The 106th edition of the Tour de France starts in Belgium on Saturday 6 July and four-time champion Chris Froome’s absence leaves two past winners in the race – his Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas, last year’s victor, and Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali, who has said his prime target this year is stage wins and the polka-dot jersey.
With last year’s runner-up, Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, also now out through injury, Nibali may well have rethought his decision not to target the overall.
The home challenge will be led by AG2R-La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet with Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot also among the likely contenders alongside the likes of Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and fellow Colombian Egan Bernal of Team Ineos and it could be the most open and unpredictable race in years.
The Grand Depart in Belgium marks the 50th anniversary of the first of Eddy Merckx’s five overall victories, while the race as a whole celebrates the centenary of the yellow jersey – first won by the Belgian rider Firmin Lambot in 1919 when racing resumed after the First World War – with a different design each day.
Five summit finishes feature on this year’s parcours, and there are two time trial stages – one team, the other individual, totalling 54 kilometres of racing against the clock. Here’s our stage-by-stage preview of the route.
Saturday 6 July
Brussels – Brussels (192 km)
The opening stage features two climbs that over the years have so often proved decisive in the Tour of Flanders, the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg, but today they feature early on rather than in the final. Nevertheless, it will as always be a nervous start for the peloton, and we can expect a lot of jostling for position ahead of both ascents as riders try and keep themselves out of trouble.
On the way back into Belgium’s capital, the race passes the battlefield of Waterloo, as well the suburb of Wouluwe-Saint-Pierre, the childhood home of Eddy Merckx, who spent more days in yellow than anyone else in Tour de France history. The peloton will be going full gas to reel in the day’s break ahead of what looks set to be a bunch sprint finish in the city’s Royal Park.
Sunday 7 July
Brussels – Brussels (TTT) (27.6 km)
A change in the race lead is highly possible today, and even this early, time gaps between teams with overall ambitions may have an impact later on – but last year’s team time trial in Cholet saw just 11 seconds separating the fastest five teams, with the now-defunct BMC taking the win.
Today’s stage starts at the Palais-Royale in the Belgian capital and finishes outside its most emblematic building – the Atomium, built in 1958. Whoever is in the overall lead today will be sporting the iconic structure on the yellow jersey, with the one awarded after each stage each marking people and places in the race’s history.
Monday 8 July
Binche – Epernay (215 km)
Another stage with a Spring Classics flavour – today, the Ardennes, with four punchy climbs within the final 40 kilometres as the race heads into France. It’s not going to end in a bunch sprint, for sure. There’s a time bonus available on one of those, 15 seconds from the line – remember Geraint Thomas banking some of those last year on his way to victory?
There’s also a 15 per cent slope approaching the line. One for Julian Alaphilippe … or a final Tour de France stage for Alejandro in the rainbow jersey? The Champagne for the stage winner should go down particularly well tonight – Epernay is at the epicentre of the wine-growing region.
Tuesday 9 July
Reims – Nancy (213.5 km)
Today will almost certainly one for the sprinters, whose leadout trains will make sure the day’s breakaway isn’t given too much leeway and will be brought back ahead of a pretty much nailed-on bunch finish in Nancy.
But. It’s the most innocuous-looking stages that often produce the biggest drama in the Tour de France, especially with a peloton on edge during the opening week – remember Bradley Wiggins crashing out with a broken collarbone in 2011?
Wednesday 10 July
Saint-Die-Des-Vosges – Colmar (175.5 km)
This is a really intriguing stage – not one for the fastest men in the peloton, but it’s a toss-up whether it could go to the break, or a puncheur, with a series of climbs in the final as the race heads into the Vosges mountains.
The first of those, a second category climb, takes the race up to the Haut Koenigsbourg castle, then we have the Côte des Trois-Épis and Côte des Cinq Châteaux. It’s another stage reminiscent of the Ardennes, and with a big GC day tomorrow, the overall contenders may well wish to keep their powder dry.
Thursday 11 July
Mulhouse – La Planche Des Belles Filles (160.5 km)
The Planche des Belles Filles only made its Tour de France debut in 2012 – Chris Froome won, while Team Sky colleague Sir Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey he would hold all the way to Paris – but it has quickly established itself as a fixture in the race. It was also pivotal in the 2014 race – Vincenzo Nibali took the stage on his way to completing his set of all three Grand Tour titles.
There’s an added twist this year – the finish line isn’t where it has been set on the previous visits, but another kilometre up the climb, and on gravel roads, which is going to make for a tough final and one in which, on the first mountain stage this year, could lead to some significant time gaps in the overall.
Friday 12 July
Belfort – Chalon-Sur-Saone (230 km)
We’re back into sprinters’ territory today with what is the longest stage of this year’s race as the peloton heads southwest, and with the three categorised climbs all featuring in the first half of the stage, and again given that there are few opportunities for a bunch finish this year, the break will be kept on a tight leash.
Nowadays, it’s unthinkable that anyone might win a Tour de France stage by 20 minutes – but that’s the margin that Brian Robinson, Great Britain’s first ever winner of a stage at the race, won by back in 1959 when he took his second and final career victory in the Grand Tour.
Saturday 13 July
Macon – Saint-Etienne (200 km)
It’s a hilly stage today with no fewer than seven categorised climbs, and one that may well favour a breakaway, with the last ascent crested around 10 kilometres out and a total of 3,700 metres climbing throughout the day.
There are some punchy little climbs in there, and the final one, the Côte de la Jaillière, could be the launching pad for a solo attack – not least because there are bonus seconds available there.
Sunday 14 July
Saint-Etienne – Brioude (170.5 km)
Bastille Day – or, to the French, Le Fête National – is always one of the most eagerly awaited stages of the race, with big holidaying crowds guaranteed, and moreover on a day when the race begins in Saint-Etienne, the historic centre of the country’s bicycle industry.
The final climb the Côte de Saint-Just, is crested with 12 kilometres remaining – and while there are bonus seconds available there and the stage finishes in Romain Bardet’s home town, he’ll likely be conserving his energy for the Pyrenees, One for the break, then?
Monday July 15
Saint-Flour – Albi (217.5 km)
There’s more bumpy terrain on the menu today as the race heads into the town where Peter Sagan – this year seeking a record-breaking seventh yellow jersey – won a stage the last time the Tour de France visited, in 2013.
Even at the halfway stage of the race, there are scant opportunities left for the sprinters, so it’s in the interests of their teams to keep the break in check to try and ensure a bunch finish. This could be a frantic – and stressful – stage ahead of tomorrow’s rest day.
Rest Day 1
Tuesday 16 July
Wednesday 17 July
Albi – Toulouse (167 km)
The Pyrenees are almost in sight but first it’s another day that looks destined to end in a bunch sprint with a couple of small categorised climbs coming early on in the stage before the profile flattens out as the peloton heads into the city known as La Ville Rose due to its red-brick architecture.
The countryside is open around Toulouse, however, and should the wind get up there’s the prospect of echelons forming so it could be a nervous day in the bunch as the overall contenders try and position themselves near the front to ensure that they are the right side of any splits that may happen.
Thursday 18 July
Toulouse – Bagneres-De-Bigorre (209.5 km)
It’s always a big moment when the Tour de France finally hits the high mountains and this year, it’s the Pyrenees that come first with four stages that will go a long way towards settling which riders will battle it out for the overall title in the Alps next week, although the start to the stage is a relatively gentle one with 120-plus kilometres on rolling roads.
After that, things get tougher with the ascent of the Col de Peyresourde, covering 13.2 kilometres at 7 per cent, then La Horquette d’Ancizan, which is 9.9 kilometres in length with an average gradient of 7.5 per cent and bonus seconds available at the summit. After that, it’s a long downhill into Bagneres-de-Bigorre, hosting a stage finish for the first time in six years.
Friday 19 July
Pau (ITT) (27.2 km)
Its proximity to the Pyrenees makes Pau a near-fixture in the Tour de France – in terms of visits, it is second only to Paris – but today, unusually, it hosts an individual time trial, the only one in this year’s race, and one that comes with more than a week still to go rather than on the closing Saturday as is so often the case.
It’s not the first time Pau has hosted a stage against the clock, however – in 1981, Bernard Hinault won here to take the yellow jersey on Stage 6, and he would keep it all the way to Paris. The parcours today is mainly on rolling roads, with the Col d’Esquillot, just after the halfway point, providing the sternest climbing test.
Saturday 20 July
Tarbes – Tourmalet (117.5 km)
A big weekend kicks off with a rare summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet – the mountain has featured in the race on 87 occasions, but this will be just the third time a stage has ended there, the last time being in 2010 when Andy Schleck was the winner. Preceded by the Col du Solour, the final climb is 19 kilometres long with an average gradient of 7.4 per cent.
It’s a short stage today, and that is likely to mean a frantic start as riders launch attacks and try and form the day’s break, including domestiques tasked with helping their team leaders on the final climb, while overall contenders who lost time in yesterday’s individual time trial will also be looking to overturn those deficits.
Sunday 21 July
Limoux – Foix (Prat d’Albis) (185 km)
A tough stage ahead of the second rest day, with almost 5,000 metres of climbing in prospect for legs that will be feeling the effects of the past three days. We’re deep in Cathar country, and the first climb today is to Montségur, its chateau forever linked to the medieval cult with its final members choosing to be burnt alive there rather than renounce their faith.
Later on, there are three Category 1 climbs to tackle – the Port de Lers, the lower part of the Col de Port which then turns onto the Mur de Péguère – averaging 12 per cent over 3 kilometres and with bonus seconds at the top – then a first-time ascent of the final climb to Port d’Albis. With a rest day tomorrow, this stage should provide fireworks.
Rest Day 2
Monday 22 July
Tuesday 23 July
Nimes – Nimes (177 km)
A very rare out-and-back stage for the Tour de France and the last opportunity for the sprinters before Paris. Nimes is famed for its Roman architecture – its arena hosted the opening team time trial of the 2017 Vuelta – and today’s itinerary will see the peloton pass over the nearby Pont du Gard aqueduct in what marks a first for the race.
Summer in this part of France, though, is often synonymous with the Mistral, the northwesterly wind that blows down through the Rhone Valley to the Camargue, and if it’s around today, there is a very real prospect of the race being smashed apart due to the twisting nature of the stage.
Wednesday 24 July
Pont Du Gard – Gap (200 km)
A transitional stage in the final week that takes the race towards the Alps means one thing – it’s almost certainly going to be won by someone from the break. So we can expect a frenetic start as teams that have had little return from the race to date, as well as the wild card entries looking for TV exposure for their sponsors, fight to get clear of the main group.
The Col de la Sentinelle, its near-1,000 summit coming with around 12 kilometres left, means this won’t be a day for the sprinters, while the overall contenders will want to preserve their strength for the decisive next three days. A stage finish in Gap usually means a winner from the break, and it’s hard to see today bucking that trend.
Thursday 25 July
Embrun – Valloire (208 km)
There is a huge amount of climbing today as the endgame of the 2019 Tour de France begins, with the final three climbs all over 2,000 metres and each higher than the one that precedes it – the Col de Vars, the Col d’Izoard, and the Col du Galibier, the last one topping out at 2,642 metres and at over 200 kilometres it will be a long day in the autobus at the back of the race.
Up front, the battle for the overall title will be rejoined in earnest and what’s more, there are bonus seconds available at the top of the Galibier as well as on the finish line, of course. It could well be one of those stages, though, where – as the saying goes – the Tour may not be won, but it can certainly be lost if any of the big names has an off day.
Friday 26 July
Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne – Tignes (126.5 km)
The final two mountain stages are both relatively short and again, that’s likely to mean a hectic start, especially this late in the race. A trio of Category 3 climbs precede the day’s biggest climb, the Col d’Iseran, the highest pass on any road in Europe at 2,770 metres and with some tough sections which may provide the ideal point to attack.
That’s followed by almost 30 kilometres of descending ahead of the final climb to the ski resort of Tignes, 7.4 kilometres long with an average gradient of 7 per cent but particularly tough early on before easing off and then flattening out towards the finish line.
Saturday 27 July
Albertville – Val Thorens (130 km)
This is the fifth time Winter Olympics host city Albertville has hosted a stage start, and the fourth time this decade. The road heads uphill almost from the start of the stage that will determine the winner of this year’s race, with the first big test being the Cormet de Roseland, 19.9 kilometres in length with an average gradient of 6 per cent.
Next comes the shorter Cote de Longefoy ahead of the final climb of this year’s race – a brutal 33.4-kilometre slog up to Val Thorens. The average gradient may be 5.5 per cent, but in some sections is almost into the double-digits. It it’s tight on GC, we could be in for some afternoon.
Sunday 28 July 28
Rambouillet – Paris Champs-Elysées (128km)
The scripted stage. Whoever is in the yellow jersey will clink Champagne with team mates on the way into the heart of the French capital, before being led onto the closing circuit and through Place de la Concord, whereupon a doomed break will be swept up ahead of the sprint finish.
This year, the final stage starts in the southwestern suburb of Rambouillet, a terminus station on the Paris Metro. If you’ve ever stood on a platform waiting for a train heading there, you’ll know from the PA announcement that it’s the most French-sounding place name ever. nine laps of the iconic Champs-Elysées circuit await the peloton before the winner of the 106th edition is crowned.
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.