Good news! In spite of that Armstrong business, they’re gonna do another one of those laps around France again.
And for the 100th edition of the biggest race on earth, they’ve pulled out all the stops. After a time trial heavy route in 2012, the climbers will again ride with an advantage in 2013. While Bradley Wiggins will sure return a favorite, Alberto Contador, Joaquin Rodriguez, Chris Froome and perhaps a recovered Andy Schleck will enter France next July as the men to beat.
The first big separation will come in the Team Time Trial on Stage 4. Nice has been the home of some outstanding racing over the course of the last 30 years and will provide the backdrop for the first opportunity to make up time. Teams like Sky, Saxo and RadioShack-Nissan will be big favorites, though the shorter distance (just 25km) might make it possible for a team like OmegaPharma-QuickStep, armed with reigning World Champion Tony Martin, to take a surprise win.
The first true foray into the mountains this year comes with the Pyrenees coming on Stage 8. Three big mountain stages in a row will set up the race for the first individual time trial on Stage 11. Whatever time climbers have lost in those 33km, they’ll have a massive chance to take it back when the race hits the storied slopes on Mount Ventoux. Ventoux makes its first appearance since its historic day in 2009, when Alberto Contador defended against Andy Schleck, Lance Armstrong, Brad Wiggins and Frank Schleck as the top six riders in the race rode to a virtual draw on the moonscape-esque slopes of one of the race’s most famous ascents.
The last time trial comes on Stage 17 and is a borderline mountain stage by itself. The rolling course should keep the climbers in touch with the specialists, and recovery will be huge for all of the rider with an unprecedented day on tap in the morning. Stage 18 may come up a bust, but it could also be known as one of the greatest stages in Tour history. For the first time, the race will tackle the infamous 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez twice in a single day. In total, it tackles five CAT 3 or harder climbs in 168km, making the profile look like nothing short of a cruel joke. And in an effort to make the race stressful until the very end, Stage 19 also hits four huge climbs including one of Yours Truly’s favorite, the Col de la Madeleine, before a summit finish on Le Grand Bornand.
The penultimate stage is the last chance for time and if the race is stil in question, it will be decided on the 10.7km, 8.% gradient climb to Semnoz. If Sky has Froome and Wiggins in the hunt, or if the Schlecks somehow return to form, it’s where teams will have to sacrifice everything to gain any amount of time. There will be no waiting or looking around for team leaders on a day like that, with over a dozen climbs and three summit finishes already in the riders’ legs and just one more stage left to survive.
Speculation that the Tour would not finish in Paris proved to be unfounded, though there is a wrinkle. The finish on the Champs Elysees will come under the lights for the first time, though that will be of little concern to the king of Paris, Mark Cavendish. He’ll rely on his stacked new team, OmegaPharma-QuickStep, to deliver him to his fourth straight win in the City of Lights when the Tour concludes on July 21.