PARIS (REUTERS) - Wind, cobbles, punchy climbs, a handful of gruelling mountain-top finishes, almost no individual time trial - Tour de France organisers have designed one of the most exciting courses for the 2015 race, which will heavily favour the climbers.
The Tour will climax with a nervous, demanding penultimate stage finishing at l'Alpe d'Huez with the race winner likely emerging from a nerve-wrecking three-week dogfight.
The race, which will feature time bonuses - 10, 6, 4 seconds for the top three stage finishers - for the first time since 2008, will start from Utrecht, Netherlands, where the gutsy winds could split the peloton and see some leaders lose valuable time early on.
The third stage in northern France takes the bunch through cobbled sections again, on which lightweights often struggle, at the notable exception of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, who this year hammered his rivals on the cobbles.
"But we can't say the route is tailor-made for Nibali because you never know what can happen," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told reporters. "One thing is sure this Tour is going to be a huge battle."
There are five mountaintop finishes but also a couple of very short, brutal climbs on the Mur de Huy, where the Fleche Wallonne classic ends, and at Mur de Bretagne. In the Pyrenees, finishes up at La Pierre St Martin (15.3km at an average gradient of 7.4 per cent) and on the Plateau de Beille (15.8km at 7.9 pc) should sort out the men from the boys.
It will be far from over, however, as four consecutive gruelling mountain stages are on the menu in the final week in the Alps. The 17th stage ending in Pra Loup is reminiscent of that of 1975 when France's Bernard Thevenet beat Belgium great Eddy Merckx. "The descent of the Col d'Allos is very technical, very hard to tackle," Thevenet warned.
The following day, organisers have spiced things up in the trek to St Jean de Maurienne with a very short and brutal 18-hairpin climb of the Lacets de Montvernier shortly before the finish.
The 19th stage will be the queen stage with a 138-km ride to La Toussuire featuring four demanding climbs, before the 20th stage, which should favour the aggressive riders as it's only 107km long with the col du Galibier in the middle.
There will also be only 14km of individual time trial, a post-World War II low that should spice things up between the top climbers - Nibali, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot.