We’re already stoked for the Tour de France to kick off on 4 July and with the big names, Nibali, Contador, Froome and Quintana, all down to ride it’s set to be a true heavyweight battle. With a seriously hilly course, it looks like being a year for the pure climbers, which throws a little doubt on Chris Froome’s chances – at one stage he even claimed he mightn’t ride at all because the course didn't suit him.
Regardless of who makes it to the start line in Utrecht in three weeks or so, it’s doubtless going to be a fantastic month of racing. We took a quick scan of the route and picked out some key days where we think the race could be won or lost.
Stage 2: Utrecht to Zeeland
After a time trial prologue around Utrecht the race begins in earnest with this 166km slog across the barren flatlands of Belgium to Zeeland. It’s very early in the competition for anything to be outright won, apart from the inevitable sprint finish, but we might see some major time losses if the notorious Belgian weather comes into play. Flat terrain and proximity to the sea make this a likely spot for severe cross-winds, and with cross-winds come the dreaded echelons. We may well see one or two big names get caught in a second or third echelon group, at which stage it becomes pretty difficult to bring the race back together.
Stage 4: Seraing to Cambrai
It takes four days for the Tour to reach France this year, with this the stage where it finally crosses over the border with Belgium. Classics fans will be delighted as the peloton hurtles over the infamous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, with six sectors of the ‘Hell of the North’ race featuring in the route for Stage 4. We expect Chris Froome, who has a healthy disdain for northern Europe in the spring, will be less delighted.
But why might this stage have an effect on the general classification? Well last year Vicenzo Nibali used an early cobbled stage to put more than two minutes into his nearest rivals, laying down a marker for the domination to come. Don’t be surprised to see the top guys clinging to his wheel as he nimbly navigates the ‘baby’s heads’.
Stage 9: Vannes to Plumelec
What’s more fun to watch than a time trial? A team time trial! Only kidding, all time trials are deathly boring for spectators and quite frankly I’m sick of hearing commentators trying to liven them up with ‘fun’ trivia about each rider out ‘on course’. Nevertheless, time trialling is integral to at least one of the big four contenders’ game plan.
Chris ‘looking at stem’ Froome is a master of the race against the clock and his team aren’t too shabby either (despite falling apart at the Giro a little bit this year). It’s still early in the race to be hoping to defend a lead, but Froome must take time here from his nearest rivals if he’s to stand any chance of mixing it up at the business end of proceedings.
An interesting extra dimension is added by the fact that this TTT is later than usual, meaning some teams may have lost a couple for riders along the way – especially on the aforementioned cobbles. Any teams trying to tackle this three riders down could lead to some seismic shifts in the standings.
Stage 17: Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup
Cycling history buffs will tell you that a summit finish in Pra Loup marked the end of the Age of Eddy, when the all-conquering Belgian, Merckx, was defeated by Frenchman Bernard Thévenet. The Cannibal never won his sixth tour.
Despite the heritage, the part of the day that may well come into play for this year’s GC is not on the climb up to Pra Loup, but the huge descent from the summit of the Col d’Allos. Defending champ Vincenzo Nibali is a superb descender. It’s fair to say that after scuppering his TdF chances last year going downhill, Contador may not be quite so confident. Everyone will be watching the Italian for any attempts to get away on this slope.
Stage 20: Modane to Alpe d’Huez
The inclusion of Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate day of the race is an aggressive move, even by the standards of notoriously sadistic Tour organisers. Anyone whose GC hopes are still alive will be asked to tackle three horrifically big mountains in just 110km, the Telegraphe, the Galibier and then the Alpe itself – all three steeped in iconic racing history, equalled only by Ventoux in terms of their fearsome reputations. Unless we see a show of total dominance earlier in the race, akin to that of Contador at this year’s Giro or Nibali at the 2014 Tour, then this may very well be the deciding stage of the whole affair.
So there you have it, the key stages of the Tour De France 2015. Now let us know who you think is going to win it.