Making a welcome return after taking a year out in 2011 is the Route de France, which this year will comprise nine stages through north-east France, running in an arc from Dunkirk on the North Sea coast to Munster, high in the Vosges mountains. Between the two are almost 930km of riding, some of the best sprint stages and some of the nastiest climbs that we've seen on the women's calendar this year. OK for the riders the accommodation may be a little basic, and the food is unlikely to, shall we say, compare with that served in the Olympic Village, but it promises to be a hell of a race, paying homage to Tours de France from the nineties, and quite remarkably with no between stage transfers worth remarking on.Things kick off on Saturday with a short time trial around the Dunkirk suburb of St Pol sur Mer. This is followed by no less than five flat stages as the peloton makes the long yomp southwards through the Pas-de-Calais, the land of the Ch'ti, and the site of numerous World War One cemeteries. There are a total of three categorised climbs during these days, but they are no more demanding than the Murs and Bergs of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. You shouldn't assume however that they are unlikely to affect the final standings of the race since it was on such a stage back in 2009 that Kim Andersen and a first time visitor to France (with her bike at least) by the name of Evelyn Stevens rode off into the distance to claim GC and stage victories respectively. Best candidates for that are stages 3 (130km from Noeux les Mines to Tergnier) and 5 (122km from Pontault-Combault to Chalettersur Loing).
OK, let's be honest, it won't affect the final result. That worked in 2009 because 2009 was a flattish race. But even were a sprinter to get an hour's lead over one of the little goats that probably won't be enough to win the 2012 race. You want to see all the profiles together? Here are what stages 7,8 and 9 look like
Stage 7 finishes atop La Planche des Belles Filles, the same as stage 7 of this year's Tour de France, where Bradley Wiggins first claimed the maillot jaune. Stage 8 rather bizarrely puts not QOM points at the top of the highest climb of the day, but instead that day's feed zone , and stage 9 is no day for champers and the Champs.You can download the full colour dossier here plus find out more on individual stages on this page (click on the link that says dossier beside each stage).
I've yet to see a reliable start list. The organisers list the teams coming as
EQUIPE DE FRANCE
EQUIPE DES ETATS UNIS
LOTTO BELISOL LADIES
EQUIPE AA DRINK/LEONTIEN
SC MICHELA FANINI
TEAM GSD GESTION
TEAM SPECIALIZED LULULEMON
DIADORA – PASTA ZARA
FORMO D'ASOLO COLAVITA
And earlier this week were still awaiting confirmation from Rabobank, so even the team list may not be totally right. On this page you can download the teams' own entry list, but as ever expect changes (for a start Katie Colclough of Specialised-lululemon is also listed as GB's only starter in next weekend's European championships, and Amber Pierce is down for both Diadora Pasta Zara and the USA National Team). It's clear that the closeness of the Olympics has meant that a lot of the top names won't be there, but isn't that what FSA-DS is all about anyway.
And for a bit of a musical interlude while we wait for things to get going, here is the race's official singer Lorène Devienne. Look for early results on the race twitter @LaRoutedeFrance and via the ever brilliant Gwena.
Stage profiles via www.org-rc.fr