As Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France’s race director, reeled off the details off yet one more stage of the 2024 route, Jonas Vingegaard, Mark Cavendish and a smattering of other invited riders shuffled about in their designated chairs in Le Palais des Congrès, different facial expressions depending on what image was projected on the large screen in front of them. They didn’t need Prudhomme’s words of monstre, très difficile, and beaucoup de montagnes to be translated - they knew exactly what lies in store for them on their next boucle of France. “It’s so hard,” a wide-eyed Cavendish said three times in six seconds. “I’m actually in a bit of shock.”
A demanding start in Italy precedes an unprecedented early trip over the Col du Galibier on stage four, and then the first of two time trials arrives just a few days later. There are 32 kilometres of gravel to contend with on the eve of a necessary rest day, before the Massif Central tries to act as a surprising dream-crusher before a double-header in the Pyrenees. Then it’s back to the Alps for three savage days, including up up up to the Cime de la Bonette, all the way to its artificial summit of 2,802m, and then there’s a final day mountainous time trial finishing in Nice.
Richard Plugge, the manager of Jumbo-Visma, labelled it much harder than the 2023 route, a course that produced such an epic showdown in the first two-thirds between eventual winner Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar. Plugge's Danish charge stuck to the cycling script of adding the prefix ‘super’ to every adjective, branding the entire race as “super hard”, in particular the final week, which was also given the customary “super hard” description. “I see a lot of difficult stages,” he reviewed, dressed in his sharpest suit, fresh from a trip to Disneyland with his family. But as a warning to his expected trident of rivals, he pointed out “that works to my advantage.”
Vingegaard was the only big name GC rider in Paris, but the spectre of the Other Three (Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič) hung over the auditorium. They were on everyone’s lips, occupying everyone’s thoughts. Would the time trials suit Evenepoel? Could the sprint stages force echelons for Vingegaard’s team to take advantage of? Who’ll thrive on the gravel? No-one, according to Plugge. "Gravel, for me, is not necessary,” he said. “The luck factor is too big,” he added, choosing to ignore that in sport it’s not possible, nor desirable, to control absolutely every single element. “The old legends of cycling would be happy that we can finally race on asphalt; now we go back to how it was 30 or 40 years ago. For me that’s not necessary.”
Patrick Lefevere, Remco Evenepoel’s manager, agreed. “I love it in Strade Bianche,” he hissed. But not in a Grand Tour. “I’m not a fan of it. It’s like the old quote with the pavé stages: ‘you cannot win the Tour there, but you can lose it’.” Two comments said 10 minutes apart, but they spread rapidly through the venue, the ninth stage in and around Troyes immediately superseding the mountainous tests as the main talking point. It quickly became known as The Feared Stage.
Pogačar phoned in L’Équipe to not begrudge the white roads, but to chirp that “the course is nice… it looks really good to me” and then no doubt with his trademark big cheesy grin quipped that the horrific-looking finale “makes me smile”. Evenepoel, meanwhile, is said to be considering an attempt at the Giro-Tour double, but his team aren’t keen. Cue weeks of will-he-won’t-he discussion.
The uncertainty over the final destination of the men’s maillot jaune was not replicated among the female riders. They all know who’ll most probably win the third Tour de France Femmes: reigning champion Demi Vollering.
A three-day stint in the Netherlands “maybe passes my home,” she revealed, and then there’s a stage in the Ardennes, a region where she has won so many bike races. In no time there are three mountain stages, the final one going up and over the hardest side of the Col du Glandon, and up the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez. Word among the cohort in Paris was August 18, 2024 was going to be the hardest and most significant stage in the history of women’s cycling. “The Alpe is called the mountain in the Netherlands,” Vollering enthused. “I am really excited.” She employed a rarely-used and archaic word - “hectical” - to summarise the eight stages packed into seven days because of the scheduling of the Paris Olympics, but she already knows she’s the favourite by a long shot. “It will put a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” she assessed. But when has that ever derailed her?
Both routes are packed with jeopardy and opportunity, a combination of risk and reward. There are new factors in play that keep both routes fresh and innovative. A first Grand Départ in Italy for the men, and a first start outside of France for the women. The Alps come both very early and very late in the men’s three-week tussle, while the tried-and-proven formula of a slow build-up to the Femmes is replicated with a route that only strays into its homeland for three-and-a-half days.
As the riders, staff, dignitaries and media slowly shuffled their way out into the overcast, chilly streets of central Paris, a city that will not be graced by Tour paraphernalia next year because of the aforementioned Olympics, the mood was one of optimism, excitement but also trepidation. The countdown is on for two battles that have the characteristics to be legendary and historic. And the protagonists are well aware of that.