The build-up to the 105th edition of the Tour de France has been dominated by the ongoing row over whether defending champion Chris Froome of Team Sky, seeking a record-equalling fifth yellow jersey, should be racing at all. With organisers ASO excluding him from the race, and Team Sky's appeal set to be heard tomorrow, we won't know until Wednesday whether he will be among the 176 riders who start the race in the Vendée on Saturday 7 July.
With or without him, the Tour will get under way on 7 July and ASO have devised a particularly intriguing parcours this year, with stages in the first half of the race that pay homage to both the cobbled and the Ardennes Classics, a visit to the Alps that includes the Alpe d’Huez, and a final week in the Pyrenees featuring a stage just 65 kilometres in length that promises to be explosive and which has a Formula 1 grid-style start.
A couple of other innovations – one from world cycling’s governing body, the UCI, the other from ASO itself – may also help shape the race. The first of those is the reduction in the number of riders per team from nine to eight, aimed at making racing more exciting and less predictable.
That’s been widely interpreted as an effort to try and curb the dominance of Team Sky, who have won five of the past six editions of the Tour de France, the sight of their riders setting the tempo at the head of the group containing the overall contenders a familiar one in recent years.
There have been signs, principally at the Giro d’Italia that some teams are looking to counter the effect of the loss of one man by in effect rotating their riders – in other words, giving one or more specific days in which they are excused team duties and can save strength for later stages.
There’s also the issue of how that reduction in numbers may affect sprint trains, particularly in the second half of the race as fatigue sets in – will the smaller manpower make it more difficult to reel in a breakaway group ahead of the finish of stages that, on paper at least, should end in a bunch finish?
The second innovation comes from organisers ASO, who have introduced ‘bonus points’ – or rather bonus seconds – at a point towards the end of eight of the opening nine stages, the exception being the team time trial on Stage 3. There are 3, 2 and 1 seconds on offer for the first three men across.
Distinct from intermediate sprints, the bonus seconds have been introduced in a bid to inject an additional element of excitement into the first week or so of the race ahead of the overall battle being joined in earnest once it reaches the Alps.
Mostly inside the final 20 or so kilometres – just 12 kilometres from the line on Stage 5, for example – they’re carefully positioned at difficult points on the parcours to encourage attacks, with the hope that they will encourage overall contenders to play more of a leading role early in the race.
With time gaps likely to be small, even after the team time trial, they may also present an opportunity for someone to get into the yellow jersey – and if that happens on a flat stage, and a sprinter is defending the race lead, that could mean two hard-fought sprints late on.
It promises to be a fascinating three weeks of racing – and as ever on the Tour de France, it’s often the stages that at first glance look like being uneventful that provide some of the most dramatic moments of the race. Here’s our stage-by-stage analysis.
Stage 1 – Saturday, July 7
Noirmoutier-en-l’Île – Fontenay-le-Comte, 201 km
The opening stage in the Vendée is one that looks as though it should end with a sprinter in the yellow jersey – but with the first 135 kilometres hugging the Atlantic Coast and a twisting parcours, if the wind gets up the race could be blown apart as echelons form.
Both the sprinters’ teams and those of the overall contenders will therefore want to keep their men safely near the front of the peloton on what is likely to be a typically stressful start to the race as riders get used to a pace that always comes as a shock those taking part in their first Tour.
Stage 2 – Sunday, July 8
Mouilleron-Saint-Germain – La Roche-sur-Yon, 182.5 km
The finish town today is where the team presentation will have taken place on the Thursday preceding the race, and with today’s stage also likely to end in a bunch finish, the sprinters will have had a chance to look at the finish.
What they’ll discover is a final kilometre or so that is an uphill drag of between 3 and 4 per cent – meaning it could be a day when raw power proves mightier than pure speed.
Stage 3 – Monday, July 9
Cholet – Cholet, 35.5 km (TTT)
The team time trial at June’s Criterium du Dauphiné provided a talking point as Team Sky’s dominance helped pave the way for Geraint Thomas’s overall victory – though in terms of time gained, his subsequent performances in the mountains had more to do with his win.
In the context of a three-week race and with a shorter parcours, today’s stage will be less influential in terms of the General Classification, but what it will do is produce some gaps in the overall standings following the expected sprint finishes of the two previous days.
Stage 4 – Tuesday, July 10
La Baule – Sarzeau, 195 km
Today the race heads into one of France’s true cycling heartlands, Brittany, and while local legend Bernard Hinault has retired from his role as master of ceremonies at the Tour de France podium, he’s not held back on sharing his thoughts on the Chris Froome case in recent weeks.
Today, however, the focus will be on the green jersey rather than the yellow one on another afternoon on which the sprinters are likely to prevail in Sarzeau, making its debut as a Tour de France stage town.
Stage 5 – Wednesday, July 11
Lorient – Quimper, 204.5 km
This is one of two stages in this year’s race that takes its inspiration from the Spring Classics, bringing a taste of the Ardennes to Brittany with a succession of tough climbs, mostly uncategorised, though there are still five ascents where points are to be had in the mountains competition.
While none of the climbs is higher than 233 metres, the sheer number of them and the likely intensity of the racing means that its likely to be a day of attrition, with a small group of riders left to fight it out for the stage win.
Stage 6 – Thursday, July 12
Brest – Mûr de Bretagne, 181 km
For the third time in eight years, organisers have thrown in a summit finish on the Mur de Bretagne but this year there is an added twist – the riders will already have tackled the climb once, cresting it some 16 kilometres before returning there for the finish.
The first ascent of the 4-kilometre climb will see much of the peloton shelled out of the bunch, with the overall contenders’ teams keeping their protected riders near the front and looking to shut down attacks from anyone seen as a threat on General Classification ahead of an explosive finale.
Stage 7 – Friday, July 13
Fougères – Chartres, 231 km
This stage, and the one that follows, take the race onto flatter terrain than the two preceding stages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a bunch sprint is a certainty, with fatigue – both mental and physical – setting in at the end of the first week of the race.
One or both days, then, could see a small group of escapees allowed to go away and fight it out for the stage win, and you’d certainly expect the wild card teams to look to get a man in the break and keep their fingers crossed that he will fight for the win at the end of the day.
Stage 8 – Saturday, July 14
Dreux – Amiens, 181 km
With a very tough day’s racing in prospect tomorrow, teams targeting that stage and those with ambitions of the overall win may look to hold back today – another factor that may increase the chances of a breakaway staying out, and it’s Bastille Day too, so expect home riders to feature.
However, something that could affect today’s stage – and yesterday’s – is the weather. The exposed roads in this part of northern France mean that if there are crosswinds, the racing could be full-on as teams try and ensure that if there are splits in the peloton, they’re on the right side of them.
Stage 9 – Sunday, July 15
Arras – Roubaix, 156.4 km
In 2014 when the Tour de France took in the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, Chris Froome’s title defence ended as he crashed in the rain before the race even hit the cobbles while Vincenzo Nibali built much of the advantage that would help him win the yellow jersey in Paris.
There are 15 sectors of cobbles totalling 22 kilometres and a stressful day lies ahead for the overall contenders – and one that in all likelihood will end with someone’s podium dreams in tatters. For the stage win itself, look to the cobbled Classics specialists.
Rest Day – Monday, July 16 – Annecy
Stage 10 – Tuesday, July 17
Annecy – Le Grand-Bornand, 158.5 km
Racing resumes following the first rest day and a transfer to the Alps for the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France, although unlike the two that follow, there’s no summit finish today with a 10.5-kilometre descent from the Col de la Colombière to the finish.
That’s preceded by three other big climbs, the Category 1 Col de la Croix Fry and Col de Romme sandwiching the Hors-Categorie Montée du Plateau des Glières, making its debut in the race and a place of special significance to the French – it’s home to the national monument to the Resistance.
Stage 11 – Wednesday, July 18
Albertville – La Rosière, 108.5 km
The first big summit finish of this year’s race comes at the end of a relatively short stage that includes two Hors-Categorie ascents, the second of them is on a climb making its first appearance in the Tour de France, the Col du Pré, 12.7 kilometres long with an average gradient of 7.8 per cent.
The day’s first climb, the Montée de Bisame is similar in length, but averages 8.2 per cent, while the ascent to the Category 1 summit finish at La Rosière has an average gradient of 5.8 kilometres over its 17.6 kilometres. The question is, attack today – or hold it in reserve for tomorrow?
Stage 12 – Thursday, July 19
Bourg-Saint-Maurice – Alpe d’Huez, 175.5 km
A finish on the Alpe d’Huez is always one of the most eagerly awaited stages when it’s included in the route, not least by the legions of fans who will have begun partying on the climb’s 21 hairpins long before the race caravan arrives and will carry on long after the broom wagon has passed by.
Before that, there’s the Col de la Madeleine and Col de la Croix de Fer to contend with, and in between those the spectacular Lacets de Montvernier. There’s still the Pyrenees to come, but by the end of today we’ll have a better idea of who will be fighting for the overall win come Paris.
Stage 13 – Friday, July 20
Bourg d’Oisans – Valence, 169.5 km
Bourg d’Oisans – the village where the climb of the Alpe d’Huez starts – wouldn’t usually be associated with a stage for the sprinters, but that’s what’s in prospect today and with only one other opportunity before Paris, they’ll make sure any break is reeled in well ahead of the finish.
The last time the Tour de France visited Valence, in 2015, André Greipel won, while neighbouring towns in the Rhône Valley include Bourg-lès-Valence, where Mark Cavendish triumphed in 2010, and Romans-sur-Isère, where Michael Matthews took victory – and with it, the green jersey – last year.
Stage 14 – Saturday, July 21
Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteuax – Mende, 188 km
Another punchy finish today – the final climb of the Côte de la Croix Neuve hits a gradient of 18 per cent at its steepest point – and at a location that entered Tour de France folklore when Laurent Jalabert took a memorable Bastille Day win in 1995.
It’s also where, in 2015, Steve Cummings of Dimension Data, then known as MTN-Qhubeka, took the South African team’s first ever Grand Tour stage win, and on Mandela Day too. It’s hard to predict whether a solo attack will prevail or if it will come down to a small group, but it will be explosive.
Stage 15 – Sunday, July 22
Millau – Carcassonne, 181.5 km
There’s another Jalabert connection today with the route taking in the home roads of the two-time winner of the points and mountains jerseys – the intermediate sprint is in his birthplace, Mazamet, with the riders then heading up the Category 1 Pic de Noire, crested 41.5 kilometres from the finish.
With a rest day tomorrow and then the Pyrenees, it may be a days when a big group escapes early on and stays away, possibly including some big names who are out of overall contention and looking to rescue something from the race, and the descent towards Carcassonne could well be a fast one.
Rest Day – Monday, July 23 – Carcassonne
Stage 16 – Tuesday, July 24
Carcassonne – Bagnères-de-Luchon, 218 km
May’s Giro d’Italia gave a perfect illustration of how fortunes can swing in the third week of a Grand Tour and today sees the first of three mountain stages in four days that will go a long way towards shaping the final podium, this one taking in three big climbs in the final third of the parcours.
First is the Col de Portet d’Aspet, crested 62.5 kilometres out, then the Col de Menté and finally, from the Spanish side, the Col du Portillon and a twisting descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon where Chris Froome, chest pressed to the top tube as he sped downhill, pulled off a stunning win in 2016.
Stage 17 – Wednesday, July 25
Bagnères-de-Luchon – Saint-Lary-Soulan/Col-du-Portet, 65 km
This is one of the most anticipated stages of the 2018 Tour de France. Short mountain stages this late in a Grand Tour are typically exciting, and this is the shortest in the Tour de France for more than four decades.
Organisers have thrown in a bit of a curved ball though with a Formula 1 grid-style start. The first 20 riders overall will line up, the yellow jersey in pole position, ahead of a stage that heads uphill from the off. It may be a gimmick. But it could change the race. We’ll see.
Stage 18 – Thursday, July 26
Trie-sur-Baïse – Pau, 171 km
An atypical Pyrenean stage today – it’s one that has every prospect of ending in a bunch sprint, although the reduction in team size this year combined with the effects of almost three weeks of racing and the past two days in the mountains may well be a factor.
Unlike the typical four-man escape group seen in the opening week or so, this late in the race a lot of riders are likely to be fighting to get away – and if the sprinters’ teams are reluctant to chase, or simply do not have enough left in the tank to do so, the winner could come from the break.
Stage 19 – Friday, July 27
Lourdes – Laruns, 200.5 km
There were fears in mid-June that this big day in the Pyrenees might have to be re-routed after a mudslide swept away part of the road on the Col d’Aubisque, the final climb on this year’s race, but it now seems that repairs will have been made in time for the stage to proceed as planned.
With 4,800 metres of climbing in prospect, it’s a tough one, and besides the Aubisque it packs in six other categorised ascents – notably, the Col d’Aspin and the mighty Col du Tourmalet, tackled halfway through the stage. As the last day in the mountains, action is guaranteed from the off.
Stage 20 – Saturday, July 28
Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle – Espelette, 31 km (ITT)
As last year, the penultimate stage sees an individual time trial. 12 months ago, Romain Bardet held onto his podium spot by just one second in a stage that started and finished in the Stade Velodrome in Marseille.
This is a way tougher parcours – the final climb hits a gradient of over 20 per cent – and we could see some significant changes in the overall standings after a stage in the French Basque country that takes in some very short and sharp climbs and is much harder than the profile suggests.
Stage 21 – Sunday, July 29
Houilles – Paris, 116 km
The final stage will almost certainly follow the tried and tested script it has settled into over the years, with the jersey wearers posing for pictures while holding glasses of Champagne and a relaxed pace as the winner-in-waiting’s team lead the peloton onto the Champs-Elysées.
Once on the famous Avenue we’ll see one or more attacks as riders chance there arm and get their sponsors some valuable air-time, but there’s little prospect of anyone staying away as the sprinters’ teams reel them in ahead of the race to the most famous finish line in the sport.
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