Let's be all American and shit and dispense with the pleasantries... it's time for that old stand-by feature, the Viewer's Guide to the Tour de France.
This time, to help guide you through your decisions about which stages you absolutely must watch, as opposed to those you really ought to watch, I will refer to your competing role in saving endangered species. Maybe it's a formalized one, such as, I dunno, arguing with people about salmon all day (my actual job) (I'm not kidding). Maybe you're a Fish & Wildlife special agent tracking the ivory trade. Maybe you market Fair Trade coffee to help farmers in the Amazon slow down the deforestation rate. Maybe you spend weekends planting native plants in the Gand Sasso region to help save the majestic Stambecco (God bless you!). Or maybe you just sit at home making choices about which products, manufactured in ways that are bad for any number of threatened wildlife, you don't really need.
We all have a role -- nay, duty -- in the recovery of our wild brothers and sisters. They're all part of Mother Nature's plan, unlike most of what we do all day, and they all make the world a more beautiful place. Except Galapagos penguins, I hear they totally stink. Also, do we really need poison dart frogs? It's hard enough getting my kids to eat right and play safely, without having to worry about them coming across one of those little bastards.
OK, let's get started.
Stage 1: Leeds -- Harrogate, 126km
Saturday, July 5
What's in it for you: A coronation... which probably won't happen. Which is great, because we're talking about a Manxman on a Belgian team coming to the North of England, and I'm not exactly sure how that script is supposed to read. Anyway, assuming they've adjusted the stage apparatus to allow passage of *all* vehicles, this should shape up as the first great sprint showdown of the race.
What's in it for them: Kittel vs Cav vs Sagan vs... well, we will get to a Green Jersey preview shortly. Regardless, it's one of those stages, notwithstanding the use of the word "cote" attached to places like Buttertubs and Grinton Moor. The challenge on the day will be for nobody to crash out, another Stage 1 tradition.
Moral Authority Rating: Is your species truly "endangered"? Here in the US we separate those critters from the "threatened" species, which are those species at risk of becoming endangered. If you're doing something for endangered species on this day, then maybe you should stick with it, but threatened species? They can probably hang in there for a few extra hours.
Stage 2: York -- Sheffield, 201km
Sunday, July 6
What's in it for you: A lot more excitement than your average sheep-herding competition. This is one for the intermediate climbers, or at least the sprinters who can climb, as the route passes over no less than nine rated cotes, ranging up to 4.7km long and 10% gradients. And full of colorful names like the Cote de Blubberhouse and the potentially decisive Cote de Jenkin Road. Possibly the most unpredictable stage of the entire Tour. Oh, and the maillot-a-pois gets off the ground. Did I mention that it's the coolest jersey in sports?
What's in it for them: A Saganing. He might not win the stage, and he may even have another sprinter for company. But mark my words, Sagan will crush a few Green Dreams on this day. Even the intermediate sprint is after the Blubberhouse and a few unrated climbs, so Sagan could be looking at a double helping of awesome.
Moral Authority Rating: My experience as an endangered species attorney is that they don't need a whole lot of help on the weekends. It'll keep.
Stage 3: Cambridge -- London, 155km
Monday, July 7
What's in it for you: Just when you thought the Swiss Guard were the silliest looking official people found anywhere in the vicinity of a bike race, well, get ready for the finishing scene at Buckingham Palace, replete with people wearing inverted wolverines on their head. The primary purpose of this stage is to stick a thumb in the eye of French people, who invented Le Tour to celebrate Egalité on a broad scale, meaning the entire country -- the antithesis of royalty. Sure, the Tour pops by Versailles often enough, but they do it ironically.
What's in it for them: Sprinting, with the winner to be knighted by the queen. It might even come with a minor peerage and a bill for back taxes.
Moral Authority Rating: What the hell have you been doing the last few days? These species are endangered! They need help!!
Stage 4: Le Toquet-Paris Plage -- Lille, 163.5km
Tuesday, July 8
What's in it for you: Not too terribly much, except for the hardcore green jersey fans. Hats off to Le Tour for a bang-up opening trio of stages which, along with a Chunnel transfer, should take the starch out of this stage.
What's in it for them: Check this out:
No, look closer:
What the hell? I mean, I know these profiles can be a little ridiculous, and since this isn't a rated climb I have no idea exactly how nasty it is. But putting the sprint line on top of this ... whatever it is? That's 20 points for Sagan and nobody else. [No, I have not forgotten that Kristoff exists.] More to the point, it's a big fat zero for Kittel and Cav, most likely. There is a 100% chance Cannondale will be all over this, and while it will probably happen before the cameras come on, this moment will be one of the truly interesting moments of the day.
Moral Authority Rating: You saw the part about how the interesting moment happens before the cameras come on? Yeah, go free that panda from the coyote trap or whatever.
Stage 5: Ypres -- Arenberg/Port-du-Hainault, 155km
Wednesday, July 9
What's in it for you: AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHGHGHGHGH! COBBLES!!! [I don't really preview cobbled races anymore, I just scream.] The incredible action promised by this stage starts in a sombre manner in Ypres, one of the most poignant locales in all of Europe for the WWI and WWII vets and families.
What's in it for them: Let's get technical for a moment. Obviously this is the Paris-Roubaix-lite stage, which we've been mentioning in passing since rumor became fact last November. It differs substantially from the real Paris-Roubaix, because it's not cool to put an actual Monument in the first week of the Tour. It's 155km and nine secteurs... survivable for the non-classicians but perhaps just barely. Check it out:
The Secteurs (in numerical order, not countdown order as shown above):
- Gruson, 1100m, ** -- Not related to the Carrefour de l'Arbe secteur just around the corner. This is for warmup purposes only.
- Ennevelin - Pont Thibault, 1400m, *** -- Meaty cobbles, especially treacherous in wet conditions.
- Mons-en-Pévèle, 3000m, ***** -- One of the three hardest secteurs in all of l'Enfer du Nord. It took a lot of guts for Le Tour to even include this. Several hours of DS sleep have already been lost as a result.
- Bersee, 1200, ** -- Nothing terribly notable here.
- Orchies - Beuvry-le-Forêt, 1400m, *** -- Named the Secteur Marc Madiot, for the man who will be screaming out of the FDJ car. The cobbles are half newly renovated, half old madness, not unlike Marc Madiot.
- Sars-et-Rosières - Tilloy-les-Marchiennes -- 2400m, *** -- No matter what shape they're in, that's a long haul.
- Brillon - Warlaing, 2400m, *** -- Newly refurbished, which means they aren't scheduled to wash out into chaos for another six months.
- Wandignies - Hornaing, 3700m, *** -- Nasty in stretches, though mostly renovated. After nearly 4km, does it even matter?
- Hélesmes - Wallers, 1600m, **** -- ASO's final f-you to anyone in the general classification who didn't come to this race ready to battle on the cobbles. The peloton will long since have been shattered; this is merely where the stage winner emerges.
I previewed practically every stone in the entire race in this post. Head on over if you require more. Oh, and note that most of these will be ridden backward, compared to Paris-Roubaix. I can say from minimal experience that they're just as horrible in either direction. Bottom line: this stage is going to cause some major headaches in the general classification.
Moral Authority Rating: Just how big a deal is species extinction, really? Sure, on this planet it's a deal-breaker, but in this vast universe doesn't it make total sense that somewhere there's another planet or galaxy that's full of other interesting fauna? Maybe even an exact replica of what we started out with? And if I'm right, shouldn't we make the best of the time we have here before decamping for that new galaxy and a fresh start? This stage is going to be one hell of a good time (speaking of places we may be decamping for...).
Stage 6: Arras -- Reims, 194km
Thursday, July 10
What's in it for you: One of Europe's great cathedrals, hopefully setting up right behind the stage finish. I see that they enter Reims with 3km to go, so maybe. Also, a trip through the Somme Valley. If you're European, chances are you can play Six Degrees of the Battle of the Somme. This was WWI at its most grim, with the possible exception of Ypres. And Gallipoli. And... let's move on.
What's in it for them: Sprinters vs. the Breakaway. Considering the previous day's effort it's questionable as to whether the peloton will stay intact for the finale. But there are a couple of rated climbs along the way, as well as some sort of false flat or worse right at the intermediate sprint, which means that anyone not wanting to have their clock cleaned by the President of Fastvakia had better stay in position to the end.
Moral Authority Rating: Probably not a bad day to plant some trees in critical habitat or something. Maybe take a moment of silence to commemorate the devastation once wrought here. And no, I'm not talking about the maillot vert standings.
Stage 7: Épernay -- Nancy, 234km
Friday, July 11
What's in it for you: More rolling stuff with a little teaser at the end, in the form of two small climbs that could shake things up. There's also 5km of descending/entertainment value to the line.
What's in it for them: More points -- and considering that this stage offers Sagan no particular advantage, my hunch is that he'll have about four or five other teams thirsting for revenge. Could be a breakaway stage but I bet it won't.
Moral Authority Rating: Our varied fauna are a precious gift from Mother Nature, one we would do well to ensure that they persist for a long, long time. If possible, even longer than this stage.
Stage 8: Tomblaine -- Gérardmer La Mauselaine, 161km
Saturday, July 12
What's in it for you: An hour of fine bike racing. This short-ish stage concludes with three rated climbs, two of which are the first Cat-2s of Le Tour, and which feature a combined 3km in excess of 10%. Long gone will be the sprinters, and 160km probably isn't long enough for the peloton to leave this to a breakaway.
What's in it for them: For the GC, this stage is a mere trifle next to what's coming. However, it's got real climbs, which means it resembles those soccer matches where both sides are better off just playing to a tie... but a Professional Draw is not as easy as it looks, and neither is the patient shadow-boxing game going on among Les Bigs here. If they sort it out, look for a nice selection of climbers with little long-term ambition staging a fantastic battle. Maybe.
Moral Authority Rating: Get an early start, just like most wildlife, and take care of business in time to make it back for the last phase of this one. How long does it take to un-beach a whale anyway?
Stage 9: Gérardmer -- Mulhouse, 170km
Sunday, July 13
What's in it for you: A trip to the Alsace, that area of France that feels a bit like Germany, for a number of historic reasons. Something to do before the World Cup Final. Too bad this stage wasn't a week earlier, landing on the day of France-Germany. That could add a bit more tension to what I think is going to be an otherwise forgettable stage.
What's in it for them: An extension of what promises to be the most involved KOM battle for a long time -- unless it turns into a blowout instead. Oh, and another Saganing, in all likelihood. The intermediate happens after four cat-2 and 3 climbs, and the finale is too far from the summit of anything to interest the climbers. Sagan probably hoovers up enough points to put the green out of reach, unless the inevitable breakaway is large enough to take them off the table. Is this a good time to ask what the Tour's plan was for preventing a boring Three-Pete for Green? Did they accidentally delegate the task of designing this competition, as well as a case of wine, to Bernard Hinault?
Moral Authority Rating: For God's sake, can't you think of anyone besides yourself? There are species out there on the brink of extinction! And the World Cup final isn't until like 4pm!
Stage 10: Mulhouse -- La Planche des Belle Filles, 161km
Monday, Bastille Day
What's in it for you: At the Tour, everything means more on Bastille Day. Winning this stage is like scoring a touchdown on Thanksgiving or hitting a home run on July 4. Whether it's about beheading innocent turkeys or not so innocent monarchists, the end result is that a lot more people have the day off, and they wanna watch sports. That's the true meaning. Oh, and Le Tour not only push the obvious rest day back a day, they also serve up several helpings of searing pain to the peloton. The Plank of the Pretty Girls, named after a grim legend about young ladies drowning themselves to escape the clutches of some horny Swedes (I am not making this up), gets most of the attention. Something about finishing on a 20% gradient, with riders collapsing mere meters after the line. But don't sleep on the penultimate climb, the less grimly-named Col des Chevrères, which features a full km of 15%.
What's in it for them: The first major GC battle, by design at least (as opposed to stage 5). Anyone valuing precious seconds or even minutes will see this stage as do-or-die. Climbing specialists will storm this place like a certain Parisian prison fortress, with the results just as metaphorically bloody.
Moral Authority Rating: You've done a few days of pretty good work, haven't you? This would be a fine time to pat yourself on the back while you settle in on the couch for a fantastic stage.
Smug Snuggle in for some cycling.
Stage 11: Besançon -- Oyonnax, 187km
Wednesday, July 16
What's in it for you: Well, if it's any indication, the official writeup actually mentions Sagan by name here. So I guess if you like breakaway stages, or Peter Sagan, then there's that.
What's in it for them: Just Cat-3 and 4 climbs today, so the KOM guys will probably take it easy. The Saganing will be a factor. After that... well, there's barely a flat meter on this entire course, and oftentimes those kinds of stages can produce spectacular battles from a number of the biggest names in cycling who happen not to be major protagonists at the Tour. Greg Van Avermaet? Thomas Voeckler? Michal Kwiatkowski?
Moral Authority Rating: Sure, any stage of the Tour could be good. But what would you say to the Hawksbill Turtle, that you forsook them for an update on Sagan's intermediate sprint? Would you choose a look-in on the descent to the line over the fate of the Orangutan?
Stage 12: Bourg-en-Bresse -- Saint-Etienne, 185km
Thursday, July 17
What's in it for you: Another pointless up-and-down-all-day, this time to the old cycling hotbed of Saint-Etienne. Some question about whether this is a green jersey stage in disguise. So maybe a sprint after all?
What's in it for them: A Saganing. Haven't you been paying attention?
Moral Authority Rating: What about the Bengal tiger? The Right Whale? The Apennine chamois? The Canarian shrew?
Stage 13: Saint-Etienne -- Chamrousse, 197km
Friday, July 18
What's in it for you: The Alps, at long last. Good god, that took a while. Anyway, this is a MTF at a hors categoire climb, and the highest finish of the Tour.
What's in it for them: The mellow johnny. There's 130km of prelude before two major ascents, so it's not a great day for a group to get too far up ahead. This is a race where it'll all be teed up for the Bigs.
Moral Authority Rating: When interacting with wildlife, we humans face a delicate choice regarding the extent to which we should seek to intervene in their lives. Help from humans often makes them dependent on humans. Haven't they spent millennia evolving to the point where they don't need us for a few hours on a huge day of the Tour? I think yes.
Stage 14: Grenoble -- Risoul, 177km
Saturday, July 19
What's in it for you: A classic Tour de France major mountain queen stage with an uphill finish.
What's in it for them: Gobs of time. Quantum leaps on GC. Hero status. A condo with a view in Monaco.
Moral Authority Rating: You know what's also endangered? Anyone who doesn't show up on this stage. I think that deserves your attention too.
Stage 15: Tallard -- Nîmes, 222km
Sunday, July 20
What's in it for you: A downhill Alpine exodus stage of some considerable distance, with a tired peloton and a rest day looming. Does this sound like the recipe for excitement? In a thousand million years the Giro d'Italia would never schedule a transitional stage such as this on a Sunday.
What's in it for them: Get Sagan. If there's any reason to be interested in the green jersey at this point, e.g. if Kristoff and Sagan make it an actual duel, then this will be fought out, and with Sagan holding no particular advantage. Otherwise, it's sitting around listening to Phil and Paul talk about churches and wineries until the bunch gallop.
Moral Authority Rating: Watching this stage at all is borderline immoral, whether you have any way to instead spend time helping endangered species or not.
Stage 16: Carcassonne -- Luchon de Bagnères, 237km
Tuesday, July 22
What's in it for you: Possibly a fantastically exciting stage, as it's five rated climbs with the last 90 minutes spent summiting the H.C. Port de Bales and then screaming down to the valley to the line. As long as there's at least one awesome downhiller in the GC -- and oh yes, there is -- the Tour would do well to keep featuring this type of profile. And since it's the Pyrénées, I'll guess that the descent is nice and technical. Sh... shark! SHAAARK!!!
What's in it for them: Survival test par excellence. The Bales up-and-down could kick a lot of asses. But probably not as much as the next day. Or the day after.
Moral Authority Rating: Wait, you're telling me that most of these species have been on the endangered list since 1973?? Yeah, I think another day won't hurt them.
Stage 17: Saint-Gaudens -- Saint-Lary-Pla d'Adet, 124km
Wednesday, July 23
What's in it for you: Someday I would like an explanation of all these French saints. Who was Saint Gaudens? Saint Lary? Is there a Saint Bob or Fred? Anyway, another MTF stage in the Pyrénées, so there's that.
What's in it for them: Honestly, I have some questions about this one. First off, with three cat-1s and an HC, the KOM guys will be off the front. A mere 124km of racing is no deterrent to breaking away. The GC guys will sit back for the final climb and something will happen, and chances aren't great that someone will make a memorable move on the Pla d'Adet.
Moral Authority Rating: I've decided this stage is bullshit. And if you're going to clean up someone's bullshit, let it be a bull Sumatran elephant or something.
Stage 18: Pau -- Hautacam, 126km
Thursday, July 24
What's in it for you: What's with all the truly great stages happening on a weekday? Do people in France work? Wait, don't answer that.
What's in it for them: More ever-lasting glory. I don't love the distance, but then again, I don't have to climb the Tourmalet.
Moral Authority Rating: One oft-overlooked aspect of species extinction is how it makes room for other, perhaps more deserving, species. Like cockroaches with lasers attached to them. That's gotta be pretty cool, right?
Stage 19: Maubourguet Pays du Val d'Adour -- Bergerac, 208km
Friday, July 25
What's in it for you: The chance to watch a lot of cyclists who no longer care about anything besides getting to Paris. And to discuss the merits of Cyrano de Bergerac. Pro tip! Cyrano never set foot in Bergerac, something the local chamber of commerce probably doesn't mention much. He was a Parisian whose dad was lord of the area. He did apparently have a nose you could ski down, however.
What's in it for them: Transition. Marking time. The promise of a cool 500 francs and a bottle of champagne for reaching Paris.
Moral Authority Rating: Want to watch a bunch gallop? Head out to a bison preserve. That'll be a thousand times cooler than this stage.
Stage 20: Bergerac -- Périgueux, 54km ITT
Saturday, July 26
What's in it for you: What? Riders going off one at a time? Against a watch??? What the hell? I don't think this can work. I mean, are there 200 team cars to follow?
What's in it for them: A coronation. Nothing more.
Moral Authority Rating: Some endangered species are pretty overrated. Like the platypus. That thing is just plain weird.
Stage 21: Évry -- Paris, 137km
Sunday, July 27
What's in it for you: Oh EEEEYYYYY lovaparaaaaaade. I have a tendency to miss this stage, and it's kind of stupid. The procession is good clean fun. The sprint is as hotly contested as any, and reasonably unlikely to end in a pile of bodies and bikes (I know, I did just say that, but knock on wood). And best of all, the frickin laser show on the face of the Arc de Triomph. Talk about raising your game. Your move, Giro. [Somewhere in Italy, the concept of laser gladiator shows is being tested...]
What's in it for them: Arrivée! Wine! Dessert! Rest! Family!
Moral Authority Rating: What more harm can we humans do than we've already done? Enjoy the race. You've got at least another week before anything interesting happens. Try not to lose too many six-pack rings in your nearest water body, mmmkay?
Brief disclaimer: I am an endangered species professional (cough). Hopefully that puts a potentially unfunny subject in the proper light for the purposes of this post. And no, most of the species have not been listed since 1973.