Workingman's Guide to Watching the Tour de France

Le-tour-sm_mediumAnother grand tour, and another month of difficult decisions. Veteran Tour watchers have hopefully already mapped out their schedules for critical viewing... hopefully. At least, if you're not as disorganized as some of us. Thankfully, the kids are out of school, lunches don't need to be made (not every day at least), and my coworkers know me well enough to expect little from me until the Vuelta after summer vacation. So when planning to watch the stages of this year's Tour, perhaps the decisions won't be so agonizing after all.

Anyway, if you haven't blocked out your calendar at work, scheduled vacation or sick days, canceled social engagements or otherwise put your loved ones on notice of your impending, temporary disappearance, here's a guide to help you with your planning. Without further ado, here's your Workingman's* Guide to tuning in to the Grand Boucle next month. [*Dead reference; not gender bias. Don't sue me.]

Saturday, July 3

Rotterdam Prologue, 9km

The Route: It's a prologue, what more do you need to know? Well, OK, Rotterdam. Finally, after years of wasting their time above sea level, the Tour goes into negative altitude. At least til the bridge crossings. The course runs along lots of open water, so wind could be a major factor. 

The Race Action: Can Tony Martin give Fabian Cancellara a run for his money over this short distance? Will his wispy figure cut through the wind like a sharp knife, or will the wind send the young German into the barriers while Cance devastates the rest of the field?

The Intangibles: Dutch (and other) fans turned out in huge numbers to watch the Giro in lousy weather, so expect mass throngs of humanity all along the course. For the rest of us, we'll have to settle for watching Cancellara work himself into a pre-race lather, before he punishes the pavement of this rebuilt city with his massive, powerful pedalstrokes. There, I just got every (hetero) female reader running to set their DVRs...

The Call: Saturday morning of a three day weekend? What else have you got to do?

OK, that was easy. Join me on the flip for some more vexing dilemmas...

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Sunday, July 4

Stage 1: Rotterdam - Brussels, 223km

The Route: Flatness all the way from one great northern European city to another. But then we said stuff like this when the Giro employed some of the same roads -- including crossings of the Oosterscheldekering and other hydrologic wonders -- en route to Middelberg. Flat, sure, but that doesn't mean easy.

The Race Action: Hopefully road furniture and nerves won't come into play to the same extent; we don't need a crash-fest on stage 1. The tricky stuff comes early in the race when the pace hopefully won't be quite so high. On the other hand, the sprint teams will be chomping at the bit. Really, anything can happen on this stage... including nothing.

The Intangibles: The first anticipated sprint of the Tour will mark the beginning of the race's other tedious storyline, the fortunes of Mark Cavendish. Right now columnists are penning pieces comparing him to both Elvis and Hitler... and the outcome of this stage will probably determine which one they run with. Hopefully the Tour will find a way to work Brussels' most famous citizen -- Tintin -- into the finale.

The Call: Park it live, you'll be glad you did. The stage will be over before you can justify starting the barbecue or cracking the first beer. Pace yourself. Watch the Tour.

Monday, July 5

Stage 2: Brussels - Spa, 201km

The Route: Finally! The Tour gets the memo and starts making early stages devilishly interesting. This race not only connects a venerable city to the resort that gave hot water a good name; it also takes in six côtes of the Ardennes, including the Côte de Stockeu featured in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. 

The Race Action: Great drama in store, as we wonder which if any of the elite sprinters can stay in contact over the top of the Col du Rosier, a 6.4km climb at a modest 4%. Surely the Ardennes dudes will be happy to shred their flatlander rivals and winnow things down to a more select sprint. Expect a brief war over the last climb.

The Intangibles: Sure, ASO plan these stages months and months in advance, but I can't help think they caught wind of us making fun of the Tour in May as the Giro served up one interesting transitional stage after another.

The Call: The US audience will be sleeping in a bit late, especially those of us whose kids were rattled out of bed by fireworks. What better way to start a lazy Monday than this?

Tuesday, July 6

Stage 3: Wanze - Arenberg, 213km

The Route: Don't even get me started.

The Race Action: I still have a sneaky suspicion that the riders will proceed cautiously over the cobbles of Hell and minimize the action. But there's nothing stopping Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and Pippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan from launching a four-man attack from 30km out. Just sayin.

The Intangibles: Besides the whole Paris-Roubaix thing?

The Call: If you're not sure, it's like I don't even know you anymore.

Wednesday, July 7

Stage 4: Cambrai - Reims, 153km

The Route: Mellow one, a rolling romp across the fields of northern France. No show-stoppers today.

The Race Action: Probably very controlled, with a break up the road. One of the sure-fire sprinter stages. Given the intrigue of this year's Green Jersey comp, stages like this will be deeply cherished by the bunch gallopers.

The Intangibles: Smokin' hot cathedral at the finish. After the last few days, we need a break from intangibles.

The Call: Optional viewing. It's a long race, and the finish will be up on YouTube before you get home in time to cue up the Versus replay. Also, finding a TV that isn't tuned to the World Cup semis might be hard.

Thursday, July 8

Stage 5: Epernay - Montargis, 187km

The Route: More sprint fodder. Mr Van P and I rode out of the Paris suburbs with a friend near here in April. Mostly it's rolling and open terrain, with the odd forest or river crossing up and down.

The Race Action: If the sprinters got their hunger slaked in stages 1-3, then this one could see a break stay up the road. Otherwise, more of the same.

The Intangibles: I'm struggling here... all of France has its loveliness, but this stage won't stand out. 

The Call: Catch the replay on the trainer.

Friday, July 9

Stage 6: Montargis - Gueugnon, 227km

The Route: Ever-so-slightly uphill as the race approaches the Jura region. There's some work to do late, including a cat-4 ascent with 20km to go.

The Race Action: As the race's longest stage it's ripe for a successful breakaway. Depends if HTC, Garmin and Cervelo have any axes to grind on the day.

The Intangibles: Classic transitional stage. If you want to watch the lesser-knowns spend a cherished day in the spotlight, today's a good day.

The Call: Replay over dinner with a nice... um, Chateau de Montargis?

Saturday, July 10

Stage 7: Tournus - Station des Rousses, 165km

The Route: The Tour heads into the Jura region, a low mountainous region geologically connected to bits of Germany and Switzerland. The stage takes in six rated climbs, including three cat-2 ascents. The penultimate Croix de la Serra is fully 15.7km of climbing, followed by the Cote de Lamoura, another 14km of going up, albeit at manageable grades in the 4-5% range.

The Race Action: While the mountain points won't be off the charts, this stage offers ambitious young gentlemen an early opportunity to seize control of the maillot a pois. Apart from that unpredictable, self-selecting group, the stage hunter crew could get interesting. Dunno if it's far enough along for guys like Damiano Cunego (is he coming) to give up on a high GC placing and get serious about stage hunting. We can only hope.

The Intangibles: Finishing on a climb will cause the main contenders some temptation. Should I jump now and see how Armstrong's legs are reacting? Might be a little shadow boxing on tap today. 

The Call: Tough to predict. Play it safe and pull up a chair.

Sunday, July 11

Stage 8: Station des Rousses - Avoriaz, 189km

The Route: Game on. It's the first major mountain stage on the day before a rest day. It's also the only mountaintop finish in the Alpine region (if that's an accurate geographic description). The route skirts the edge of Geneva south and east to a climb where Lucho Herrera once kicked Bernard Hinault's ass.

The Race Action: All the main guys will be spotted up front, at least for a while. Tactics will be hard to predict, but something will happen. Not too terribly much, but if anyone of note is struggling, they'll get shelled out here. Weakness won't be tolerated.

The Intangibles: Does the ski village at Avoriaz look like Macchu Picchu?

The Call: Most definitely yes. Get up early if you must.

Tuesday, July 13

Stage 9: Avoriaz - St. Jean de Maurienne, 204km

The Route: Yet another instance of the Tour people taking the criticisms of the Podium Cafe to heart. Seems like only yesterday we were bemoaning the lack of mountain stages finishing with a significant descent. Well... here ya go. Unfortunately, there are 13km from the bottom of the descent off the Col de la Madeleine to the line, so the mad exploits of Sammy Sanchez or another daredevil may go to waste, but not if the gaps are large enough.

The Race Action: More likely jabbing and prodding on the Madeleine than serious throw-downs. Apart from the descending freaks, the rank-and-file GC guys won't appreciate the anticlimax of the stage. But it's still the biggest stage of the Alps, so whoever takes the initiative will be loving life for a few hours.

The Intangibles: One wonders if this stage couldn't turn into a much bigger deal. Johan Bruyneel has never seriously contested a grand tour from the underdog position, unless you count one of the Vueltas or the 2005 Giro, which they won by buying Lotto riders. Now he has Lance's Army primed and ready, and for once he can't just count on setting a high tempo and wearing everyone out. This year's Tour calls for riskier tactics, particularly when the favorite will be the one with the weaker team. Grabbing yellow here might be a way to put Contador on his heels, plant some doubts in his mind.

The Call: Definitely worth watching. The Tour in the Alps. Call in sick if you have to.

Wednesday, July 14

Stage 10: Chambéry - Gap, 179km

The Route: It's odd to see the Tour fleeing the Alps, but that's exactly what is happening on this stage. In their desire to put the focus on the Tourmalet in the final week, ASO is conducting a tourist ride through the lovely Alpine valleys rather than taking on any work of consequence. There are some climbs toward the end, just to kill off the sprinters, but not too terribly much.

The Race Action: Bastille Day? Classic breakaway setting. Involving French riders. Actually, the past couple years foreign riders have taken advantage of the Tour's failure to offer a stage only a desperate, proud Frenchman could love -- with a bunch sprint in 2009 and a major climb on Bastille Day 2008. This one should be more to the local tastes, and if not, there's always the combativity prize.

The Intangibles: Happy Bastille Day! Don't forget to water your furrows with the blood of the impure. Also, say hi to Alpe d'Huez as you pass on by.

The Call: Bah! Go to work.

Thursday, July 15

Stage 11: Sisteron - Bourg-lès-Valence, 184km

The Route: A downhill run after an early, non-threatening climb. Sprinters' delight, as the Tour intends.

The Race Action: The green jersey race should be horribly scrambled after the first half of the Tour, so guys like Farrar and Cavendish and Boonen could find themselves under immense pressure. Look for a mad battle not just in the last 50 meters, but in the last 10km as teams struggle for control of the front of the race. Mostly a snoozer, but the last half hour could be a real lesson in team struggles.

The Intangibles: Nuthin doin.

The Call: Tune in late, or at least find time ASAP after to watch the last ten minutes.

Friday, July 16

Stage 12: Bourg-de-Péage - Mende, 210km

The Route: A very, very curious stage. A 210km romp around southern France is a long, hot day in the saddle, and to top things off the organizers have placed the Montée Laurent Jalabert at the conclusion of the stage. That's a 3km climb averaging a tick over 10%, worthy of Liege-Bastogne-Liege or Lombardia. The St. Etienne area is a real cycling hotbed, and the stage design pays homage to the tough cycling you supposedly find in the area. Great classics-type course... provided the riders aren't too tired to really race it.

The Race Action:  Simply mentioning JaJa is a maillot pois dogwhistle, so expect a break on the road, cleaning up KOM points. I suppose the steep gradients could force the GC guys into action, but by now a few other stage hunters of interest (e.g., Tony Martin, Damiano Cunego, maybe Ivan Basso?) will have given up on the overall and want to get involved here. 

The Intangibles: Bourg de Péage... did they really name a town after the highway toll system?

The Call: Either watch it live or go into blackout mode all day. The results won't matter too much, but this one could be fun to watch, at least the last half-hour.

Saturday, July 17

Stage 13: Rodez - Revel, 196km

The Route: Not without some features, such as a cat-3 climb 8km from the line, the 2km (6%) Côte de Saint-Ferréol. But this will be a day for the green jersey.

The Race Action: A lot depends on how the points are shaking out. If Hushovd or Freire have opened up a big lead, they'll be content to get secondary points on the stage. If they're trailing the flatlanders, look for some late action to put HTC and Garmin under pressure.

The Intangibles: Without any basis, I am picking this day for something bizarre to happen outside of the race. You can count on one cRaZy day every Tour, and I see no reason for 2010 to be the exception. Maybe Floyd Landis will be spotted in the crowd. Maybe Bernard Hinault will fight with a protester. Maybe Richard Virenque will confess to motordoping. Something.

The Call: It's Saturday, so most of you can't go to work. Maybe cook pancakes for the family, build up some goodwill for the next week, and sneak a peek at the last ten minutes.

Sunday, July 18

Stage 14: Revel - Ax-3-Domaines, 184km

The Route: Major mountain time. The race pokes along for 150km before tackling the hors categoire Port de Pailhères, 15.5 km averaging a stern 7.9%, drops like a stone to the valley, and heads straight back up to Ax-3-Domaines, another 8km at 8.2%.

The Race Action: Well, it's the opening day of the final mountain battle, so I suppose you could see riders racing a bit cautiously, but a more probable outcome is classic, all-out mountainside GC war.

The Intangibles: I could insert lots of tourist nonsense here but there's no room for monkey business on this stage.

The Call: Really? I can't imagine any sentient being needing my help here.

Monday, July 19

Stage 15: Pamiers - Bagnères-de-Luchon, 187km

The Route: Meant as a middlin' day, so fans don't hate on their co-workers too much for being stuck in the office. Like stage 9, the Tour has again taken its advice from the Podium Cafe and created a downhill run of consequence to the line. Only this time, it may really mean something, since there's very little postscript between the descent off the Port de Balès and the line.

The Race Action: Bristling. Time gaps might not be much to speak of, but the action will be great, great fun.

The Intangibles: Luchon is being celebrated (along with the Tourmalet) for a century of Tour visits, having hosted a stage finish in 1910 and about every other year since. You could do a lot worse than being born in a town sandwiched between Pyrenean peaks utilized by skiers and the Tour on a constant basis.

The Call: Don't talk yourself out of skipping work for this stage. If necessary, consider the various medical emergencies at hand: tooth problem, virus, STD... anything that people won't feel compelled to question the next day.

Tuesday, July 20

Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon - Pau, 199km

The Route: OK, this is priceless. Here is how the Official Tour Site begins its Official Description of this stage:

We have been criticised because the Tourmalet pass (where the Jacques-Goddet memorial trophy will be awarded at the summit) is apparently too far from the finishing line.  Some say that it will not bring anything to how the race develops.

Defensive much? This is pretty much an iron-clad guarantee that the Tourmalet pass will be too far from the finish and will not bring anything to how the race develops. Neither, probably, will the Col d'Aubisque, also hors categoire, shake up the GC, it too being still 60km from the finish (and long but not overly steep).

The Race Action: Good day for the KOM contenders to go at each others' throats. HC passes bring big points, and for once the Contadors and Schlecks will be content to let someone else take it. There will be added pressure at the top of the Tourmalet, where that Jacques Goddet prize presumably contains a fistful of Euros. But the GC battle will be at DefCon 2 at most.

The Intangibles: Did you know that Luchon became a famous spa after a soldier in Pompey's Army (that's Rome, folks) spent three weeks here and his "skin disease" (coughSTDcough) cleared up?

The Call: Go to work. Watch this on the trainer later.

Thursday, July 22

Stage 17: Pau - Col du Tourmalet, 174km

The Route: This is the Queen Stage. The Cols de Marie Blanc and Souloir will warm up the legs, but compared to the Tourmalet, they're mere amuses bouches. At 2115 meters, the Tourmalet is the main course, a 7.5% gradient for a full 18.6km. Madness!

The Race Action: If the GC isn't salted away, the action will be as good as it gets. Even if the GC is over, there's still a big palmare out there, as well as the Henri Desgranges prize and the pride of being associated with the lunatic sadist who didn't really invent the Tour. Oh, and Euros. So yeah, war.

The Intangibles: 100 years ago Desgranges forced the Tour to summit a major mountain pass, the Col du Tourmalet, for the first time in history. Stage winner Octave Lapize celebrated this precious sporting moment by calling Desgranges an "assassin." Unfortunately, battery technology was crap back then, or motordoping would have been a very real possibility.

The Call: By now your job could be in jeopardy, but don't panic. There are always other places to work. Places which shut down for key stages of the Tour.

Friday, July 23

Stage 18: Salies-de-Bearn - Bordeaux, 198km

The Route: Utterly bland, unless you live for views of sunflower fields. Which of course are just there for the tourists. Who needs that many sunflowers?

The Race Action: Resumption of green jersey hostilities. Sometimes what looks like a monster clash of sprinters and the like doesn't pan out, and it's possible that this stage won't be worth bubkis. But I am expecting a close contest and that the results here will be influential.

The Intangibles: Did I mention how sick of sunflowers I am?

The Call: Skip it. Catch the finish in the pub or something, after putting the finishing touches on your resume.

Saturday, July 24

Stage 19: Bordeaux - Pauillac ITT, 52km

The Route: A classic Tour ITT, long and flat, pure power course.

The Race Action: Needs little introduction. People who need to go fast will need to go fast. People in yellow will need to stay on their bike, and not go slow.

The Intangibles: In all probability psychological warfare will be all Radio Shack have left. Stay tuned.

The Call: The Tour will be won and lost today. Nothing to see here, right? 

Sunday, July 25

Stage 20: Longjumeau - Paris, 102km

The Route: Boring parade to the usual sprint on the world's most famous road (after the E3).

The Race Action: Some teams clinking champagne glasses, others swallowing their own bitterness. Most guys just tired and ready to do something else. Sprinters will be looking for one last expression of their sprintyness.

The Intangibles: Is mental and physical exhaustion an intangible?

The Call: I will be keeping alive my three-year-long streak of missing this stage. Not out of distaste, just because I can't hold off reality any longer.


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