This year's Tour de France is the 100th edition of the Grand Boucle, with race organiser ASO starting the celebrations with the first ever Grand Départ in Corsica on Saturday June 29 and ending in style with an evening stage in the centre of Paris on July 21.
In between are three weeks of intense racing around the hexagon of France with a finely balanced route of tough and spectacular mountain stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps, three vital time trials and a mix of flat stages for the sprinters and hilly stages to inspire heroic breakaway attempts.
A Tour de France stage victory can make a rider's season, the winner of the 100th edition of the Tour de France will make cycling history.
Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky dominated the 2012 Tour de France, taking first and second overall. Wiggo is not part of Team Sky this year due to a knee injury and a disastrous Giro d'Italia and so Froome has been groomed as Team Sky's new Grand Tour leader.
He seems content not to have to take on his teammate as well as his biggest rivals but could miss the support and experience of a strong teammate. Froome describes himself as something of a Grand Tour novice. He is confident and hungry to win but we will see what he is really made of during the chaotic three weeks of racing.
In-house rivalries will no doubt be a theme of this year's Tour de France despite the absence of Wiggins. Cadel Evans is the designated team leader at BMC but has Tejay van Garderen snapping at his heels. The American won the best young rider's white jersey last year and was fifth overall, better than Evans, who finished seventh, as he struggled with a mysterious virus. Their relationship will be fascinating to watch as it the race evolves.
Movistar also has two contenders in their line-up, with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana both focusing on the GC. Valverde is experienced but the pocket-rocket Colombian seems far more suited to Grand Tours and is rightly considered a dangerous outsider.
Other names to remember for the GC battle include French hope Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar) and Bauke Mollema of the soon to be named Belkin team. They will all fight for a place in the top ten and even cause a surprise, win a prestigious stage or crash out in the first week. Such is the nature of the Tour de France for the overall contenders.
Sprinting battle royal
The sprinters are also promising a battle royal for the 100th edition of the Tour de France, with the flat stages offering a high-speed, adrenaline-fuelled showdown between Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan and their respective Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Lotto Belisol, Argos-Shimano and Cannondale teams.
Other sprinters expected to barge their way into the fast finishes include Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and the ever-erratic Roman Feillu (Vancansoleil-DCM).
The four big sprint teams will chase down breakaways and then try and set up their sprinters at high speeds. Crashes, polemics and the fight for the green points jersey are part of the game and should keep us all on the edge of our seats until the mountain stages and fight for the yellow jersey.
The Tour de France parcours
As tradition, the Tour de France consists of 21 stages and two rest days during the three weeks of racing.
This year the route follows an anti-clockwise direction after the opening stages in Corsica, with the Pyrenees coming in the first week of racing before a transfer to Brittany, a long diagonal ride back south via Lyon for the showdown in the Alps before a second flight takes the riders to Paris for the finish on the Champs Élysées. The official race distance is 3404km, an average of 162km a day.
The Tour de France often starts with a prologue time trial and flat stages for the sprinters. Not this year. Corsica hosts three road stages: to Bastia, Ajaccio and Calvi. Only the first really suits the sprinters, with the others including rugged and testing climbs along the coastline of the Mediterranean island.
Mark Cavendish may be favourite to win the first sprint and so take the first yellow jersey but the other stages in Corsica could offer Sagan a chance to quickly establish a lead in the battle for the green jersey.
The riders fly to Nice after Monday's stage but there is no rest day and they face an intense afternoon of speed and nerves in the 25km team time trial. The stage is out and back along the Promenade des Anglais seafront with an equally flat and fast loop inland. Time lost by the weaker teams could be decisive for their leaders' hope.
The first week heads across the south of France but with a mix of hilly stages and expected sprint finishes. Here the canicule of July will also be a factor, with holiday makers no doubt watching from the shade along the side of the road.
The first mountain stage on Saturday July 8 ends in Ax 3 Domaines. The Col de Pailhères (15.3km at 8%) is brutal, while the 7.8km climb to the finish should set the hierarchy for the rest of the race. The following day's ninth stage is just as important and is a classic day in the Pyrenees, covering five cols in just 130km before the descent to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. We can expect a breakaway attempt as the overall contenders watch each other for signs of weakness.
The Tour de France transfers north to Brittany on the first rest day for a change of landscape and probably weather. The 11th stage, a 33km time trial, finishes in the spectacular shadows of the Mont-Saint-Michel island, with riders out to beat each other and the coastal tide. Winds and the risk of rain could also be a huge factor in the race of truth.
Showdown in the Alps!
Le Tour returns south after the time trial, cutting across central France before a long stage to the summit of Mont Ventoux. The Géant de Provence is a terrible, steep and painful climb (20.8km at 8%) and comes after 220km of racing. The stage will also be held on Bastille Day: extra motivation for the French riders and even bigger crowds on the barren white rocky slopes.
The riders can enjoy the second rest day in Vaucluse after conquering the Ventoux but the Alps are looming to the south-east. The 32km stage 17 time trial between Embrun and Chorges includes two climbs and requires excellent bike handling skills and then Thursday's 172.5km stage climbs L'Alpe d'Huez twice!
The first is followed by the decent of the Col de Sarenne, with some riders not happy about the dangers of the twisting descent. The stage ends with a second climb on the legendary hairpins, with another name to add to the long list of prestigious winners.
The mountains continue on stage 19 to Le Grand-Bornand, with the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Madeleine just two of five climbs covered during the 200km stage.
The mountains of the 100th Tour de France end on Saturday July 20 with a relatively short (125km) but tough stage near Annecy. The climb that could well decide the Tour is up to the finish at Annecy-Semnoz, a final Hors Categorie climb that is 10.7km and has an 8.5% average gradient.
With no time bonuses awarded at stage or intermediate sprints, every second will count throughout the race and on the final climb.
The last stage to Paris and the Champs-Élysées on Sunday July 21 will be a celebration of the 100th Tour de France, of this year's overall winner and hopefully everything that is good about professional cycling. Riders leave Versailles at 5:45pm, with the finish scheduled for sunset at 9:30pm local time.
It will be a spectacular end to what promises to be a spectacular Tour.
Vive le Tour!
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