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Viewers' Guide to Watching the Tour de France: A Cat-4-Eye's View

Tdf-bullseye_mediumYou probably are starting to recognize this post. Each grand tour we try to produce a viewers' guide which advises people which stages have to be seen and which stages... well, if you have limited cards to play, we try to let you know which days to hold 'em. Because I like to relate to the common man when necessary, I have usually tried to filter the message in some way that makes it more useful. The first such filter was through the eyes of working people, who can catch the action in the morning if they're on the US west coast but otherwise often have to choose between some number of working hours and watching the Tour de France. More recently we graded stages of the Giro d'Italia based on whether or not parents should bother bringing their kids to school or baseball practice or whatever. Now comes the ultimate dilemma: whether a Cat-4 amateur racer should watch his or her beloved sport, or chase their own cycling destiny. See? I told you this would be a tough one.

Stage 1: Passage du Gois -- Mont des Alouettes, 191.5km (Sat. 7/2)

Action: Opening stage, which means everyone will be fired up beyond all reason. As we know, this year's Tour has changed the format for sprint stages, placing a single mid-point sprint worth 20 points somewhere well before the finale, plus the usual finish worth 35 to the winner. This will be the subject of a much longer, tedious analysis, right up with my posts about the Tour of Flanders course changes (more on that in a moment). Anyway, the finale is uphill, averaging 3% in the last 4km with the steepest stuff apparently closer to the line. Cavendish can win those too, but it's hardly automatic.

Subplots and Whatnots: Le Grand Depart is always a big deal, but the Tour has added the veneer of drama by starting on the treacherous Passage du Gois, scene of a legendary pileup in the 1999 Tour. That day, the race arrived at the causeway ahead of schedule, some 80km into the race, and the Passage -- which is covered by the Atlantic at high tide -- hadn't fully dried out, leading to a scene out of a Japanese game show:


In short, the road was greasier than the olive course at Casa Fontecchio, but nowhere near as tart and delicious, I am told. Maillot jaune favorite Alex Zulle lost six minutes, and two weeks later an American legend was born. And they all lived happily ever after. Anyway, this year's passage will be lovely enough, seeing as it's the opening of the Tour, but barring nerves the crash scenario will be nil. Le Tour will use the big bridge or send out an army of folks with blow driers if they have to.

The Plan! For the cat-4 racer, Saturdays in July are key, but they depend heavily on what's on for Sunday. But! It's 4th of July weekend, meaning whatever races may be happening won't sell out, so if they run later you can show up on short notice. If it's late, or no race at all, definitely catch the stage live. If it's early, however, this may be your best chance to score easy points, with top series leaders on vacation with their families (suckers!). In that case, set your DVR and watch the stage over a celebratory bottle of Recoverite and a bag of lightly salted nuts.

This can -- nay must! -- go on for a while...

Stage 2: Les Essarts TTT, 23km (Sun. 7/3)

Action: Like team pageantry? This will be a fun day for the fans positioned along the race's half-dozen turns, including a couple treacherous-looking >90 degree ones out on the course. Wind and/or rain would add to the mayhem. But if it's a normal, calm day, watching this short stage on TV will be about as interesting as the course profile.

Subplots and Whatnots: Nerves will be running high still, no doubt, but the wildcard entries are teams like Europcar and Cofidis, relatively experienced squads, so there is no obvious candidate for comedic pileups.

The Plan! Sundays on a holiday weekend are some of the best days to get in much-needed post-race recovery rides, lest your body start shutting down before the late-summer peak you had in store for all those guys who thought their BARR points were safe by late June. Also, it's important to get in those miles early, before people start drinking. DVR this one; the result will be less significant than the vision of teams in motion, which you'll want to watch in slow-mo to help hone your aero positioning.

Stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer -- Redon, 198km (Mon. 7/4)

Action: Winding back to the coast where they began two days earlier, this is a northerly shore run to a sprint in Redon. Proximity to the Atlantic raises the possibility of wind and echelons messing up the plan, but the sprinters' teams should keep things in check.

Subplots and Whatnots: This is as good a place as any to point out what a nice, very French course Le Tour has put together. Here the race makes its way from the cycling-mad Vendee region toward the cycling-mad region of Brittany. Fans on the roadside will be... mad. In a good way.

The Plan! DVR it. A three-day weekend is a rare chance to get in three perfect days of training, and although after yesteday's long route you'll want to go for something shorter and high-intensity, maybe a sprint workout, you still need to finish up early. This is possibly the drunkest day of the year on American highways. In eastern time zones you could probably finish up before the stage is done.


Stage 4: Lorient -- Mur de Bretagne, 172.5km (Tues. 7/5)

Action: Calling all punchy climbers! The Tour returns to the "Wall of Brittany," which is either a 5km romp with three climbs or really a 2km finish with one rather nasty climb. The last riser to the line starts out with a full km in the 10% range, maxing out at 12%, before flattening at the top. This should make for a fantastic scene, and complete intrigue as to the identity of the winner. The Mur is probably a bit long for the Flanders types to hang in there, but then the flat part is long enough to make you wonder if a climby sprinter might steal this one. The Mur de Bretagne has been climbed by the Tour on numerous occastions, including 2008 most recently, but it's never hosted a finish.

Subplots and Whatnots: The long, combustible shadow of Bernard Hinault will hang over this stage. Presumably he will be on his best behavior for the home crowd -- he has plenty of practice standing there and smiling for the assembled masses. But his tolerance for bad behavior will be nil. So please, if you're in France, don't start spreading rumors of a protest on the road at the bottom of the Mur.

The Plan! Tuesday is a perfect time for a rest day. Catch the stage with no regrets... but don't forget to stay hydrated.

Stage 5: Carhaix -- Cap Frehel, 164.5km (Wed. 7/6)

Action: Another coastal route, which means small climbs (bluffs?) and possibly influential winds. For now, assume it's a sprinters' stage. It's in the Finistere region, and Romain Feillu just won the Tour du Finistere, so that should give you some idea.

Subplots and Whatnots: Hey, France has lots of coastline. I get it.

The Plan! Not a crucial stage to see live, and you have a 30-minute crit coming up this weekend. You need to get in that 3-hour hill ride.

Stage 6: Dinan -- Lisieux, 226.5km (Thu. 7/7)

Action: From the heart of Brittany to the heart of Normandy, this stage is up and down all day. By stage 6 the field starts letting down its collective guard against breakaways, though if one isn't up to snuff over the short hills, one of the climby classics puncheurs will gladly snare a stage on the final 1.5km incline.

Subplots and Whatnots: Does the Tour love Thor Hushovd or hate Mark Cavendish? Possibly both. Because even the mid-race point line is sandwiched in the hills. New maillot vert motto: no gifts.

The Plan! Some of the guys from the Dave's Chevrolet team supposedly are doing reps on The Wall at 6am. Shouldn't you be out there at 5:30? Sun Tzu says most battles are won and lost before they are joined. Anywho, you should be back before the final 10km, which is enough.

Stage 7: Le Mans -- Chateauroux, 218km (Fri. 7/8)

Action: Another long day, as the peloton jumps to the Loire Valley and turns south. It's also the annual Really Flat Day Before the Mountains Start stage, so big sprints at the intermediate and finish. Guaranteed.

Subplots and Whatnots: This is probably a good place to mention that the official Tour site has a running pre-commentary for each stage, and seems to be predicting that Gilbert will win every day.

The Plan! You need to stretch yourself out today to stay loose, but that can easily be done on the trainer in front of the telly. Between pasta plates and energy drinks. 

Stage 8: Aigurand -- Super Besse Sancy, 185km (Sat. 7/9)

Action: Things get distinctly more intriguing as the race enters the volcanic Massif Central, a sort of central Oregon with better food. Most of the climbs are Ardennes-lite with only the 6km Croix de St Robert to start reducing the chaff. The last 1.5k are over 7%, so I guess Gilbert will win this stage too. But the big names (les big?) will limit their battles to some mild probing. 

Subplots and Whatnots: We should know by now if Hushovd is sandbagging his green jersey ambitions, and if so, he could be drooling over this day. This doesn't look any harder than the Barcelona stage from 2009.

The Plan! Race day means a lot of things. No excess food or drink. No strenuous activity. No sex for 72 hours prior (not usually a problem). And setting up the rollers in the parking lot three hours before your start means no time for TV. This should be a totally fun stage though, so go into media blackout and don't talk to any of the chatty cat-1s arriving as you're packing up, in case they spill the beans.

Stage 9: Issoire -- Saint-Flour, 208km (Sun. 7/10)

Action: More mid-mountains, a substantially harder day than Saturday for the less-vertically-inclined. There are no less than eight rated climbs, including an 8%(ish) last km. As the opening stage of the real KOM battle, as well as a mere amuse bouche to les bigs, this has "successful breakaway" etched all over it. 

Subplots and Whatnots: No, seriously. The Hate Cav/Love Thor angle is getting a bit old by now. The green jersey might not figure in the finish, but the sprint point is at km 178, following six climbs. Not an accident.

The Plan! Rest day for the cat-4 peloton means a leisurely medium-distance ride, ~40 miles. Good day to watch live and ride later. The big KOM stages feature serious action among a whole different selection of riders. It's also a chance to brush up on your strategy. Remember how you went too early again yesterday (third lap)? Study the pros, you can learn from them, grasshopper. 

Stage 10: Aurillac -- Carmaux, 158km (Tues. 7/12)

Action: With some 17km of (low-) rated climbs, this isn't the easiest post-rest-day stage one could conjure up, but it's short and a net-downhill route. Just innocent-looking enough for something crazy to happen. The Tour makes work for idle hands. 

Subplots and Whatnots: KOM competitions often feature back-to-back days of consequence, and this year is doubly delicious with no reason for the GC guys to get involved. Look for the double-whammy, or the counterpunch. Or the backstabbing sandbagger, an old favorite.

The Plan! Look ahead: this is a backloaded Tour. Next week is a perfect time to bring the in tensity down a bit for the August push that, along with Cross season, is just around the corner. Maybe you weren't planning to drive three hours to that 15k time trial next weekend, but personally I think you should. This stage could be wild or tame; tape it either way.

Stage 11: Blaye-Les-Mines -- Lavaur, 144km (Weds. 7/13)

Action: Another annual tradition for the Tour: the you're-f'd-after-today sprinters' stage. This message is rarely lost on the sprinters' teams. So yeah... sprinting. The distance is not a misprint either.

Subplots and Whatnots: With the Tour about to head into the mountains, more or less for good, this is a fine day for the Lanterne Rouge contenders to start showing themselves. The reason is, on stages like #12 lanterne rouge types can find themselves flirting with the time cutoff, so it's best to have lost enough time already so you can afford to be up the road a bit. Sort of a rouge buffer. And yes, you can drop a chunk of time in the Massif Central stages, but that's showing your cards early. This stage would be a great place for a "mechanical" that suddenly drops you to the bottom (assuming you've taken care of getting pretty close to the bottom already). Your rivals could get caught out (in?) by such a move.

The Plan! Today is the last day for real high-intensity training, with the mountains of the Tour coming. Get prepared for that 15km ITT on Saturday by doing a 60km ITT practice ride. Watch the sprint later.

Stage 12: Cugnaux -- Luz Ardiden, 211km (Thu. 7/14)

Action: Opening Day for the GC, really. This is a quintessential Pyrenean stage, with the Col de la Hourquette and Col du Tourmalet softening up legs for the climb to Luz Ardiden. The last two are hors categoire, 17 and 13km drags at over 7%. Saturday is a touch harder, but to the GC warrior, this is a good day for your hopes to die. A couple riders come to mind as Pyrenean specialists: Leipheimer and VandeVelde. Gesink likes these climbs too, IIRC.

Subplots and Whatnots: Joyeux Bastille Day! OK, that may not be the exact salutation, but you get my drift. For years we joked that this day was set aside for a French stage win, long after it stopped being true. French riders used to put up as much resistance on home turf as Daniel Sedin with a glove in his face. So there appeared, true or not, to be some sort of deal where the foreign invaders would take a day off and let the locals party in style on Bastille Day. In recent years, however, French teams have enjoyed their share of non-holiday success, and Bastille Day has morphed into a good day for foreigners to sit on the wheel of French stage hunters. Which means then Tour needn't run a mid-mountain stage on the 14th to accommodate a French breakaway. Maybe Gadret will reward the fans regardless... so look for plenty of foreign climbers on his wheel.

The Plan! Planned modest day, which is good because of the stage's significance. Riding the rollers in the TV room will serve as good recovery ride. 

Stage 13: Pau -- Lourdes, 152km (Fri. 7/15)

Action: A stage aimed at the heart of Cafe regulars: with a blistering downhill finish coming off the Col d'Aubisque. There's a good 12km from the end of the descent to Lourdes, so the daredevils might find the careful descenders creeping up on them by the finish, but we'll see. The GC might be more stirred than shaken today.

Subplots and Whatnots: When will we start seeing rated descents in grand tours? I suspect the riders object to overglorification of the most dangerous part of the job, but a) descents matter; b) we distinguish them by how technical they are, not how dangerous; and c) people are talking about them anyway, enough so that races are featuring descents. So how about sorting them out a bit?

The Plan! Same as last Friday. Set up the trainer or the rollers, break a sweat, and watch the pros for tips on how to spot your line through a hairpin descent.

Stage 14: Saint-Gaudens -- Plateau de Beille, 168.5km (Sat. 7/16)

Action: Massive day, albeit not in distance. But there are five rated climbs before the finale, including the Col d'Agnes, leading to the finale, which WillJ will tell us any day now is the hardest of the Pyrenean climbs. With two transitional days on tap, this will be a monster.

Subplots and Whatnots: Sprint points come very early today, after the first climb. This is a merciful gesture on the Tour's part, though you'll still need to climb a bit here to score. Gotta wonder... if they're right about Gilbert going on a first week rampage, he could look good in green. Real good.

The Plan! Why the hell did you schedule a time trial so far away on a Pyrenees day?

Stage 15: Limoux -- Montpellier, 192.5km (Sun. 7/17)

Action: After a brief transfer, it's on to the transition phase, as the race scampers from the Pyrenees to the Alps as fast and painlessly as possible. Today's route is a Mediterranean run, no real tricks, so this is a green jersey day, 100%.

Subplots and Whatnots: Hm, nothing coming to mind. Should be hot, guys will be tired. Dare I say it... wheel fight?

The Plan! Day 1 of your mid-summer pause. Don't forget to stay hydrated.

Stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux -- Gap, 162.5km (Tues. 7/19)

Action: Another classic stage, the run from sea level to Gap. It's a gradual drag to the first sprint point, at 852 meters, then a cat-2 climb and a stone-drop to Gap. Two points caches likely to find their way into the hands of versatile riders.

Subplots and Whatnots: Day sandwiched between a rest day and the start of the Alps, which begs for breakaways. Given the short distance, the attacks should start at km 0.0001.

The Plan! Sneak in some easy miles and catch the finish, or the Vesus replay.

Stage 17: Gap -- Pinerolo, 179km (Weds. 7/20)

Action: Another Tour specialty, the ease-into-the-Alps stage. Which is not to say this is easy, but with a single Cat-1 (Sestrieres) and no HCs, this isn't the toothiest tiger.

Subplots and Whatnots: Just when you thought you could watch a bike race without having to celebrate the Risorgimento's sesquicentennial and Italian unification (cough), along comes the Tour, steaming across the Alps like Hannibal and co. The Tour! The race which took avoiding Italian soil to an art form in the LeBlanc era. I should be more grateful... anyway, the Italian teams will let their feelings be known.

The Plan! If you were planning a workout of consequence this week, it only gets harder to squeeze it in after this. Should be a stage to watch in its entirety though, so record it all. And don't waste your ride time.

Stage 18: Pinerolo -- Galibier-Serre-Chevalier, 200.5km (Thurs. 7/21)

Action: If there's a queen stage on this route, this may be it... or maybe there are just a lot of princess stages. Anyway, this stage includes three HC beasts: the Col d'Agnel (highest point of the Tour), the forbidding Izoard, and one side of the Galibier, the main course of this year's climbing feast. First of three days that absolutely will crush the souls of all but the strongest riders. Daily.

Subplots and Whatnots: Lanterne Rouge could change daily, with guys dropping time by the hour and the words hors delai looming over some heads like the sword of Damocles.

The Plan! Settle in. Maybe do some core strengthening exercises while you watch. Got some freeweights?

Stage 19: Modane -- Alpe d'Huez, 109.5km (Fri. 7/22)

Action: Super short mega-mountain stages like this feel a bit gimmicky, but less so when the peloton warms itself up  on the Galibier before charging up Dutch Mountain.

Subplots and Whatnots: Dutch Mountain? It's been a while since the world's lowest, flattest country reasserted its ownership of the Tour's most iconic climb, but with guys like Gesink coming into mega-form, the legend could be reborn. Or Contador could win by five minutes. Stay tuned. 

The Plan! Watch the stage in full. It's Alpe Day, and it should be over soon enough to fit in a decent ride.

Stage 20: Grenoble ITT, 42.5km (Sat. 7/23)

Action: There's nearly 400 meters of incline over the 42km course, so this will be a mega-power-fest of a crono. Victory on the stage won't come easy; same goes for the final GC placings. That's the Tour for ya. 

Subplots and Whatnots: Easily the biggest time trial of the year before the Worlds, this will be a chance for the rainbow warriors to make their case. Obviously Cancellara will be the favorite, assuming he's still in the race, or even if he isn't (old habits, you know).

The Plan! Saturday will tempt you into scheduling a big ride, but... you're an anonymous cat-4! Your results don't mean anything! You'll never be a pro cyclist! So stop overtraining, sit your ass down, and watch the Tour!

Stage 21: Creteil -- Paris, 95km (Sun. 7/24)

Action: A parade ... to two complete wars of a sprint. With the new point scale the last day -- usually offering only a single minor sprint cache -- becomes a day for the flat-bunch-dudes to make up for all those funky sprint "opportunities".

Subplots and Whatnots: Outside green, the real action will be off the bike.

The Plan! Clean your bike in the living room. Drink in the Tour one last time. Better yet, drink to it. Salud!


Photos by Jasper Juinen, Getty Images Sport