Welcome to our Viewer's Guide to the stages of the 2013 Tour de France! This isn't the detailed assessment of Tour stages you'll see here as the race unfolds, but in keeping with tradition, it's a quick sketch of which days you should and shouldn't start circling on your calendar... with a theme. And this year's Tour theme is all about helping our sleep-deprived friends Down Under.
Cycling fans around the world go to great lengths to watch their sport live, despite the fact that it takes place largely on Central European Time and frequently on weekdays. Here in the States, the efforts vary from watching at work or going in really late on the East Coast, to getting up a tad early on the West Coast (or a lot early in Alaska or Hawaii, though in the summertime the Alaskans may not notice). Sometimes it becomes necessary to make frites and drink beer shortly before daylight. Things are simplest in Europe, provided you can cut out of work a bit early when necessary, or hog you some bandwidth. Further east, even better, like in Jerusalem or Astana where you can count on watching a race finish over a nice dinner and a glass of wine.
Then there's the Far East and Oceania. For now, Japan and east Asia don't contribute a lot to the sport outside of 95% of the bicycle parts, but the parts themselves don't require much sleep, so we can leave them off the ledger for this column. Really, we're talking about Australia and New Zealand. Two countries (or at least 1.5) which account for several hundred active riders, one full World Tour team, an array of current and future stars, and a healthy audience back home (numerically speaking, at least). That's quite a contribution from a region where you can generally watch live cycling between the luxurious hours of 11pm-2am.
[Warning to NZ fans, this column will bug the shit out of you as I continually make reference to Australia. I do in fact know that New Zealand is a completely separate and distinct country, that the accents aren't the same, and that you don't appreciate being lumped in with your larger neighbor. Believe me, as someone who lives in a country quite literally underneath Canada, I know your pain. But I can only make fun of one country at a time.]
Now, as for the Tour, this is the world's most orderly race. Stages finish at 8:30am Pacific, or your money back. That's 1:30 Sydney time. In the morning. The next day. How messed up is it that for Antipodeans to watch the Tour, they not only have to burn the Midnight Oil, but they have to wait an entire extra day? They give us McEwen and Evans and Stuey and Goss and probably the winners of most of the Tours from 2015-2025, and this is the thanks they get in return?
And yet, I had to look up the time difference, because rarely if ever have our Aussie friends complained out loud to the Cafe about their lot. Here's former Australian Prime Minister Chris Watson, in a newly-discovered and expertly-retouched video from the early 20th Century, addressing the predicament of cycling fans Down Under:
Spot on, Mr. ex-PM. Anyway, it is what it is, so let's help advise our Mates from Oz how to get thru this year's Tour de France. Sleep is an option, particularly since it's the start of winter and the days aren't as long or inviting as they might otherwise be. [Their climate is officially described as "bizarro-Seattle".] Since cycling requires expensive gear and functioning roads, I will assume the bulk of its Tour-viewing fans are in greater Sydney/NSW (I looked it up and that's New South Wales; sadly, they do not have a state named Not Safe for Work) with additional blocs of viewers in Victoria, home to the Tour Down Under, the Melbourne world championships, and the other larger populated areas. Being more urban, I will further assume that you can get decent espresso and other assorted coffees. After all, you could practically ride on the back of a swimming dingo to Indonesia. I'm told they have other beverages to get through a late evening, so we will take those into account as well as we make our recommendations.
Let's do this.
Stage 1: Porto Vecchio - Bastia, 213km
Saturday, June 29
Stage Excitement: Can stage 1 of the Tour be dull? Not bloody likely. This year the organizers have done away with the prologue (and time trials in general) ostensibly to "take in the scenery" of Corsica. This one's meant to end in a sprint, and some brief early climbing won't derail that. Neither will the ambitions of the day's breakaway, which will be significant, but the chase will be in full cry.
Overall Significance: The battle for the maillot vert will be a ferociously contested affair this year, so every stage outside the high mountains will matter, as will the intermediate sprints, and on today's menu are up to 65 points. Both sprints are gettable for Cavendish.
Extra Credit: So, Corsica. It's France! But it's an awful lot like Italy! Also, be prepared for the wags in the commentary boxes to overdo it with Napoleon references. Views of the water won't suck. If it's clear, you could almost see Florence.
The Verdict: Ah sure, grab a cuppa. It's actually Sunday morning, but what percent of Australia has even thought about going to bed by now?
Stage 2: Bastia - Ajaccio, 156km
Sunday, June 30
Stage Excitement: Sagan's revenge? Eh, we shall see. The intermediate sprint is quite early on but with some slight incline to it, so the battle off-camera will be intense. As to the stage battle, the race runs through central Corsica, over 16km worth of climbs in the 5-7% range. And if that gets soft-pedaled and somehow Cavendish is hanging around for the finale, there's a 1km climb of 9% with 12km to go to kill off his chances. Can't rule out much greater selections, if the pack is itching for an early battle, Giro-style. But my guess is something in the middle, where Sagan eats everyone's lunch.
Overall Significance: Apart from the Green Jersey, you might see some brief shenanigans among the GC contenders, particularly if, oh, say Garmin try a few moves. Not terribly likely to happen, or succeed.
Extra Credit: Ajaccio has to be the most unpronounceable name in all of western Europe, no? It's also Corsica's biggest city, and urban finishes are cool, though in fact it looks like the race charges through downtown and heads out to the Point de la Perrata, a hunk of rock jutting into the Mediterranean. Nature 1, civilization 0.
The Verdict: Oh hell yeah, put on a real pot of coffee for this.
Stage 3: Ajaccio - Calvi, 145km
Monday, July 1
Stage Excitement: Cracking. Le Tour bills this stage as "barely a meter of flat," making this as Giro-esque a first week of the Tour as you'll see. And being like the Giro is never a bad thing. Once again, the stage battle comes down to Sagan vs. the climbs, and it'll be a close one. There are five passes in the 400-meter range, with the most difficult ascent coming toward the end, meaning an enterprising mountain man could give Sagan and co the slip. Cavendish will have a devil of a time getting to just the intermediate sprint (after climb #1), let alone the finish.
Overall Significance: The first week of the Tour is all about the green jersey, of course, and for the overall contenders it's about staying alert. If you manage that, you won't lose any time today.
Extra Credit: If they ever run an Ajaccio - Calvi grand fondo and you have the means, something tells me you should move heaven and Earth to get there. Should be a lovely day to watch people on their bikes...
The Verdict: Unless of course it's 2am and you were tired at work all day from staying up too late last night. Too bad, cook up a double espresso and settle in. Sleep will come later.
Stage 4: Nice TTT, 25km
Tuesday, July 2
Stage Excitement: High. Team time trials are grudge matches. Also they look freaking cool, and come with their share of drama.
Overall Significance: Some bragging rights and early Yellow ownership is at stake. The distance is practically a sprint -- a reward for enduring the transfer from Corsica. Anyway, time gaps earned here should cease to matter long before Paris.
Extra Credit: Only a year off since the last cronosquadre at Le Tour, won by Garmin. Sky finished third that day. Much has changed since then.
The Verdict: Check the start times, you might be able to nod off pretty early. If insomnia is catching up to you, I guess you could catch a quick replay over breakfast.
Stage 5: Cagnes-sur-Mer - Marseille, 224km
Wednesday, July 3
Stage Excitement: Unrelenting! Honestly, this is about the best opening week show the Tour has put on since San Sebastian in 1992, not that there's anything nice to say about those years. So maybe the best ever? Anyway, this brute includes four rated climbs and another dozen left off the list, meaning the conventional sprinters are out of business, well before the intermediate sprint (in all likelihood). With so many up-and-down affairs and sprint teams disinterested in the chase, it's possible this one could be left to the breakaway. The counterargument is that having a finish in one of the Original Six cities is something to get excited about, particularly for the French riders and teams.
Overall Significance: Like yesterday, it could get interesting, but it probably won't.
Extra Credit: Is this the day the world media actually takes the time to decipher how gory and awful the words to "La Marseillaise" are?
The Verdict: Aw, sleepy again? It's been such a hard week. You know what they say? [Don't make me bring out one-armed Beavan.] OK, OK, you might want to skip the caffeine, and if the break has 10 minutes on the field with under 40km to go, catch up on some sleep.
Stage 6: Aix-en-Provence - Montpellier, 176km
Thursday, July 4
Stage Excitement: Low. The frustration building up in the camps of Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel will cause an explosion of sprinter-team urgency, all playing out in the last half hour. Actually, having said all that this could wind up being fun. If nothing else, it should be a clinic on what to do (and not do) in a bunch sprint. Might even get a little tricky at the end with some small ascents.
Overall Significance: If the bunch gallopers don't make this one happen, they can start letting go of their green dreams. Everyone else will stay out of trouble.
Extra Credit: The "Town and Cycling" button on Le Tour's English website is a fantastic trove of information. Did you know Remi Pauriol is from Aix-en-Provence, where a Tour stage hasn't surfaced in a half century?
The Verdict: Highlights over breakfast.
Stage 7: Montpellier - Albi, 205km
Friday, July 5
Stage Excitement: Not to sound repetitive, but once again it's conventional sprinters vs the road, with Peter Sagan a potential winner, though this time he has to endure four rated climbs, or at least the two before the intermediate sprint.
Overall Significance: Zip. Downward-sloping final hour should minimize any time gaps.
Extra Credit: Apparently Albi is pretty awesome, if the UNESCO World Heritage Site program is to be believed.
The Verdict: Pot of coffee. It's Friday anyway, and if there's still beer flowing, maybe just stick with what got you where you are.
Stage 8: Castres - Ax 3 Domaines, 195km
Saturday, July 6
Stage Excitement: Massive. A traditional Pyrenean stage with a mountaintop finish (MTF) following the hors-categoire Col del Pailheres. So yeah, there will be some racing.
Overall Significance: The first shot across the bow is rarely the most decisive. With fully two more weeks look for a few non-definitive winners and a few more losers.
Extra Credit: Just so you know, there is a 70% chance the stage will be covered in snow. Just cuz.
The Verdict: In the wee hours of Sunday morning, can you think of anything better to do? Pot o' coffee. Drunk won't cut it when the race is in the Pyrenees.
Stage 9: Saint-Girons - Bagneres de Bigorre, 168km
Sunday, July 7
Stage Excitement: Pretty big. The stage itself is a demanding one with four Cat-1 climbs (Col de Mente, Peyresourde, Val Louron and La Horquette d'Ancizan), and a descent to the line in Bagneres-de-Bigorre. The win will be fought out by a pretty wide and unpredictable array of riders. Fun times!
Overall Significance: Probably minimal in terms of GC. Sure, it's the day before the rest day, and maybe someone will use that as an excuse to try something bigger, but this looks to me like a keep-your-powder-dry day. However, it'll be a massive day for the polka-dot battle. Probably the best day of the entire Tour to go KOM point chasing without the big names bothering you.
Extra Credit: 20 FSA DS points to anyone who can tell me what a "horquette" is.
The Verdict: You've got a free pass tomorrow. Pot o' coffee.
Stage 10: Saint-Gildas-des-Bois - Saint-Malo, 197km
Tuesday, July 9
Stage Excitement: Probably a sprint day. The race has migrated northward to Brittany, and it's time for the fastmen to get their game on. Main attraction is the finish line, where the Saint-Malo fortress and some lovely beaches give the chopper drivers something to look at. This not being the Giro, topless-sunbather-spotting is probably off the menu.
Overall Significance: If Sagan hasn't run away with green by now, this stage will be about Cav and Greipel getting back in the game.
Extra Credit: Is there any name obscure enough to disqualify you from French sainthood? Can we get a Saint Moon Unit? Saint Barkevious?
The Verdict: Highlights over breakfast.
Stage 11: Avranches - Mont Saint-Michel ITT, 33km
Wednesday, July 10
Stage Excitement: What the...? An ITT to Mont-Saint-Michel, France's second-most-popular tourist attraction? Sounds fine, but make sure you come into the stage in position to finish your ride at the end of high tide. How long does it take to dry out that causeway?
Overall Significance: The Tour contains two individual time trials, both in the 30+km range -- short by last year's (race-killing) standard. But a 33km crono may be no less decisive. Certainly there won't be any holding back, wet causeway or no.
Extra Credit: If you don't know why I keep mentioning wet causeways, here you go. You're welcome. This tangle of bodies and frames helped put Lance Armstrong in yellow that year. Had the tide gone out sooner, how would the world be different? Would Lance and Sheryl have never gotten together? Would Oprah have sat down to do a two-part interview confession with Alex Zulle? I guess we shall never know.
The Verdict: Double espresso. With a coffee chaser.
Stage 12: Fougeres - Tours, 218km
Thursday, July 11
Stage Excitement: Sprinters versus breakaway riders. Actually this should be a good day, a classic rolling ride through the French countryside to one of the most famous finishes in the Cycling world, the end-point of Paris-Tours. Of course, now that public transportation has destroyed the Ave de Grammont, you'll have to settle for another patch of tarmac, but it'll be long and straight to the line anyway. And the approach to town will lend itself to attacks.
Overall Significance: Strictly points.
Extra Credit: Starting a race in the south, a rarity for Le Tour, creates a stretching of the middle week. Normally you have a whole week to slowly make your way toward the Alps or Pyrenees, but starting in the South means staying there for the first serving of mountains, then going north and returning in the course of a week. This is the first leg of the return journey to Lyon.
The Verdict: it's Friday Down Under, and who hasn't sleep-walked a Friday in the office? Every Tour stage has its subplots, even the obvious sprints. This is especially true as the race wears on and the sprint teams tire of the chase. So now is as good a day as any to hang out and watch for the subtleties of a flat day in France. Pot o' coffee.
Stage 13: Tours - Saint-Amand-Montrond, 173km
Friday, July 12
Stage Excitement: Curious one, you'd think it was meant for a bunch sprint but there are a couple small hills in just the right place, before the intermediate sprint and the finale. It's also a pretty short day in the saddle, so the break will be in full cry. Pack will too though.
Overall Significance: Strictly points.
Extra Credit: Not much. Race Director Jean-François Pescheux is trying to convince me that Contador could be in green coming into the day. Also, there's a river at the finish named after Cher.
The Verdict: Strictly beer. Maybe even a little scotch. If you don't pass out in time, then yeah, tune in.
Stage 14: Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule - Lyon, xkm
Saturday, July 13
Stage Excitement: Another Original Six city finish should cap off a lively day of going up and down. No less than seven rated (cat-3 and 4) climbs means we will get a renewal of the KOM battle.
Overall Significance: Child's play. The GC guys will want nothing to do with a hard effort on the eve of Ventoux.
Extra Credit: Can you name the Original Six? Hint: none of them are playing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Verdict: Why would you go to sleep? So you can be bright and cheery at church? Pot o coffee.
Stage 15: Givors - Mont Ventoux, 242km
Sunday, July 14
Stage Excitement: Joyeux quatorze Juillet! All of France will be celebrating the storming of the Bastille, with the exception of the 200-odd doomed souls riding this stage, some of whom might prefer to be sent to the Bastille rather than ride 242km ending on top of France's hardest mountain climb.
Overall Significance: Sorta speaks for itself.
Extra Credit: Did you know that the key to the Bastille, or one of them at least, is hanging on the wall at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate? The Marquis de Lafayette considered Washington a major influence on his early years, and honored the Father of Liberty with one of the keys. Easily the highlight of my recent Mount Vernon tour.
The Verdict: Regular coffee won't do; crank up the French Press.
Stage 16: Vaison-La-Romain - Gap, 168km
Tuesday, July 16
Stage Excitement: Another muddled-mountain stage, with an early climb or two, a slow ascension to Gap, then a loop out of town over the Col de Manse, a 9.5km hump at 5%, before the inevitable return. Defo breakaway day. Like, 100% certain.
Overall Significance: Just mountain points, and maybe some shenanigans around the intermediate sprint, which comes after two short climbs and the long slow uphill. The gruppetto might hang on to the peloton, if certain Slovakians are around.
Extra Credit: Gap conjures up plenty of emotions to Tour fans. It's routinely the gateway to the Alps stages, having hosted over 500 previous stage finishes (OK, 21). It's also been the scene of numerous interesting solo efforts, like Thor Hushovd's from a few years back, since there are enough hills to shake things up and enough climbers who'd rather not burn any matches on them.
The Verdict: Keep the French Press handy, this is going to be a long week.
Stage 17: Embrun - Chorges ITT, 32km
Wednesday, July 17
Stage Excitement: As good as it gets. OK, we might see some classic mountain battles, but we might not. On the other hand, a 32km ITT with two moderately difficult climbs is dead-certain to make a huge difference in the outcome of the Tour, and will be fought bitterly. Kudos to Le Tour for doing both its ITTs as point to point events, not circuits (bringing the elements potentially into play) and going with two very different profiles.
Overall Significance: Scroll up two sentences.
Extra Credit: This is a new route for the Tour, with a lakeside setting for much of the day. Winds could come into play.
The Verdict: Have you ever put espresso grind into a French Press? It gets a little clogged, but it's worth the hassle. Alternatively you could go the Depth Charge route, dropping espresso shots into your regular coffee. Either way, don't spare the juice.
Stage 18: Gap - Alpe d'Huez, 172km
Thursday, July 18
Stage Excitement: I can't tell you how disgusted I am at the notion of turning Alpe d'Huez into a circuit race. I mean, is this worse than the Tour of Flanders? OK, seriously... holy fucking shit.
Overall Significance: Scroll back two expletives.
Extra Credit: The first time for a double-Alpe means all sorts of interesting things. We will break down the route obsessively, but for starters, until this was announced I didn't even know there was a way down from the Alpe.
The Verdict: Is coffee no longer strong enough for you? Have you considered speed? [Note to racing cyclists: don't consider speed.]
Stage 19: Bourg d'Oisins - Le Grand Bornand, 204km
Friday, July 19
Stage Excitement: What, no MTF? OK, I guess you'll have to settle for two hors categoire climbs in the first 100km, followed by three more rated ascents including the Col de Croix Fry, and a bombing descent to the line. Late-day action could be phenomenal, even if the gaps aren't quite as much as those of the last few days.
Overall Significance: If the race is close, the fight will rage all day.
Extra Credit: Can you imagine spending the night in Bourg d'Oisins after climbing the Alpe twice? Starting out like you're headed back up, then turning away from it, might break a few riders' sanity.
The Verdict: Weekend. Could get crazy. Oil cans?
Stage 20: Annecy - Annecy-Semnoz, 125km
Saturday, July 20
Stage Excitement: Six more rated climbs and a MTF at a hors categoire climb that's never been in the Tour before. Seriuosly, I am out of ways to say "holy shit!".
Overall Significance: It's off to Paris for champagne and ceremony, so if the race isn't already decided, it will be. And if it is, it's time for whoever can manage it to at least go out in style.
Extra Credit: This stage could be titled "Who cares -- who cares," and I'd be satisfied. Had they only done Mont Ventoux? Dayenu! Had they only done the Alpe once? Dayenu!
The Verdict: More oil cans.
Stage 21: Versailles - Paris, 133km
Sunday, July 21
Stage Excitement: The usual last-day stuff, lots of smiles and clinking glasses for all finishers, followed by a very hot-and-bothered bunch sprint in the City of Lights.
Overall Significance: Only if the points comp hangs in the balance, which it often does.
Extra Credit: Starting in Versailles? How very civilized.
The Verdict: At this point you're headed for detox, so whatever. Beer, whiskey, espresso, maybe all blended together with some banana and coconut? Might as well go out in style.