alpine ascents. But organizers have preceded that with a tricky ninth stage that could shake up the peloton. It takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, with nearly 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) altogether.
“It’s going to be a very nervous race,” Froome said.
The Roubaix cobbles may perhaps trouble Froome, although Prudhomme thinks the British rider can handle anything.
“We’ve seen that Chris Froome has a range of abilities much wider than people said,” Prudhomme said. “He’s intelligent and hard-working. He keeps on winning in a different manner than in previous years.”
Even though Froome will be 33 on next year’s Tour, Prudhomme still thinks he can improve.
“I don’t think we’ve seen everything that Froome has to offer,” Prudhomme said.
The cobbles are followed by a rest day on July 16, and Froome had better make the most of it because the Alps start brutally the day after.
Stage 10 on July 17 has four difficult climbs on a 159-kilometer (98.6-mile) route from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. They include a punchy ascent of Montee du plateau de Glieres, featuring for the first time.
“Six kilometers with an 11.2 percent gradient is monumental,” Prudhomme said.
The third day of Alpine climbing begins with Col de la Madeleine, then Croix de Fer (which translates as the ominous-sounding Iron Cross) and ends with an ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez: three of the Tour’s most well-known.
“The Alpe d’Huez stage will be the Queen stage,” said Froome, selecting it as the hardest. “It’s going to be a very big challenge.”
Dumoulin is not in Froome’s class as a climber, but is not so easy to drop. Whether he can stay with Froome through the Pyrenees, however, will prove crucial to his chances.
Three tough days of climbing in the Pyrenees starts with Stage 16 on July 24: a daunting 218-kilometer (135-mile) route from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that follows the second rest day.
Stage 17 is short at 65 kilometers (40 miles) but cruel, with three consecutive nasty climbs, ending with an attack up Col de Portet. Stage 19 has four ascents and then ends with a potentially treacherous 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) descent to test the concentration of tired riders.
Whoever is freshest after that will have a better chance of challenging Froome in the time trial.
The 21-stage race ends with its customary processional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.