PARIS (Reuters) - The Tour de France looks set to be dominated by the climbers once more in 2016 but cycling’s most prestigious stage race should get off to a calmer start than this year after organisers revealed a balanced course on Tuesday.
After rattling through cobbled sections and battling perilous crosswinds in an extremely nervous opening block of racing this year, the overall contenders will be relieved that the first week will be much less treacherous.
“It looks that way but we can never be sure. The Tour de France is a stressful race,” warned defending champion Chris Froome of Britain.
“It will, however, be a week for the strong,” said competition director Thierry Gouvenou, who designs the course along with Tour director Christian Prudhomme.
The sprinters will have more chances to shine with about seven stage finishes designed for the speed merchants, between the first stage ending at Utah Beach, the site of one of the D-Day landing operations in 1944, to the traditional final dash up the Champs-Elysees.
It means that a sprinter is highly likely to wear the yellow jersey after the first stage.
“That makes me super excited obviously, hopefully this time it’s going to work out,” said Briton Mark Cavendish, who missed out on that opportunity in 2014.
There will be plenty of mountains too, with 28 climbs, three more than this year, scattered over four chains -- the Massif Central, Pyrenees, Alps and Jura. Four mountain stages will conclude with uphill finishes.
The Tour has heavily favoured the pure climbers since 2012, when all-rounder Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the race.
The Queen stage on Bastille Day will take the peloton from Montpellier to the iconic Mont Ventoux, one of France’s toughest climbs -- a crippling 22.7-km ascent at an average gradient of 7.2 percent, where defending champion Chris Froome crushed his rivals in 2013.
“We try, when possible, to have a significant stage on the 14th of July (French national day),” Prudhomme told reporters.
While this year’s race had a post-World War Two low single individual time trial measuring just 14 km, the 2016 edition will feature two arduous tests against the clock that are likely to suit the overall contenders and Olympics-bound cyclists.
The first, a 37-km ride between Bourg-Saint-Andeol and La Caverne du Pont-d‘Arc, will feature two climbs (7 km at 5.5 percent and 3.5 km at six percent) and the second, an undulating 17 km course from Sallanches to Megeve.
“The first time trial will also be a good opportunity for the specialists to test themselves ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because the courses are similar,” Prudhomme added.
While the mountain stages started after 10 days in 2015, the first big test for the overall contenders will come as early as the fifth stage in the form of a 216-km trek in the Massif Central featuring three ascents.
Editing by Ed Osmond