The first Tour de France was created in a blatant bid to sell newspapers and rescue l'Auto from its impending demise. The feats of hardened men fighting across a course so severe that only one was supposed to be left standing was envisioned to enthrall the public and, most importantly, make Henri Desgrange rich. As I look at this year's Tour, its route and protagonists and the story lines already percolating in the press, I can't help but see the genius behind the very first Grand Boucle. Though our sport is a mature one now with a firm base of fans, the design of every year is envisioned with dramatic stories capturing the imaginations of millions in mind.
The first week of the Tour, sometimes a sleepy affair with sprint after sprint after sprint hopefully building tension and suspense for the decisive days to come, takes an adventurous turn, first in England and then back in the race's homeland. In a first, the Grand Depart is in Yorkshire, and the first stage's sprint-friendly profile should make for a battle royale amongst the fast men as they vie to claim the yellow jersey. The second stage uncharacteristically marks the first of the days that the general classification contenders will have to be on their toes to avoid time gaps as the parcours traverses nine categorized climbs that make the profile look like Liége-Bastogne-Liége. After arriving back in France, the much anticipated fifth stage traverses nine sectuers of cobblestones, including some of the secteurs that prove decisive in the latter stages of Paris-Roubaix.
The cobbled roads of northeastern France do not appear in the Tour on many occasions, but their relative scarcity is offset by the destructiveness of those days that do traverse them. After an absence of over 20 years, the Tour brought cobblestones back into its route in 2004. On that fateful day, Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo, two of Lance Armstrong's strongest challengers, crashed and lost the possibility of victory either through injury, time loss, or both. Six years later in 2010, Frank Schleck broke his collarbone on the cobbles and Alberto Contador lost enough time to Andy Schleck to make the race hard-fought and close all the way to Paris. And so, anxious GC contenders have been previewing the cobbles all spring. Some, like Alejandro Valverde, even elected to race in some of the northern classics as preparation for this potentially devastating day.
After leaving northern France, the parcours traverses a mountainous route through the Alps and then the Pyrenes. Along the way there are six mountaintop finishes, five of which come on Category 1 or Hors Category climbs. Continuing an innovation of the past several years, a number of the decisive stages in the mountains are short - under 160 kilometers - in hops of prompting aggressive racing on more than simply the final climb. Should some contenders be enterprising, it is conceivable (though mostly hopeful) that a coup of sorts reminiscent of the final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné could be staged on Stages 17 and 18, both of which clock in at under 146 kilometers. The sole time trial in the race comes on the back of these two stages with a monstrous 54 kilometer race against the clock on the penultimate stage. Though the distance clearly favors the specialists, the course is rolling and should offer some respite to the more lithe riders in the top ten of the general classification.
Race director Christian Prudhome expressed hope that the route of this year's Tour would ensue action amongst the general classification contenders every several days with no long periods of sleepy transition stages or trudges to another mountaintop victory by Christopher Froome.The course is designed well, but much of that action should come from the lineup of contenders for the overall win. Last year's Tour seemed a coronation for Chris Froome from the first time trial, just as the year before had been for Bradley Wiggins. But this year, Froome has struggled with injury and illness all spring as Alberto Contador, once the greatest stage racer of his generation, appears ascendant from two years of post-suspension torpor. The two seemed evenly matched at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month before Froome suffered a crash, but the two strongest riders in the race were upset on the final stage by an enterprising group of second tier contenders led by Andrew Talansky. While Froome versus Contador may rightly be expected to be the battle of the Tour, a host of other contenders are beginning to find form, including Jurgen Van Den Broeck and, hopefully, Vincenzo Nibali. All signs point to the most Tour in three years, and the same is true for the sprinting stages with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andrei Griepel, and Arnaud Démare all taking victories this month. Lurking behind them, and a favorite for wearing the maillot verde in Paris, is a Peter Sagan smarting from a strong but disappointing spring campaign and certainly searching for redemption.
These, of course, are but a few of the biggest dramas expected to play out over the varied roads of France over the next month. The full breadth of the dramas we will see beginning a week from Saturday cannot be known until the race has reached its conclusion, though we will speculate richly in the meantime. Will Arnaud Démare prove his worth against the best sprinters in the world? What will happen to Tejay van Garderen, recovering from a broken hip and striving to prove his fifth place two years ago was no fluke? What of young Thibault Pinot and his prodigious but fragile climbing talent? Will world champion and winner of two stages last year Rui Costa's ambitious bid to focus his whole season on finishing in the top ten in Paris end in joy or disappointment? Through this all, one thing is sure - we may be looking forward to one of the best Tours in recent memory.