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Paris - A detailed look at the prologue and 20 stages of the 99th edition of the Tour de France, to be held June 30-July 22.
Included is commentary from Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, former five-time winner Bernard Hinault and several professional riders set to compete in this year's race.
Prologue - June 30: Liege - Liege 6.4km
The opening prologue of the race will hand the yellow jersey over to the rider who completes the 6.4 km time trial quickest. The biggest contenders will be the power riders, such as 2004 Liege prologue winner Fabian Cancellara, but because the course twists and turns they will have to be "skillful", according to Tour legend Bernard Hinault. "It's very technical, with no hiding places," he says. "You really have to recon this route well to know exactly where the difficulties lie."
Stage 1 - July 1: Liege - Seraing 198km
"As of stage one and throughout the whole first week we'll be seeing the main favourites in action, even if it's seeing one of them getting out of breath, or losing 20secs to rivals," said race director Christian Prudhomme. With a slightly uphill finish that will prove too difficult for the sprinters, he hopes to replicate the successful opening stages of 2008 (Brittany) and 2011 (Vendee). A 'puncher', like Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde or Joaquim Rodriguez, is well suited to this stage, which is also technical in the finale.
Stage 2 - July 2: Vise - Tournai 207.5km
The 207 km ride from Vise to Tournai on the Franco-Belgian border should host the first big sprint battle of the race. Look for Cavendish, Boonen, Farrar, Greipel and Sagan.
Stage 3 - July 3: Orchies - Boulogne-sur-Mer 197km
A challenging route that has hosted the French national championship several times cannot be ignored. The stage's six small climbs, five of which are inside the last 50 km, could be the first test for the GC riders. "The final 50 km would, at least if Bernard Hinault was still racing, have the potential to split the peloton to pieces," said race director Christian Prudhomme.
Stage 4 - July 4: Abbeville - Rouen 214.5km
Although mainly flat, there is potential for drama on stage four. After leaving Abbeville the peloton follows the Normandy coastline from Le Treport, from where a first volley of small climbs appear. After turning inland at Fecamp for Rouen, the peloton tackles the only intermediate sprint, then a category four climb, before riding towards the town made famous, at least in cycling terms, by favourite son Jacques Anquetil.
Stage 5 - July 5: Rouen - Saint-Quentin 196.5km
With a stage finish in the district of Saint Quentin's very own Champs Elysees, who among the sprinters could not be tempted to have a go? Robbie McEwen won here in the past and in his new role as consultant for Orica-GreenEdge could have a few words for Matt Goss.
Stage 6 - July 6: Epernay - Metz 207.5km
While Epernay basks in the glory of being the world's Champagne capital, Metz can boast of being the first foreign city to be visited by the Tour, at the turn of the century when it - and most of the Lorraine region - were still in German hands. Lance Armstrong was the last man to win here, in 1999.
Stage 7 - July 7: Tomblaine - La Planche des Belles Filles 199km
Prudhomme's Tour route is peppered with steep climbs on many of the medium-mountain stages, and this is the first acid test. He said the climb to La Planche des Belles Filles in the southern Vosges is harder than it looks and will take a toll on the big yellow jersey teams. The first and only summit finish of the four medium-mountain stages ends with a 5.8 km ascent to 1035 metres at an average gradient of 8.5 percent. Passages at the start and the middle, however, max out to 13 and 11 percent.
Stage 8 - July 8: Belfort - Porrentruy 157.5km
The race's only foray into Switzerland coincides with the Tour peloton's debut ascension of the formidable Col de la Croix, one of five climbs ranging from 7.9 km to 3.7 km in length which combine to produce a race akin to a semi-classic. "It's like a Liege-Bastogne-Liege," said Prudhomme. "Obviously it's shorter, but there's a succession of steep little climbs around 3-4 km long and finishing with a technical descent (of the Col de la Croix) that a rider like (Vincenzo) Nibali, for example, could do well in."
Stage 9 - July 9: Arc-et-Senans - Besancon 41.5km time trial
The first of the race's two big time trials provides the likes of defending champion Cadel Evans and main challenger Bradley Wiggins with the chance to really distance their main rivals. Starting in Arc-et-Senans and finishing in the 'City of Time, Besancon, it comes a day before the race's first rest day.
July 10: Rest day
Stage 10 - July 11: Macon - Bellegarde-sur-Valserine 194.5km
The first real mountain stage of the race notably features the Col du Grand Colombier, a 17.4 km ascent which makes its Tour debut and includes passages where the gradient reaches 12 percent. It should provide the climbers and all-rounders who lost out in the time trial a chance for redemption. AG2R's Maxime Bouet, the local rider, expects plenty of drama: "I think the main favourites will be battling it out on the climb to the Colombier summit, which is long and hard. The roads are in good condition, except for the descent of the Colombier, which is twisting, fast and quite dangerous. Then we have to negotiate the Col de Richemont."
Stage 11 - July 12: Albertville - La Toussuire-Les Sybelles 148km
Twenty years after the 1992 winter Olympics in Albertville, the peloton moves into the Alps to tackle their second summit finish of the race. Short (140km), but intense, the 18 km climb to the summit of La Toussuire is preceded by the Col de la Madeleine (25.3 km), Col de la Croix de Fer (22.4 km) and the Col du Mollard (5.7 km). If the yellow jersey contenders whose time trialling skills are not up to scratch don't seize the day, they could regret it in the end.
Stage 12 - July 13: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne - Annonay-Davezieux 226km
The last kilometre of this final alpine stage suggests it is perfect for a 'puncher' like Philippe Gilbert or Alejandro Valverde. However with all the big climbs featuring inside the first 80km, it is breakaway heaven and could, if legs are tired, prompt the yellow jersey favourites into calling an implicit truce.
Stage 13 - July 14: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux - Le Cap d'Agde 217km
On France's national holiday, Prudhomme is hoping to see fireworks on the 215km ride to the nudist haven/Mediterranean party town of Cap d'Agde. Along with strong coastal winds, the Mont St Clair climb, a former regular on the Midi Libre stage race whose summit is 20 km from the finish, should play a significant role. "It's a very steep climb, which is followed by 20 km of riding along the coast with likely crosswinds. It could be damage limitation time!" said Prudhomme.
Stage 14 - July 15: Limoux - Foix 191km
During their quest for novelty in the Pyrenees, organisers have unearthed the steep Mur de Peguere climb. Last featured, but not raced, in 1973 when the peloton refused to negotiate the tricky descent, the climb's steep gradients (some of which are 18 %) are expected to leave most struggling and a select few going on to dispute victory during the 40 km ride to the finish. "We've sought new, challenging routes," said Prudhomme. "Ones that will tempt riders into attacking. At one time or another, attacks will come and the big favourites should be in the mix."
Stage 15 - July 16: Samatan - Pau 158.5km
The last of stage 15's three small climbs comes 30 km from the finish, meaning any late breakaways will have to be fast and carried out with conviction. In all likelihood, a day before the final rest day, the sprinters will get a rare chance to shine. The final, mainly flat kilometres will favour the likes of Cavendish, Greipel, Farrar, Boonen and many others.
July 17: Rest day
Stage 16 - July 18: Pau - Bagneres-de-Luchon 197km
After spending two days in Pau, the peloton will, theoretically, be rested and ready to go. However the 197 km 16th stage is open to an early breakaway which, if the stars align, has a good chance of going all the way. It starts with the 16.4 km climb to the hors categorie (unclassified) Aubisque then descends before another, 19 km slog to the summit of the hors categorie Tourmalet. Two category one climbs, the Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde, should sort the men from the boys before the 16 km descent into the spa town of Bagneres produces the winner.
Stage 17 - July 19: Bagneres-de-Luchon - Peyragudes 143.5km
For those still in yellow jersey contention but with a handicap in the time trial, this final mountain stage will be crucial. Tour director Prudhomme has introduced more novelty with the race's first ever ascent of Peyragudes, via the Col de Peyresourde and the hors categorie Port de Bales. Despite the importance of the stage 19 time trial, this stage could be decisive. Frenchman Amael Moinard, who helped Cadel Evans to victory last year, knows the roads well: "It will be hard because before we get to the final summit we have to tackle the Port de Bales, which is an hors categorie climb. The downhill is really dangerous and tricky. Then you have no flat. You go directly up to the Col de Peyresourde and then just a little descent and then on to Peyragudes. There's no chance to rest between the climbs."
Stage 18 - July 20: Blagnac - Brive-la-Gaillarde 222.5km
After their travails in the mountains, the yellow jersey contenders still in contention get a chance to put their feet up, figuratively at least, on a stage that despite featuring a small climb 10km from the finish should end in a sprint finish.
Stage 19 - July 21: Bonneval - Chartres 53.5km time trial
This is where the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans - the two main favourites - get to show their worth as true all-rounders. Both can climb with the best, but crucially both are among the few riders in the world who can turn big gears consistently for over 50km. In 2011 Andy Schleck lost 2:31 to Evans in the same kind of exercise to hand the Australian the title.
20th stage - July 22: Rambouillet - Paris 120km
The final stage to the Champs Elysees is traditionally procession-like, during which the soon to be crowned champion sips from champagne. Once into Paris, however, the battle is on. There will be breakaways and late attacks, but after years of dominating on the famous Avenue, British sprinter Mark Cavendish will be looking for more of the same less than a week before turning his attention to the challenge of winning gold at the London Olympics.