Each day of a week-long stage race or a three-week Grand Tour has its own unique characteristics, but broadly speaking stages fall into one of a number of broad categories, as follows:
Sprint: Stages run over predominantly level terrain, with no significant climbs. These are generally won by either a sprinter (e.g. Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel) from a large bunch finish or, occasionally, a member of a breakaway group. Click here for more information on this type of stage.
Mountain: Stages which conclude with either a significant climb, or a climb followed by a descent. These are generally won by either a lightweight climbing specialist (e.g. Damiano Cunego) or an overall contender (e.g. Alberto Contador), usually from a small group, often solo. Click here for more information on this type of stage.
Rolling/intermediate: Falling somewhere between the above two, these stages typically feature several categorised climbs (and many smaller uncategorised ones) on a profile which is constantly up and down. They are frequently won from a breakaway group by a climber or a rider who specialises in the hillier one-day Classic races (e.g. Philippe Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez).
Hill-top: These can vary widely in profile between mostly flat or rolling, but feature a short climb to the finish which eliminates the sprinters from contention. Such stages favour punchy climbers (e.g. Philippe Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez) or powerful sprinters who can also climb (e.g. Peter Sagan).
Individual time trial (ITT): Riders race one at a time against the clock. ITTs vary widely in length (from opening prologues as short as 3km to longer efforts of 50km-plus) and layout (from short, twisty city circuits to mountainous ascents). Most – but not all – overall contenders (e.g. Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins) are excellent time-trialists, but ITTs are frequently won by specialists such as Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin.
Team time trial (TTT): Similar to ITTs but teams compete as a single unit, with the time registered by the fifth man across the line counting towards the standings. TTTs are typically won by well-drilled teams who feature a mix of strong riders including time trial specialists and overall contenders. Teams competing for the general classification and sprinters’ teams (who are packed with strong riders accustomed to chasing down breakaways) usually do well, such as Garmin-Barracuda and Sky.