The 99th edition of the Tour de France, which starts in Liege on Saturday, is one of the most eagerly anticipated ever on this side of the Channel, with real hopes that Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins can become the first British rider to win cycling's biggest race. He'll face a battle though from defending champion Cadel Evans, plus others with their eyes on the prize. Meanwhile, the competitions for the green, polka dot and white jerseys also promise excitement, and of course our Fantasy Cycling game means that you too can become involved in the chase for prizes in July. Here's our preview of the race.
Team Sky's Geraint Thomas isn't riding the Tour this year - he's currently training for the Olympic team pursuit - but we will be bringing you his stage by stage analysis on the race very soon, so look out for that. During the race, we'll also be bringing you reaction to each stage from British ex-pro Graham Jones who raced the Tour on several occasions, his best finish being 20th when riding for Peugeot in 1981.
We've shown stage maps, profiles and the final kilometres of each stage below, and you can find larger versions of those in the gallery.
Meanwhile, here is the official teaser video showing some of the most thrilling moments from last year's race - though not what was arguably the most memorable of all, when a TV car took out Team Sky's Juan Antonio Flecha in the incident that sent Johnny Hoogerland flying into a barbed wire fence.
Geraint Thomas on the GC:
"Purely from a Sky point of view, the route is ideal for Brad, with such strong guys in the team they should be able to look after him on all the days when it doesn’t finish uphill, so that takes care of that really, and then you’ve only got three mountain days where he’s shown now that he’s got the engine to be there in front.
“I don’t know the finish climbs, they’ll obviously be tough because they’re in the Tour but they’re not the ones that are there year after year. I think it will add a bit of something different, and the time trialling days suit Brad down to the ground. The Dauphiné will have done his confidence a world of good by not only beating world champion Tony Martin, but also the amount of time he put into Cadel Evans. I think he can go into it super-excited and motivated.
“I think Frank Schleck will be there or thereabouts, but the amount of time trialling takes him out of it, I think he will be trying for the top five really. Denis Menchov too, but I can’t see him challenging for the overall, I jut can’t see past Brad and Cadel at the minute – now I’ve said that there’s going to be loads of other people up there! – maybe Robert Gesink, but then again he’s still quite young, I can’t see him challenging for the win, but top five, Jurgen Van Den Broeck I think will be up there in the mix again, but I can’t see him going for the win.
"So I think it’s pretty much Brad, Cadel and Nibali, they’re the standout favourites and then there’s a few guys lurking around below that – Cobo, we haven’t seen a lot at all from him this year, but obviously he’s gone pretty well in the Vuelta last year, so I’m sure he’ll be around there as well.
"Westra is someone who could throw a spanner in the works and is an outsider for the podium the way he went in Paris-Nice, that was a while ago but he’s obviously moved on in the climbing area, and he can time trial reasonably well. The team will be buzzing after Thomas De Gendt got on the podium in the Giro too.
"I think Ivan Basso will support Nibali, he seems like a genuine guy, I think he’s quite loyal and he’ll keep his word, he’s talked about going for the Giro and supporting Nibali in the Tour. He seems the type of guy to do what he says but saying that, this is the Tour and I’m sure that if he felt that he had an opportunity to win a stage, he’d go for that 100 per cent and I’m not sure the team would be too bothered if he did that. But because of the amount of time trialling I think he’s resigned that he can’t win the Tour and from what he’s said in the past, I think he’s just looking to help Nibali and maybe grab a stage if he can.
"Ryder Hesjedal could figure, he’ll benefit from the way that Brad will want to ride, with that constant pace and not too much acceleration. But for sure he’s growing in confidence all the time, especially after winning the Giro, and I think he’s another good shout for the podium.
"As for Samuel Sanchez, on one of those breakaway days, or one of those hard mountain days, with a downhill run to the finish, he’ll be in one of those breaks there. I can’t really see him going for GC, he’s great over the one-week stage races, but I think the Tour now is a bit too much. He won the polka dot jersey last year, and I think just going for the stage win on the harder days with lots of climbs could put him in that position again. If he’s in with a shout of doing that again, I think it is something he would want to go for."
Geraint Thomas on the points classification:
"I personally think Cav will still win it, it’s not a team for sprints but I think that will play into their favour, the other teams will have to ride for sprints as well, and when it comes to a sprint, Cav’s still going to be there, he’s not going to take it easy. He’s still my favourite.
“But I think Peter Sagan will be able to score points on more stages than Cav would, if Cav doesn’t go for the intermediates, and Sagan’s going for them, if there’s a day when it’s a real solid day and Cav’s taking it easy, and Sagan hangs in and is there to sprint, I think that’s the way that Sagan can win it.
“But I think Cav for sure, he’s not just going to walk away from the green jersey, just knowing what he’s like. I can’t really see Kittel, I think it’s a bit up and down for him to be honest. Matt Goss and Sagan I can see as Cav’s big rivals especially Goss with the whole of the Orica GreenEdge team behind him, Simon Gerrans will have his days but Gossy I think will be going purely for the green and will be in with a good shout.
“André Greipel has probably got one of the best leadout trains at the Tour, they’ve been together all year and particularly with people like Greg Henderson who’s being doing leadout for a number of years now, I think they’re the most experienced train there and probably the most powerful.
“Where the finishes are a bit technical, I know that Greipel struggles with those, or has done in the past – when he gets a bit nervous and a bit tight, he tends to lose his leadout man’s wheel a little bit.
“GreenEdge as well, especially in the Giro, Daryl Impey was going really well, so they’ve definitely got a bit of horsepower. They haven’t been riding together as much as the Lotto guys so they’re lacking a bit of experience, but they’ll have a good train as well.
“So I think it’s up to Cav to use his head and use the wheels a bit, he’ll obviously have Edvald Boasson Hagen working with him, I would have thought, but he’s going to have to duck and dive a bit. Edvald will do his best for him, but there’s only so much one guy can do.”
Saturday 30 June
Liège to Liège
With no Prologue last year, nor in 2013 when the 100th Tour de France gets under way on Corsica, the start of this year’s race will be viewed by the faster men against the clock as a welcome opportunity to be the first to wear the maillot jaune of the 99th edition of La Grande Boucle. The 6.4km course in Liège, hosting a stage finish for the ninth time, equalling Brussels’ record, is a fairly technical one with 180 degree turns to negotiate at a couple of roundabouts, but after the last of those, a little over 2km from the finish, the bends are sweeping rather than sharp and some fast times could be posted.
Fabian Cancellara made his Tour de France debut the last time Liège staged the Grand Depart in 2004, and finished the day in yellow. No-one else has got a look-in since then when the Tour starts outside France, with Cancellara winning prologues in London in 2007 and Rotterdam in 2010, as well as a slightly longer individual time trial in Monaco in 2009. The shattered collarbone he suffered in the Tour of Flanders has disrupted a season in which he will also defend his Olympic time trial title, but his performance in this month’s Tour de Suisse shows that Spartacus is well on the way to a complete recovery.
Geraint Thomas says: I’d definitely have money on Fabian Cancellara winning this. I think Brad will be close as well, he’s been close in the prologue a few times this year, and I think he’ll be top three. He’s got the speed and he’s got the form, but I’d still have my money on Fabian, with just a couple of seconds max in it. I don’t think the course is too technical either – it’s difficult to tell looking at a map rather than being there, but if it was a bit more technical I’d probably favour Fabian more. He’s got to be my favourite.
Sunday 1 July
Liège to Seraing
198 km (plain)
The first road stage of this year’s Tour, and with five Category 4 climbs including the 2.5 kilometre drag up to the line in Seraing, where Erik Zabel won Stage 3 of the 2001 race, it’s likely to be a puncheur rather than a sprinter who prevails; you wouldn’t normally expect Mark Cavendish to figure in a stage like this, but with four weeks to go to the Olympic road race, it’s the first opportunity to see the difference to his racing made by his loss of weight and focus on climbing in training as he targets gold in London.
If he were displaying his form of 12 months ago, when he followed up his Ardennes Classics hat-trick by clinching the first maillot jaune of the 2011 Tour in a finale that has similarities to today’s uphill finish, Philippe Gilbert would be a very short odds favourite to win today; what’s more, his home town of Remouchamps is pretty much smack bang in the middle of today’s looping parcours. There will be plenty of puncheurs looking to nick a stage in the Belgian’s back yard, and there’s every chance today’s winner will also take the maillot jaune, which is bound to spice things up.
Geraint Thomas says: Cav’s been pretty focused on holding that Giro form as best as possible and keeping that weight off and I think he could surprise a lot of people in this stage, especially because he’s got that form from the Giro, so I think he’s going to be going well in this first week in particular. He could really be up there today, although he’d be on the limit. I’d probably go with Gilbert though, being Belgian and so local.
Monday 2 July
Visé to Tournai
207.5 km (plain)
There’s only one categorised climb on today’s stage, and coming less than halfway into the stage and with the road going uphill for a little over 2km at an average gradient of 4.5 per cent, it’s not going to prevent what looks like being the first bunch finish of this year’s race in Tournai, a few kilometres across the border from Roubaix.
The most common observation you’ll hear from a rider taking part in his first Tour de France concerns the pace of the racing, but there are several riders making their debut in the race who will be eyeing a win here, including an in-form Peter Sagan and German sprint sensation Marcel Kittel, both of whom opened their Grand Tour account in last year’s Vuelta. The opening week of the race is also a very nervous time, however, and after a number of big-name riders were involved in crashes last year, teams with GC ambitions as well as those looking for sprint wins will be looking to keep near the front and out of trouble.
Geraint Thomas says: It will be a nervous day, particularly if it’s on those typical narrow, twisting Belgian roads. I’m sure there will be a few crashes and it will be a case of Sky, for instance, keeping Brad out of trouble and keeping Cav up there. I think it will be a traditional Tour sprint finish, with people like Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and Matt Goss in there. As I said, Lotto look to have the strongest leadout at the Tour this year and I’ll probably go for Greipel today, a bit controversial, I know!
Tuesday 3 July
Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer
197 km (medium mountains)
It’s a short hop across the border for to the start of today’s stage in Orchies, which each April sees Paris-Roubaix thunder through, with a dozen sectors of pavé still to go to the finish – it was just outside the town that Tom Boonen launched his decisive attack this year. Today, however, it’s hills rather than cobbles that will split the peloton, with five categorised climbs in the Monts du Boulonnais ahead of an uphill finish in the centre of the Channel port itself.
It’s unusual for the first week of the Tour to feature a medium mountain stage, but there are a couple of men in the peloton who know exactly what it takes to win here – Pierrick Fédrigo in 2006, and Sylvain Chavanel last year, both earned their French national champion’s jerseys in Boulogne. It’s not just the climbs that could blow the race apart today, either – with a twisting route in the last 70km or so, this close to the coast there is always the threat of the wind playing a decisive role, and the GC men will be anxious not to lose any time to their rivals should echelons form.
Geraint Thomas says: There will definitely be a lot of stress and fighting for position today. I think there will be people going out the back, and I think Marcel Kittel will struggle to get to that finish again. It’s similar to the first road stage with people like Philippe Gilbert or maybe Simon Gerrans or Matt Goss for GreenEdge; Gossy will be able to hang in there if he’s in the form he’s been in. People like Sylvain Chavanel have the legs to dig maybe 10k out, so an opportunist like him, or someone like Thomas Voeckler perhaps. They won’t win if it’s altogether, but a lot of French guys will be in there coming to the finish, while Movistar could look to control the back end of the race for Alejandro Valverde. But I think you’ve got to go with Peter Sagan on a day like this, especially with the run of results he’s had so far this season.
Wednesday 4 July
Abbeville to Rouen
214.5 km (plain)
Today’s itinerary starts in a town hosting a stage for the first ever time and finishes in one that did not do so until 1949 but has regularly featured ever since, with the Tour now visiting Rouen, the capital of Normandy, roughly one year in three, and this year welcoming the race for the 20th time. The last of a quartet of Category 4 climbs comes with a little over 70km still to race.
While a bunch sprint looks on the cards, less predictable is how many riders might be around to contest it; with the race hugging the coast for more than 100 kilometres, any kind of wind could cause havoc, and the prospect of that once again is likely to give rise to nerves within the peloton.
Geraint Thomas says: It’s quite far to go along the coast so I don’t know if people will attack, it may be a case of a few crashes down there that could cause splits and stress, the usual first week of the Tour stuff. But I think it will still be a bunch sprint, there’s a bit of a bump at the end but they should all be able to get over that going by the profile, it’s not a categorised climb. So it’s whoever gets over that in the best shape and the best position. I’ll go with Cav today.
Thursday 5 July
Rouen to Saint-Quentin
196.5 km (plain)
Another edgy day in prospect as the race heads inland in a stage more typical of the opening week of the Tour than some of those we’ve seen so far – this one looks set to follow the tried and tested script of a small break containing at least a couple of Frenchmen looking to get their sponsors’ names in front of the TV cameras before inevitably being swept up ahead of the finale as the sprinters’ teams ratchet up the pace.
Whoever takes the likely sprint today will be able to claim – albeit with a nudge and a wink – to have won a Champs-Élysées stage in the Tour de France; the finish line today is located next to the park of that name in Saint-Quentin, where the now retired Robbie McEwen won the second of his three stages in 2006 on his way to claiming the green jersey for the third and final time.
Geraint Thomas says: This looks like another classic Tour sprint, with the usual guys again – maybe Marcel Kittel, this could be one of the days he could really get in there, I’ll go with him.
Friday 6 July
Épernay to Metz
207.5 km (plain)
The last time a Tour de France stage started in Épernay, home to the leading Champagne houses, was in 2010 and it was HTC-Columbia that were cracking open the bubbly that evening to celebrate yet another stage win by Mark Cavendish. This is another stage that looks nailed-on for a bunch sprint finish.
Metz, the capital of Lorraine, has witnessed 40 stage finishes since it first welcomed the Tour more than a century ago, the most recent being in 1999 when Lance Armstrong won an individual time trial here on his way to the first of his seven consecutive victories in the race. This close to the German border, there will be an extra incentive for the likes of André Greipel or Marcel Kittel to cross the line first, with a sizeable contingent of fans likely to have made the trip to cheer them on.
Geraint Thomas says: This should be the same again with the big name sprinters battling it out, so a pure sprinter again today. At the Tour the crowds are just unbelievable anyway, especially when it’s close to some guys’ home countries, it means they’re more up for it.
Saturday 7 July
Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles
199 km (medium mountains)
In 2010 it was Stage 3 over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles won by Thor Hushovd, last year it was Stage 4’s finish on the Mur de Bretagne where Cadel Evans prevailed; organisers ASO have got into the habit of throwing a stage into the opening week that is eagerly anticipated by fans the moment the route of the race is revealed. This year that role falls to this stage, which features the first-time inclusion in the Tour of the 6km ascent to the finish at an average gradient of 8.5 per cent, hitting 13 per cent in places, that is likely to see the GC contenders slug it out for the first time in the race.
The Planche des Belles Filles – literally, Board of Beautiful Girls – got its name from an episode in 1635 during the Thirty Years’ War when the young women from neighbouring villages reputedly jumped from a ledge to their death in a lake rather than face rape, and probably a brutal end, at the hands of mercenary soldiers stationed in the region. The most that the podium girls are likely to have to worry about today is getting the zip snagged as they do up one of the classification leader’s jerseys.
Geraint Thomas says: The pure climbing guys, people like Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali and Robert Gesink will try to get some time on Brad on a day like today, they’ve got to make the most of it, haven’t they? There’s just a couple of smaller climbs before that, so it’s all down to the last one. Somebody’s got to take it on, and I’d go for a proper climber today, though maybe not one of the main GC guys, perhaps Rui Costa, he’s in good shape.
Sunday 8 July
Belfort to Porrentruy
157.5 km (medium mountains)
The 2012 Tour de France makes its second excursion outside its home country, albeit a briefer one than the three-day Grand Départ, with the final 50km of today’s stage played out in Switzerland. There are five categorised climbs to negotiate in the Jura mountains prior to the border, however, and another three afterwards before what should be a fast descent off the Col de la Croix ahead of a flat run-in to the finish.
Michael Albasini, winner of the 2010 Tour of Britain, has moved up a gear since joining Orica-GreenEdge at the start of the season, with some big results so far in 2012 – winner of two stages and the overall in the Volta a Catalunya, second in the Fleche Wallonne and most recently taking a fine solo win in the penultimate stage of the Tour de Suisse. He’ll have more motivation than most to win today as the Tour pays its brief visit to his native country.
Geraint Thomas says: This looks like the kind of day where people could lose time rather than gaining it. It’s a solid day for sure with a lot of climbing over quite a short distance, so I think it will be a tough day. The last climb isn’t far from the finish, so someone like Nibali who can go well downhill could see that as a good opportunity to have a dig and gain a bit of time. Even if it’s 20 or 30 seconds it could make a difference. The weather could play a part, and not just if it’s wet – if it’s super hot, being a short stage some guys might not feed right and it could be a day where quite a few riders suffer. I think there will be a breakaway anyway, and with it going into Switzerland Albasini could be a good shout.
Monday 9 July
Arc-et-Senans to Besançon
41.5 km (individual time trial)
Today’s stage is obviously a big chance for the stronger time triallers such as Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans to put time into those GC riders who are weaker against the clock, and there is bound to be some shake-up in the overall standings by the end of the day. As ever, there is a race within a race, however, with Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin in particular looking to hone their form ahead with the Olympic time trial less than four weeks away.
Capital of the Franche-Comté region and birthplace of people such as the writer Victor Hugo and chef Raymond Blanc, Besançon is also – appropriately, given the nature of this stage – the centre of France’s watchmaking industry. The town may also seem familiar to younger Australian riders, even if they’ve never visited before – it’s where the Touché series of textbooks, widely used in French classes in schools Down Under, is set.
Geraint Thomas says: Brad will be up for this stage for sure and I think for the stage win it’s a three horse race between him, Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara. Tony and Fabian are both coming back from injuries but they are getting stronger all the time so I think they will be good. Brad will just be looking to take as much time as he can and I think he could be in the jersey by the end of the day. Out of the GC riders it’s only Cadel Evans who could be on a par with him. This year he hasn’t really got to that level yet, but he’ll be improving all the way through the Tour.
Tuesday 10 July
Wednesday 11 July
Mâcon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine
194.5 km (high mountains)
The halfway point of the 2012 Tour de France is marked by a stage that includes the tough climb of the Col du Grand Colombier, the first Hors-Category climb of the race, featuring 17.4km of climbing at an average gradient of 7.1 per cent, with ramps that hit 18 per cent in places. After that’s been crested, there is the smaller Col de Richemond to be negotiated before the riders head down to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, and the kick uphill in the final kilometre looks like being influential in determining the stage win.
It was on the descent of the Grand Colombier that Cadel Evans and his BMC Racing colleagues tried to put race leader Bradley Wiggins in trouble during the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, briefly distancing the defending champion although with his Team Sky colleagues working hard to bridge the gap, the Briton was able to rejoin the Australian, in an episode that demonstrated his determination and resilience.
Geraint Thomas says: Looking at the profile, you wouldn’t have thought it would be a GC day really, but I think because of the route this year, everyone’s got to take the opportunities that they can, and if Brad’s in the jersey then people are going to attack Sky as much as possible. I think it will be a breakaway day, but the GC guys will look for every chance they’ve got attack Brad, obviously that 100-odd kilometres of time trialling plays into his hands massively. So I think it will be slightly different racing to usual in this year’s Tour. A lot more people need to be more aggressive, so it should be a great Tour to watch.
Thursday 12 July
Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles
148 km (high mountains)
The second of the three summit finishes that figure on this year’s parcours, this is a stage where those GC contenders who will lose seconds, minutes even, in the time trials to the likes of Evans and Wiggins must attempt to conjure up something special. The 18 kilometre climb to La Toussuire, last featured in the Tour in 2006 – it will also be familiar to Wiggins and Evans from last year’s Dauphiné, has an average gradient of 6.1 per cent, but will be particularly challenging on a day when the riders will already have passed over the Madeleine and the Croix de Fer.
It's a big GC day, and as a relatively short stage, the racing should be relentless from the start. This is also the stage that features as Acte I of the 2012 Etape du Tour, held the previous Sunday on a slightly longer route of 152km.
Geraint Thomas says: The last climb suits Brad, it’s pretty constant and he can time trial his way up and not get too carried away with jumping around, and the team as well can set a really fast tempo which would be perfect for him and deter any attacks, so it’s a good climb for Brad. I think the winner will come from that group and it will be a good climb for Brad. It will probably be one of those where people keep getting dropped until there’s eight or ten guys left, and a couple of attacks in the last couple of kilometres. That’s the way I think it will go, but as I’ve said before, other teams might try and spice it up a bit earlier, and try and isolate Brad a bit more.
Friday 13 July
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay Davézieux
226 km (medium mountains)
One of the more intriguing stages of this year’s race, organisers have thrown in two Category 1 climbs early on, but there are still nearly 150km to go to the finish once the second of those has been crested. It could be a decent-sized group that gets over those, with opportunities for riders to bridge back ahead of the day’s final climb, and stronger sprinters will fancy their chances if they are still in contention coming into the long uphill drag of the closing kilometres.
Some riders are bound to get dropped on both of those early climbs, but with the day’s other main challenge the less taxing Category 3 Col d’Ardoix, the summit of which comes 19km from the end, the men that make up the autobus should have ample opportunity to make the calculations to work out today’s likely cut-off time.
Geraint Thomas says: I think there will be attacks before that first climb and it’s going to be a strong group that goes, but it depends how big it is. If it’s a break of ten or twelve then it can stay away but if it’s a smaller group, and it’s going to be climbers who are in there, then they are going to struggle to keep away. If Matt Goss or Peter Sagan are around then their teams will want to bring them back, especially if Cav isn’t there, with the green jersey battle on as well. So it could go either way and I wouldn’t be surprised if it came down to a group finish. It all depends on the size of that group that gets away and who’s in it – if there’s someone from GreenEdge, they’re not going to want to bring it back for Gossy. It could also be a day for Chavanel or Cancellara, someone like that, to make a late attack and try and hold them off. A lot could go on!
Saturday 14 July
Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Le Cap d’Agde
217 km (plain)
On paper this looks like being a day for a bunch finish but it’s not guaranteed and you don’t have to delve too far back into Tour history to discover why. After passing Montpellier, the final 50 kilometres or so of the stage are played out on the coast, and it was a short distance to the east of here that in 2009 HTC-Columbia blew the race apart on Stage 3 into La Grande Motte by using the wind to their advantage and dominating a small front group after echelons formed, setting up Mark Cavendish for the second of his six stage wins that year.
Bastille Day inevitably means French riders going on the attack, and the racing should be frantic from the start as breaks try to get away. David Moncoutié was the last home rider to win on the Fête Nationale in 2005 when he took the victory in Digne Les Bains, but this seems more a day for someone like Cavendish, himself the winner of a Quatorze Juillet stage in Issoudun in 2009, although sprinters will have to ensure they aren’t dropped by the main group on the Category 3 Mont Saint-Clair a little over 20km from the line.
Geraint Thomas says: I think it should be a big group finish but if the wind is up then it could split things up, it’s definitely long enough along the coast to the finish and there’s no rest, after Montpellier it’s in the wind all the way to the finish. So there will be a lot of guys who will be really attentive around there, and there’s a few GC guys who could miss out if it all does blow apart. It will be a sprint of some sort, 30-odd men if the race has split, otherwise it will be a big old bunch kick again. Once echelons have formed, even if it doesn’t look like there is much distance between them on TV, it’s almost impossible to bridge across because everyone is going full gas. You’re doing 600 or 700 watts on the front so to jump across you’d need to be doing 800, something like that. It doesn’t look far, but as soon as you try you realise you need a few guys with you to do it.
Sunday 15 July
Limoux to Foix
191 km (high mountains)
The quick and relatively easy way to get from the sparkling wine-producing town of Limoux in the Aude valley to Foix, capital of the Ariège, involves a rolling 40km ride through the Pyrenean foothills; today’s stage takes the longer and tougher way round, heading into the high mountains with climbs of the Category 2 Col du Portel and Category 1 Port de Lers and Mur de Péguère, the latter crested a little under 40km out. It’s a tough climb; the final 10 kilometres or so have an average gradient of 8 per cent, with a brutal 18 per cent section. Foix has hosted a stage finish once before, in 2008, when Kurt Asle Arvesen took the sole Tour de France stage win of his career.
Never a stage town until last year, when it hosted the start of Stage 15, Limoux this year celebrates the rare distinction of a second consecutive visit by the Tour. Meawhile Foix, the historic town where today’s stage finishes, is known to generations of French schoolchildren through the rhyme:
Il était une fois / Une marchande de foie / Qui vendait du foie / Dans la ville de Foix
Elle se dit ma foi / C'est la première fois / Et la dernière fois / Que je vends du foie / Dans la ville de Foix
Geraint Thomas says: It’s still a long way to the finish from that last climb, it’s a long way to go on your own especially once they get organised behind, and you still have a good 20-odd kilometres on the flat. But if there’s a GC guy who is having a bad day and gets dropped, then you could see the other GC men really going for it. It should be a breakaway day and the GC guys will just be thinking about getting through and not losing time rather than somewhere where they gain it, to be honest.
Monday 16 July
Samatan to Pau
158.5 km (plain)
Lying so close to the high Pyrenees, Pau is an obvious choice for a stage town as the race heads into or out of the mountains, and this will be the 64th time it has hosted the Tour de France, the most recent winner here being Pierrick Fédrigo in 2010, the day after Alberto Contador had taken the race lead after Andy Schleck dropped his chain.
Typically, a stage finish here would come at the end of a day featuring some of the Pyrenees’ most fabled ascents, but today looks more like being a bunch sprint, with the Category 3 Côte de Simacourbe sandwiched by two Category 4 climbs ahead of a 30km run to the line. It’s less than two weeks until the Olympic road race, and while legs may be tired from the exertions in the Tour to date, anyone with their sights on gold who struggles on one of these three climbs has some work to do if they are going to challenge in London.
Geraint Thomas says: There’s not many potential bunch sprints left, so it definitely looks like being one today. If any sprinters are going to leave the race early to prepare for the Olympics, I’d have thought it would be after this stage, it should be worth their while hanging around for just the one more sprint, and then there’s a couple of mountain days afterwards. But I can’t see Cav going home if he’s in the green jersey or in with a shout, I can’t see him backing off.
Tuesday 17 July
Normally we’d let a rest day pass without comment, but the location of this one will forever be associated with the 2010 Tour, and we’d be surprised if at least one enterprising restaurateur in Pau didn’t have a Steack Contador as a special on today’s menu; unlikely to tempt the riders, but a sure-fire hit among fans and the press, we reckon.
Wednesday 18 July
Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon
197 km (high mountains)
The stage of the 2010 Tour that finished in Pau began in Bagnères-de-Luchon, and today the peloton undertakes the journey in reverse, with a route that features some of the Pyrenees’ heavyweight climbs – the Col d’Aubisque, the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin, and the Col de Peyresourde. It’s a day for attacks from the start, and if a GC contender manages to get away – as Andy Schleck did on the Galibier stage last year, helped by Leopard Trek team mates who had got into the early move – there could be some frantic chasing.
Geraint Thomas slipped into the break and overcame a couple of near-chutes last year to ride up the Tourmalet on his own at the head of the race. Unfortunately, no-one had told him about the €5,000 Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize on offer for the first man over the summit and he was caught and passed by FDJ’s Jeremy Roy – the Team Sky rider, who reflected afterwards that “you could buy a lot of beer” with that amount of money, did have the consolation of taking the day’s combativity prize, however.
Geraint Thomas says: I think this will be more of a day where someone like Vincenzo Nibali will have a go, or some opportunist, maybe someone who is already a couple of minutes down could have an attack – this would be the day to do it. It could be a day for a breakaway to go out, but it could come back – it all depends how the racing behind goes. It will be a interesting day, a lot of things could change. If there’s some teams that haven’t done much, they’ll want to get in the break, and I’m sure the French guys will want some exposure.
Thursday 19 July
Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes
143.5 km (high mountains)
The last day in the mountains and the third and final summit finish of this year’s race is the final opportunity for those climbers who will struggle against the quicker men in Saturday’s time trial to influence the GC. While the Col de Peyresourde regularly features in the Tour - indeed, it also featured on yesterday’s stage - this is the first time that Peyragudes has hosted a finish, on a climb where David Moncoutié won a mountain time trial to clinch the 2010 Route du Sud.
Besides the fight for the overall victory, with five categorised climbs ahead of today’s summit finish, this could also be a decisive day in the battle for the polka dot jersey, with plenty of points on offer. Add in the fact that today also represents a chance for riders who began the Tour with GC hopes but have fallen out of contention to rescue something from the race, and we could be in for a treat.
Geraint Thomas says: At this stage of the race there are going to be tired bodies and it can be very hot as well in the Pyrenees so I think it will be a very big day especially with that HC climb, that will do a lot of softening up and then you could see guys like Cadel Evans going off up the road maybe, with little bridges for someone like him to attack across to. Maybe Steve Cummings as well, I think he’ll be looking to get into breaks, he’s had crashes and injuries but I think he’ll be getting stronger during the race and will be really good come these stages. From Brad’s point of view, I think if he can finish these three stages with the GC favourites then it’s his to win. Also, if someone’s a long way off on GC, Vinokourov or a rider like that, and they want to give their Tour one last big hit, today would be a good day, or someone like Nicolas Roche, depending where he is on GC. It will definitely be a strong guy who will win today.
Friday 20 July
Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde
222.5 km (plain)
The race heads away from the Pyrenees with a stage that starts in Blagnac, location of Toulouse airport and the headquarters of Airbus, and another one that looks likely to end in a bunch sprint but which throws several categorised climbs into the day’s route – perfect preparation for Box Hill in eight days’ time, in other words.
Brive-La-Gaillarde, best known in sporting circles for its rugby union team, European champions in 1997, is the domain of the sprinters when the Tour hits town, with Mario Cipollini the last winner there in 2008, and another notable victor being Barry Hoban, who held the record of eight stage wins by a British rider until it was eclipsed by Mark Cavendish. In taking that stage win in 1969, the Yorkshireman, who had won 24 hours earlier in Bordeaux, also became the first Briton to win back-to-back Tour stages, a feat subsequently achieved twice by Cavendish.
Geraint Thomas says: It’s a full on bunch sprint here and it depends who is finishing their Tour the best. I think we’ll also have a good idea of who is going well for the Olympics too. Whoever is coming off the Tour struggling, it’s going to be a big ask to pick themselves up for the Games. I think it will be the usual sprinters up there again. Especially being Stage 18, it will be whoever’s got the legs to get over the climbs easily and still have the power at the end.
Saturday 21 July
Bonneval to Chartres
53.5 km (individual time trial)
With tomorrow’s stage, for the GC contenders at least, being the usual procession into Paris, this is the day when the podium will be decided. The long, mainly flat parcours will see some big gaps in the times posted by the time trial specialists on the one hand, and the pure mountain goats on the other. The likes of Wiggins, Evans – who took the maillot jaune from Andy Schleck in the individual time trial on the penultimate day of last year’s Tour – will be relishing today’s stage, and what’s more, the profile of yesterday’s stage means they will perhaps be fresher than if it had come straight after the high mountains.
We’ll say it now. If Bradley Wiggins starts today in yellow, while it might be tempting fate to uncork the Champagne just yet, you should certainly make sure it’s chilling nicely in the fridge. Of course it’s impossible to predict ahead of the Grand Départ how the next three weeks will pan out – no-one could have foreseen the crash on an innocuous section of a flat stage that took Wiggins out of last year’s race – but if he’s made it this far, we could be 2 hours away from celebrating Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner.
Geraint Thomas says: I’m sure Brad would love to go into today leading the race. We’ll have more of an idea of where everyone is and how they are doing by now, but I think Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin will be the favourites, they will really be targeting the time trials rather than going full gas all the way through, so they’ll have more of a chance to sit in and take it easy and prepare for the Olympic time trials. It’s pretty flat today and someone like Brad could just get that power out and with that position he has on the bike he could easily put minutes into someone like Frank Schleck.
Sunday 22 July
Rambouillet to Paris Champs-Élysées
120 km (plain)
Mark Cavendish last year sealed his place as King of the Champs-Élysées, winning on cycling’s most famous finish for an unprecedented third time as he took the green jersey. Whether he’s wearing the maillot vert or the rainbow bands, it’s hard to bet against him if he’s still in the race, though plenty of sprinters, including former HTC team mate Matt Goss, will be up for breaking his stranglehold. While the racing on the Champs-Élysées will be as hectic as ever, the 60 kilometre run into Paris will see the usual high jinks, glasses of Champagne and photo opportunities featuring the jersey wearers.
The Chateau in Rambouillet was one of Napoleon’s imperial residences – his final visit was in June 1815, on his way to exile on St Helena, and curiously, the town is nowadays twinned with Waterloo, where he had suffered his final defeat a week earlier. Nowadays, it’s the summer residence of the French President, today’s stage of course finishing just metres from the Élysée Palace.
Geraint Thomas says: I think I’ll have to go for Cav on this if he’s still there, he’s won three years in a row and never lost here, especially with the fight for the green jersey which I think probably will still be in the balance today.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.