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Stage-by-stage analysis of the 97th edition of cycling's biggest race...

With the riders presented to the public in Rotterdam yesterday evening, there’s less than 48 hours to go before the 97th edition of the Tour de France gets under way in Europe’s biggest port tomorrow afternoon.

We’re sure that you’re as eager as us to see how what promises to be a gripping three weeks unfolds, with the likes of BMC Racing and Team RadioShack plus, of course, Britain’s own Team Sky all making their debuts in cycling’s biggest race, not to mention Alberto Contador seeking his third maillot jaune while Lance Armstrong looks to become the oldest ever winner to claim his eighth.

The man who separated that pair on the podium last year, Andy Schleck, will be looking to go one better, but brother Fränk is in some rich form, and both will be aiming to make their mark in what looks like their last season at Team Saxo Bank. Meanwhile, World Champion Cadel Evans, Giro winner Ivan Basso and a rested Denis Menchov among others are all likely to feature at some point.

It’s probably fair to say that no Tour de France has ever been as eagerly anticipated by British fans. That’s partly down to Team Sky, of course, which has pinned its hopes on Bradley Wiggins being able to go at least one better than last year’s fourth-place finish to get on the podium, and Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas will be looking to help their fellow Briton do just that. Now might be too early in Sky’s five-year plan to see Wiggins win the overall title, although it will be interesting to benchmark his progress against where he was 12 months ago.

But there are five other riders from these shores in the race, with Jeremy Hunt of Cervélo TestTeam making a long overdue debut, joined as a first-timer by team-mate Dan Lloyd, while Omega-Pharma-Lotto’s Charlie Wegelius is back again as is David Millar, a former wearer of the yellow jersey and desperately unlucky not to score what would have been a fine solo win on the stage into Barcelona last year, who returns with Garmin-Transitions.

That leaves HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, who is already the most successful British rider in terms of number of stages won, six victories last year taking him into double figures and beyond the eight won by Barry Hoban in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cavendish has his sights set on the green jersey that eluded him last year, but don’t expect its holder, Thor Hushovd, to give it up lightly. And with Cavendish and Hushovd both suffering injuries in the run-up to the Tour, Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, who picked up a pair of stage wins in the Giro d’Italia in May, could have his eyes on the points classification, too.

We can’t wait for the race to get started tomorrow, and to help you plan the next three weeks, here’s our handy cut-out-and-keep – well, print-out-and-fold-up – stage-by-stage guide to what we hope will be a Tour de France that will live long in the memory for all the right reasons.

Saturday 3rd July

Prologue: Rotterdam (8.9km)

The last three times the Tour de France has started outside its home country – in Liège in 2004, London in 2007 and last year in Monaco – it was Fabian Cancellara who took the first yellow jersey of the race. The World Time Trial Champion rightly starts as favourite this time round on a course that marks a return to more of a standard prologue distance than the 15km route seen 12 months ago. Certainly there are other riders who can run the Team Saxo Bank star close, not least Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins, who in May took the Giro prologue in Amsterdam, but with the Team Sky rider looking to go one better on last year’s fourth place to get a podium finish in Paris, he may decide not to go flat out today. If the wind gets up, the exposed section around the harbour could cause problems.

Sunday 4 July

Stage 1: Rotterdam-Brussels (223.5km)

Whoever took the yellow jersey in yesterday’s prologue, as well as anyone with GC aspirations, is going to have to be on their guard and keep to the front of the race today as it heads out of the Netherlands and towards Brussels. With the first half of the stage skirting the North Sea coast, and the race heading South West at first before turning South East to head towards the Belgian border, there’s every chance that crosswinds will come into play and echelons will form in the peloton, as happened on the stage into La Grande Motte last year. A large enough leading group, especially one containing GC contenders whose team-mates might be disinclined to help chase down a break, may result in some splits that could prove crucial in three weeks’ time.

Monday 5 July

Stage 2: Brussels-Spa (201km)

Today’s stage heads into the Ardennes, with much of the route familiar to those who have ridden Liège-Bastogne- Liège – a day that the classic specialists will be looking forward to, not least Alexandre Vinokourov, winner of that race this year, but one that some of the Spanish and Italian riders unused to the terrain will be looking to get through without mishap. With Tom Boonen missing through injury, Philippe Gilbert, who hails from this corner of the country, will shoulder Belgium’s hopes of a home victory today.

Tuesday 6 July

Stage 3: Wanze-Arenberg Porte du Hainaut (213km)

The classics flavour of the Tour’s first week continues today with seven cobbled sections totalling 13.2km of pavé on roads made famous by Paris-Roubaix as the race heads into France, with the stage finishing in the shadow of the Arenberg Forest. The stage is likely to end in a bunch sprint, but the big question is, which of the star names will come a cropper on the cobbles? As Lance Armstrong tweeted earlier this week after doing a reconnaissance of the pavé section, “Going. To. Be. Carnage.”

Wednesday 7 July

Stage 4: Cambrai-Reims (153.5km)

Firmly back within France, today’s stage takes the riders from Cambrai, where the tank was first unleashed as a weapon during World War I, to the beautiful city of Reims in the heart of Champagne country. On another day tailor-made for the sprinters, fans of Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd, not to mention the likes of Tyler Farrar and Oscar Freire, will be hoping to toast a win by their favourite rider as the battle for the green jersey starts to heat up. Time trials and the final day’s ride into Paris apart, it’s the shortest stage of this year’s Tour, but anyone hoping for a relaxed ride following yesterday’s cobbles is likely to be disappointed as the top sprinters’ teams force the pace to chase down any breaks.

Thursday 8 July

Stage 5: Epernay-Montargis (187.5km)

Reims may be the capital of the Champagne region, but Epernay is its heart, the town’s Avenue de Champagne housing to the imposing mansions of producers such as Perrier-Jouet and Moët et Chandon, and this is another day when the race will fizz with the fight for the green jersey. Team Katusha’s Robbie McEwen won in Montargis last time the race visited in 2005. Today’s stage takes the peloton within 75km of Paris, but the bad news for anyone suffering after the opening days’ exertions is that they are still only a quarter of the way towards getting a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe, with the Alps and Pyrenees still to come.

Friday 9 July

Stage 6: Montargis-Guegnon (227.5km)

We’re now well into La France Profonde as today’s stage, the longest of this year’s race, heads South East towards the Alps, running parallel to the River Loire as it heads towards its source. Four Category 4 climbs punctuate the stage profile, making this one of the more likely days for a breakaway to stick, particularly as the more fancied riders look to conserve their strength for the mountains ahead, and it could be a day for the tricouleur to fly at the front of the race in the shape of French National Champion Thomas Voeckler.

Saturday 10 July

Stage 7: Tournus-Station des Rousses (165.5km)

The first mountain stage of this year’s Tour features six categorised climbs, progressively getting harder as they approach the final 14km ascent to the summit finish at Station des Rousses. In terms of the GC, the main contenders are likely to mark each other closely today and keep their powder dry for the bigger mountains ahead, so it could well be a day for those with an eye on the King of the Mountains jersey such as last year’s runner-up, Egoi Martinez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, to come to the fore.

Sunday 11 July (189km)

Stage 8: Station des Rousses-Morzine-Avoriaz

We can’t predict whether Spain, along with Germany and The Netherlands one of three remaining European teams left in the tournament, will feature in tonight’s World Cup Final at Johannesburg’s Soccer City, but with today’s stage featuring a Category 1 summit finish, Alberto Contador has a chance to give his compatriots something to celebrate in the first real mountain test of this year’s race as it enters the Alps proper. There’s certainly potential for a shake-up in the GC today – some 35km from the stage finish, the peloton will have crested the Col de la Ramaz after 14km of climbing at an average gradient approaching 7%. The climb has only figured in the race once before, in 2003 when Richard Virenque rode over the summit first on his way to a stage win in Morzine.

Monday 12 July – Rest Day

Tuesday 13 July

Stage 9: Morzine-Avoriaz- St Jean de Maurienne (204.5km)

With the focus of the race quite rightly on the Pyrenees this year, it’s a truncated visit to the Alps, with today’s stage being the second and final day in the high mountains. But what a stage it is, with the first half of the route featuring the Category 1 Cote de la Colombiere and Col des Saisses which sandwich the Category 2 Col des Aravis, followed by the Col de la Madeleine, whose summit is reached 32km from the finish, and if Samuel Sanchez is anywhere near the front of the race, his jaw-dropping descending skills may make it his day.

Wednesday 14 July

Stage 10: Chambéry-Gap (179km)

Today, of course, is Bastille Day, and what do you know, the organisers have thrown in a stage that is likely to see the GC contenders happy to let a break go off down the road after what is likely to have been a testing stage yesterday. There are certainly some bigger passes that could have featured in the itinerary from Chambéry to Gap to make this stage more of a pivotal one in terms of the overall standings, and there’s a more than decent chance that the locals will be cheering a home victory on the Fête Nationale, with fireworks provided by the likes of David Moncoutié or Sylvain Chavanel.

Thursday 15 July

Stage 11: Sisteron-Bourg-lès-Valence (184.5km)

After hitting the Category 3 Col de Cabre a little under a third of the way into today’s stage, it’s pretty much downhill all the way to the town of Bourg-lès-Valence on the River Rhône, hosting a stage finish for the first ever time. That will give the climbers a chance to slip back into the pack and rest their legs, while the sprinters cross swords again in the Green jersey competition – potential sprint finishes are very thin on the ground between here and Paris, and today could go a long way towards deciding the points classification.

Friday 16 July

Stage 12: Bourg-de-Péage-Mende (210.5km)

It’s back to bumpy terrain today, with no fewer than five categorised climbs, including the Category 2 Suc de Montivernoux just before the halfway point. It’s the end of the stage that provides the key point of focus, however, at Mende’s airfield sitting atop the Montée Laurent Jalabert, named for Jaja after his storming win here on Bastille Day in 1995. The climb is only 3km, but the average gradient is a touch over 10%, giving those with GC aspirations a chance to put some pressure on their rivals.

Saturday 17 July

Stage 13: Rodez-Revel (196km)

Since 1990, if the year ends in a 0 or a 5, a stage finishes in Revel, with Paolo Salvodelli taking the honours the last time the race hit town. It’s an undulating route today, and while the sprinters’ teams will be looking to hold the race together to set up their men for the finish, it’s just as likely that a breakaway will stick, with the Pyrenees looming on the horizon as the race enters its decisive phase.

Sunday 18 July

Stage 14: Revel-Ax-3-Domaines (184.5km)

Ever since this year’s route was announced, the mouthwatering prospect of four stages in the Pyrenees has been greeted with anticipation by fans, and trepidation by many of the riders. The first half of today’s stage gives little hint of the fireworks ahead as it runs through rolling terrain, but by the time the peloton passes Quillan and starts heading along the gorges carved by the River Aude, the field will know they’re back in the mountains, with a testing 15.5km ascent to the Port de Pailhères before a rapid descent into the spa resort of Ax-les-Thermes. That’s just the start of the fun, though – after that, it’s a 7.8km climb to the summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines on a day when, as the saying goes, the Tour perhaps can’t be won, but it can certainly be lost.

Monday 19 July

Stage 15: Pamiers-Bagnères-de-Luchon (187km)

As with yesterday’s stage, the opening kilometres of today’s route give little hint of the challenges ahead. That all changes after 70 kilometres as the riders head up towards the Col de Portet d’Aspin, followed by the Col des Ares, both of which featured on the first ever mountain stage 100 years ago. However, it’s the tail end of the stage that once again packs a punch, with 1,250 metres of climbing on the ascent of the Port des Balès, a mere parvenu by comparison – it first figured on the Tour only three years ago, but the gradient hits double figures in places. Then, there’s a vertical drop of more than 1,000 metres in the closing 21.5km to the finish, promising some white-knuckle action from the more daredevil descenders.

Tuesday 20 July

Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon-Pau (199.5km)

There’s a rest day tomorrow, and some of the riders are definitely going to need it after a stage that features two Category 1 followed by a pair of Hors-Categorie climbs, with the Col de Peyresourde, crested after as early as 11km, which should guarantee some lively action from the very start. That’s followed by the Col d’Aspin, then the Tourmalet – the first of two visits the Tour pays to the venerable pass this year. With just 72km ridden by that point, it’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be some tired limbs heading up the day’s final climb, the Col d’Aubisque, so watch out for attacks there from any GC contenders who’ve left something in the tank, ahead of what should be a pretty quick 61.5km descent to the finish in Pau.

Wednesday 21 July – Rest Day

Thursday 22 July

Stage 17: Pau-Col du Tourmalet (174km)

 

If you haven’t got any holiday left and you’re going to pull a sickie at some point during the race, today’s the day to do it, with the 2010 Tour’s Queen stage. The Côte du Renoir will get the muscles going again after the rest day, and while the Col de Marie-Blanque isn’t the highest climb in these parts, topping out at not much above 1,000 metres, it’s certainly tough, with the gradient hitting 10% in places. After that, things get harder still, with the Col du Soulor providing 12km of climbing at an average gradient of almost 8%, before what should be a memorable ascent of the Tourmalet. The Basque fans always add colour to any Pyrenean stage, and this year it’s likely that some of them will have stayed up here for 48 hours after Monday’s stage. It should be epic, and if Alberto Contador doesn’t start the day in the maillot jaune, if he’s firing on all cyclinders there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing it by the evening.

Friday 23 July

Stage 18: Salies-de-Béarn-Bordeaux (198km)

This is the day that any sprinters who haven’t been swept up by the voiture-balai during the Pyrenees will have been dreaming of as they gritted their teeth on the way up the mountains. After Paris, Bordeaux is the most visited city in the race, having featured in the first edition in 1903 and four years in every five since then. With a long finishing straight on the Esplanade des Quinconces alongside the Garonne river, it would be a surprise if this stage didn’t finish with a bunch sprint – but who’ll have the legs left to win it?

Saturday 24 July

Stage 19: Bordeaux-Pauillac Individual Time Trial (52km)

Rotterdam will seem a long time ago by now, and for no-one more than those who specialise in the ‘race of truth,’ with this being the Tour’s only time trial this year other than the opening day’s prologue. How pivotal today’s stage proves will depend on what has happened in the Pyrenees and who still has the strength left in their legs, but at 52km, there could be the opportunity for minutes rather than seconds to be won and lost; whether that affects the destination of the yellow jersey remains to be seen, but it could well help decide who joins the winner on the podium.

Sunday 25 July

Stage 20: Longjumeau-Paris Champs-Elysées (102.5km)

While many fans will be hoping to have witnessed an unpredictable three weeks’ racing, if there is one stage that pretty much follows the script, it’s this one, from the overnight TGV transfer to the obligatory photo op of the jersey wearers toasting the start of the final stage with a glass of Champagne while in the saddle and the aerial shots of the Eiffel Tower getting progressively closer. Once the maillot jaune’s team leads the peloton onto the Champs-Elysées, expect eight fast and furious laps punctuated by attacks that are almost certainly doomed to failure – Alexandre Vinokourov’s win in 2005 being a rare exception – culminating in a bunch sprint, and one that is likely to be a lot more closely fought than Mark Cavendish’s stunning win last year, particularly if the destination of the green jersey is still undecided at the start of the stage.

 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.