Harrogate to Leeds – is stage one of the Tour de France really flat?

Stage two is probably the more interesting day in and of itself, but stage one has something going for it other than Le Grand Kerfuffle of the race simply getting underway – it’s quite a decent primer for the points competition.

It’s down as being a flat stage, so you expect them all to ride together and then the fastest sprinter wins. Only it’s not like that at all. There are challenges for the sprinters long before the finish. Looking at the route, is it really flat? Not really.

Here’s the profile. You’ll see there are three categorised climbs – two category threes and a category four. It’s easy to dismiss them in comparison to the first category and hors cat├ęgorie (yes, one of the categories is officially ‘beyond categorisation’) climbs of French mountain ranges, but that is to misunderstand the nature of cycling.

A hill is as hard as you make it

Or, if you prefer, as hard as other people make it. Given the right gears, most of us could get up a long mountain pass, while a short half-kilometre ramp can make you feel like you’re going to die if you race up it as fast as you can. Therein lies much of the intrigue in the points competition. A green jersey contender who can climb well, like Peter Sagan, will instruct his team to make the stage as difficult as possible for a rival who can’t climb quite so well, like Mark Cavendish.

They achieve this simply by riding quickly. Get to the front of the peloton, set the speed and like sheep all the other riders will follow. Or at least they will try to. If your team goes fast enough up a particular slope then the weaker climbers – who are generally the larger, more muscly sprinters – will lose touch with the main bunch. This means that a so-called sprint stage can be lost long before the sprint finish.

Buttertubs

The newly-renamed Cote de Buttertubs is the most significant climb on stage one. The Tour has it down as 4.5km at 6.8% which is challenging, but not too demanding for even the sprinters. However, average gradients are far less meaningful in Britain than they are in France.

Me and my dad cycled the entire length of France last month and take it from me, when a French road is 4.5km at 6.8% that is almost exactly what you’re getting – 4.5km at a steady 6.8% gradient. In Britain? Think again, my friend.

Here’s the Buttertubs profile. You set off, you hit the lower slopes at a reasonable pace, the steep double-digit gradients in the middle knock the stuffing out of you and then you struggle to pick up speed again even as it flattens out. If one team is racing at this point, it could be quite challenging for some of the sprinters for whom climbing isn’t their strongest suit.

Will this happen?

This is just an example. It might be that Buttertubs is too far from the finish to think about trying to drop rivals, because even if you succeed you’ve got to then stay away from them all the way to the finish which would commit your team to a lot of work. However, there are other climbs – some not categorised – on which similar tactics might play out.

The stage one terrain is not so much flat as lacking in major hills, which is a rather different matter. I’m fascinated to see how the peloton deals with it. Will the heavier sprinters struggle at all, or is this kind of thing really no big deal to them. If they breeze over hills like Buttertubs, they’re even more astonishing athletes than I thought.