Cyclingnews takes a look at what we think will be five key stages in this year's Tour de France. Read on for more details on each.
Wednesday, July 9: Stage 5: Ypres – Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 155.5km.
"It won’t be anything similar to Paris-Roubaix. The distance isn’t long enough and there are too few cobbled sections," Sep Vanmarcke said of the Tour de France's foray into what amounts to the antechamber of the Hell of the North. As second place finisher at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, this stage across the pavé holds little mystery for Vanmarcke, but his relaxed outlook will not be shared by the majority of the peloton when they hit the first section of cobbles on stage 5.
The Paris-Roubaix peloton divides into two loose factions – the riders who love the race and know what they are doing, and those who are sent there as punishment or to fill out a roster and know enough not to dare to try and muscle their way to the front. At the Tour, meanwhile, the overall contenders – many of whom have neither experience nor aptitude for the pavé – have little option but to fight for positions in a scenario that is wholly alien to them, and the results are usually chaotic.
If the race's last two treks across the cobbles are anything to go on, there will be at least one high-profile casualty in the race for overall honours. Iban Mayo's hopes of breaking Lance Armstrong's sequence fell apart in just two sectors of pavé in 2004. Six years later, the dose of cobbles was upped and the carnage increased accordingly – Fränk Schleck crashed and broke his collarbone, while Armstrong lost two minutes. Back in 1980, meanwhile, although Bernard Hinault won into Lille, he blamed the pavé on that stage for exacerbating the knee injury that ultimately forced him out of the Tour.
There are no fewer than nine cobbled sectors on the agenda this time around, all crammed into the final 87 kilometres of racing, starting with the redoubtable Carrefour de l'Arbre (1,100m), where the scramble for positions will be frenetic. While there is time to regroup between the opening sectors – Pont-Thibault (1,400m), Mons-en-Pévèle (1,000m) and Bersée (1,400m) – the cobbles arrive with greater frequency thereafter. The 2.4km sector 2 to Tiloy-les-Marchiennes, and the 3.7km-long sector 2 to Hornaing, in particular, should force irretrievable fractures in the peloton, while the final sector at Wallers with 6km remaining seems the ideal springboard for the stage-winning attack. As in 2010, the race mercifully stops short of tackling the Arenberg Forest.
Some will point to Vincenzo Nibali's bike handling skills as an advantage, others will highlight Chris Froome's mountain biking past, but in truth, most of the overall contenders will probably be happy to simply to emerge unscathed and with their losses in seconds rather than minutes. Andy Schleck finished in the front group in 2010, after all, suggesting that anything is possible when the Tour de France hits the cobbles.
Monday, July 14: Stage 10: Mulhouse – La Planche des Belles Filles, 161.5km. Monday, July 14
There is already potential for ructions in the overall standings in the Vosges in the days preceding it and there are more obviously difficult stages to follow in the Alps later in the week, but this stage 10 jaunt to La Planche des Belles Filles looks set to be a significant landmark on the road to Paris. When the finishing climb featured for the first time two years ago, the anticipated shootout didn't quite materialise but the action on its slopes certainly set the tone for the remainder of the race: Sky's men in black dictated terms and conditions in the finale to whittle the leading group down to just six riders, putting Bradley Wiggins into yellow, while Chris Froome helped himself to stage victory.
On that occasion, the peloton had a relatively gentle introduction to the Tour's first major climb, tackling two third category hills en route to the foot of La Planche des Belles Filles. This time around, a rather more explosive afternoon awaits. There is barely a metre of flat from the moment the race hits the category 2 Col du Firstplan after 20 kilometres, and there are no fewer than seven climbs on the menu all told, including four category one ascents – the Petit Ballon (9.3km with an average gradient of 8.1%), Col du Platzerwasel (7.1km at 8.4%), Col des Chevrères (3.5km at 9.5%) and the final haul to the line (5.9km at 8.5%).
There is a staccato rhythm to the day that means it will prove very difficulty for any one team to control. Certainly, it will be a big ask for Sky to impose their will with quite the same level of ease as they did in this part of the world in 2012. The relative brevity of the stage – not to mention the rest day 24-hours later – means that there ought to be no shortage of willing attackers. The sections of 15% on the short Col des Chevrères, in particular, seem an ideal springboard, and the leading group will already be significantly reduced by the base of La Planche des Belles Filles. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) hails from nearby Mélisey, and would love to land a Bastille Day victory.
Saturday, July 19: Stage 14: Grenoble – Risoul, 177km.
The Tour's foray into the high Alps is a brief one this year, but almost by way of compensation, the organisers have packed some of the race's toughest obstacles into the two days of racing. Stage 13 finishes atop the long, attritional climb to Chamrousse and ought to be perfect terrain for the kind of collective forcing Team Sky unleashed at Ax-3-Domaines last year. Stage 14, however, is even tougher, featuring two of the Tour's true behemoths, as well as the new summit finish to Risoul, road tested by ASO at the Tour de l'Avenir and Critérium du Dauphiné in recent seasons.
The average gradient of the Col du Lautaret, a measly 3.9%, hardly leaps off the page but the sheer length of the pass – a whopping 34 kilometres – means that it is a deceptively tough climb. Rising steadily to an altitude of 2,058 metres, the peloton will be climbing for over an hour before dropping to Briançon and starting all over again from the base of the mighty Col d'Izoard.
The 2,360-metre-high Izoard is the Souvenir Henri Desgrange – the highest point of the race – and a silent repository of some of the Tour's most cherished memories. Fausto Coppi famously slowed here to wait for Gino Bartali in 1949, Louison Bobet made the pass his own in the 1950s, while Bernard Thévenet underscored his usurpation of Eddy Merckx on its slopes in 1975. This year, the Tour ascends the Izoard's north face (19km at 6%, with its steepest sections in the final 6 kilometres) before dropping through the haunting Casse Déserte, terrain that might well inspire Vincenzo Nibali to try his luck on the descent.
The summit finish to Risoul (12.6km at 6.9%) didn't break up the yellow jersey group quite as early as anticipated at last year's Dauphiné, although Froome did manage to punch his way clear in the final two kilometres. The upper slopes of the climb are unremittingly tough, and those with heavy legs from the trek over the Lautaret and Izoard could lose a lot of time very quickly if they have a jour sans here. Andrew Talansky knows this climb better than most – he was second to one Nairo Quintana in the Tour de l'Avenir time trial to Risoul in 2010, and he managed to catch Froome and Richie Porte in the final kilometre here at the Dauphiné twelve months ago. It should provide a further gauge of his progress at this year's Tour.
Thursday, July 24: Stage 18: Pau – Hautacam, 145.5km.
Some years ago, ASO was rumoured to be toying with the idea of a Tour made up solely of 100km-long stages as a way of heralding the 100th edition of the race in 2013. The full-blown experiment never came to pass, of course, but the controlled explosions on the short stage to Alpe d'Huez in 2011 were enough to convince organisers that less can often be more, at least in the high mountains.
It's no coincidence, then, that the two shortest stages of this year's Tour take place on successive days in the Pyrenees in the final week of the race, beginning with the high-octane 125km leg to Pla d’Adet. Stage 18 to Hautacam is 20 kilometres longer, but it includes the mighty Col du Tourmalet and – given that it’s last chance for the climbers to make gains ahead of the final time trial – there should be something of a shootout on the final climb.
The two third category ascents of the Côte de Bénéjacq and Côte de Loucrup provide a gentle beginning to proceedings before the climbing begins in earnest with the Tourmalet (17.1km at 7.3%), which makes a welcome return to La Grande Boucle after the race missed out on it last year. The final haul to Hautacam (13.6km at 7.8%) seems to rise like a flight of stairs. Those with the ability to accelerate repeatedly – Alberto Contador and Froome spring to mind – have a chance to shake off their most dogged rivals here.
Whatever the outcome, expect the phrase "pseudo-science" to be lofted about with abandon in the 24-hours after the finish at Hautacam, where the winner's display will inevitably brook comparison with some infamous performances from Tours de France past. Bjarne Riis (1996), Lance Armstrong (2000) and Leonardo Piepoli (2008) are among those to shine on the climb only to be subsequently revealed as having doped to do so. Only time will tell if this year's protagonists leave a better legacy.
Saturday, July 26: Stage 20: Bergerac – Périgueux, 54km (individual time trial).
After three weeks across Classics terrain, punchy climbs and high mountain passes, there is a certain irony that the entire Tour could be decided by a little more than an hour of racing on gently rolling roads in the Dordogne. But while the time trial frames may spend most of July gathering dust in team trucks, this 54-kilometre stage 20 test will be in the back of all of the overall contenders' minds throughout the race. Projected performances on the penultimate stage will be factored into every calculation they make, particular during the final salvos in the Pyrenees.
At the route presentation in October, Sky manager Dave Brailsford insisted that Froome would not stake everything on his ability against the watch and vowed that he would again go on the offensive in the mountains. Yet on paper, at least, the time trial should offer the Briton with something of a hypothetical buffer over his rivals. Froome made gains in both time trials last year, and underscored his remarkable progress in the discipline by winning time trials at both the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné this season.
Contador enters the Tour as the main pretender to Froome's crown and while he has never quite replicated the startling time trialling form he exhibited in beating Fabian Cancellara at Annecy in the 2009 Tour, this season he has shown definite signs of improvement in the exercise. A second place finish to Tony Martin at the Tour of the Basque Country was his standout performance, and the Spaniard will be quietly confident of limiting his losses to Froome at least.
In any case, the Périgueux time trial is by no means a flat course designed for powerful, pure testers, and – as ever on the final weekend of a three-week Tour – fatigue levels could prove to be a great leveller. "It's a long time trial and there'll be some big gaps," Brailsford said. "Fatigue will be an issue, so you'll need to get there in good shape."