Tour de France: rough guide

 

It’s the Tour de France. Why the heck is it starting in Rotterdam?The race is a French event and based in that country, true, but it regularly visits other countries as well. This year’s Tour starts in the Netherlands and also travels through Belgium before returning to France on day four.

Recent Tours have also crossed into Germany, Spain and Italy. The first edition to start outside mainland Europe was the 1998 Tour, which spent three days in Ireland. More recently, the 2007 Tour began in London. Part of the reason for the excursions outside France is to help promote the sport and take advantage of the big, enthusiastic crowds eager to see a new event. And, being a commercial event, part of the reason is the financial gains. Those foreign stages bring in the euros.

Any plans to go further overseas?There’s talk about it, actually. Montreal and Tokyo have reportedly lobbied for the Tour start, but the jet lag is a big problem. It’s rumoured the race could begin in Corsica in 2013, which would be a first for that part of France.

So who are the big contenders this year?Well, the clear bookies’ favourite is last year’s winner, Alberto Contador (Astana), who is going for his third win and his fifth Grand Tour to date. He’s up against a number of rivals, including last year’s runner-up Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and the American Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who has won a record seven Tours and was third in 2009.

There’s other contenders as well, of course, including the world champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who is probably having his best season ever. Also going well are the Tour of Italy winner Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Andy Schleck’s brother Frank, the Briton Bradley Wiggins and the Dutch climber Robert Gesink.

Can Armstrong really win at 38 years of age?In theory, yes. He was third last year and appears to be in better form this time round. However he’s also the subject of a federal investigation in connection to possible doping, so it’s debatable if another Armstrong victory would be good for the race.

What will be the toughest stages?The first one that counts is today’s time trial, which covers 8.9 kilometres and will be first chance for the riders to open time gaps and see who is in form. Stages two and three will also be important, with the first of those covering some tough Belgian climbs, and the second crossing the cobblestones of Paris Roubaix. Expect crashes galore there.

After that, the riders will enter the Jura mountains on Saturday week, then face the first Alpine stage to Morzine-Avoriaz one day later.

Two more days in the mountains then follow before the race reverts to flatter terrain.

So is that it? Not at all. The sprinters and breakaway specialists have a chance to shine, but then the riders hit the tough uphill finish in Mende on stage 12, then slug it out in the Pyrenees on stages 14 to 17. The latter are considered the hardest climbs of this year’s race, and climax with the summit finish of the Tourmalet on July 22nd.

After that, the final battle will be waged in the stage 19 time trial, one day before the race concludes in Paris.

So where’s the best place to watch?Hard to beat those mountain stages, particularly the summit finishes. The time trials are also good, as you can watch the riders warm up or see them finish, one by one. And Paris? Oh la la.