Tour de France preview: Five key stages

This year’s Tour de France covers 3,497km in the form of a prologue and 20 stages over the course of 23 days. To balance the 100-plus kilometres in time trials, the organisers have planned the mountain stages to be race-changers. In the nine mountain stages, there are 25 climbs of Cat 2 and above, 11 of which are in the Pyrenees. Even innocuous-looking stages have interesting little twists and traps laid for the tired and unwary. However, there are five key stages that we think will be particularly decisive in the tussle for the podium spots.

Stage 9: Arc-et-Senans to Besancon, 41.5km individual time trial

The first of two important individual time trials facing the riders. This stage will inform the tactics for the rest of the Tour. GC riders who do well in time trials, like Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, will be racing hard to make sure they put time into the pure climbers. If they succeed in gaining minutes on the others, they will be able to ride defensively in the mountains while the climbers will have to attack all over the place. The parcours itself starts out with some small, rolling climbs before flattening out to the finish. Nothing too technical, but this is still the race of truth – a rider finds out a lot about himself when he’s riding by himself. But I have a feeling that it won’t be the time trial specialists that will get the most out of this stage, but the riders who are decent time triallists and can climb explosively – like a Vincenzo Nibali – who will get the most benefit and go into the Pyrenees with confidence and an attacking strategy.

Stage 11: Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, 148km

Look at the length of this stage. The shorter the stage, the harder the stage and this one is going to test the mettle of the GC contenders. This is the big day in the Alps and the first high mountain finish of the Tour. If you do well here, you’re still in the clover. If you don’t do well, you could be out of contention for a podium spot. This is a stage for the specialist climbers who will love the 2,000m passes of the Col de la Madeleine (25.3km at 6.2%) and the Col de la Croix de Fer (22.4km at 6.9%). These two HC climbs are going to bust some legs for sure and sap the energy out of everyone else. For those who are hoping to make up some time on the descent of the Mollard before the final climb to the summit finish on La Toussuire (18km at 6.1%) – where Floyd Landis cracked while in the yellow jersey in 2006 – there are some tightly packed hairpins on the way down so it’ll be a delicate balance of caution and daredevilry. Climbers who attack all through the stage can put the others under real pressure and they’re going to have to take advantage of every chance they get.

Stage 16: Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon, 197km

This stage could conceivably blow the doors off the GC. The Tour organisers have taken four mighty climbs and strung them all together to force a day of reckoning. The two HC climbs of the Col d’Aubisque (16.4km at 7.1%) and the Col du Tourmalet (19km at 7.4%) are in the first half of the stage. Both are steepest near the summit and therefore give the specialist climbers two excellent opportunities to try to break other riders with some explosive attacks. If, however, that doesn’t work, the further two Cat 1 climbs in the form of Col d’Aspin (12.4km at 4.8%) and Col de Peyresourde (9.5km at 6.7%) will give more opportunities to turn the screws. A speedy descent to the finish line might seem an anti-climax but the boys are going to have to descend like bats out of hell if they’re not in front and have lost time. One thing is for sure, whoever is in the maillot jaune will have to use his team effectively to defend it from the first kilometre to the last. With another hard mountain stage to follow, how a GC rider uses his team on this stage will certainly have a bearing on the following day’s outcome.

Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, 143.5km

Short and brutal. This stage kicks off with the Cat 1 Col de Mente with a fierce 9.1% average gradient, before going over the Col des Ares (Cat 2) and Cote de Burs (Cat 3) before taking on the ascent of the HC Port de Bales (11.7km at 7.7%), the site of the infamous ‘Chain-gate’ incident of 2010. As if that isn’t enough, the final 30km of the stage is up and down with another visit to the Col de Peyresourde followed immediately by the final short climb to the summit atop Peyragudes. A lot of the main GC contenders could find themselves alone in the last half of this stage, depending on how they’ve been using their team in the past week, and it could very well be a two-man fight tooth and nail to the end of the stage. Anyone who has time to make up has to do it here. Anyone who is worried that they’ll get hammered in the final time trial has to attack here. Anyone who wants to win the Tour de France has to be at their best here. If we’re lucky, this is a stage we’ll be talking about for years to come. I think we will be.

Stage 19: Bonneval-Chartres, 53.5km individual time trial

The GC will be settled on this stage. The question will be: how much of the podium is still up in the air. If the pure climbers have a few minutes on the time triallists, it could go right down to the wire, like this year’s final stage of the Giro d’Italia, where the winner wasn’t known until 16 seconds from the end of the stage. After three weeks of racing, this time trial will be more about endurance, willpower and staying focussed than technique. And luck – because a Tour de France winner has to have luck on his side as much as training and mental hardness. It may very well all come down to this, and whoever ends the day in the maillot jaune will be wearing it on the top step of the Champs Élysées podium the following day.

For more details on every Tour de France stage, Cycling the Alps’ interactive videos of the route can be found here.

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