Growing up in the gritty industrial hellhole of the American Northeast Corridor, there were few things more impressive to me than the images of everything happening in California at that moment, particularly involving people under 25. Sure, I was just learning how to walk when the actual Summer of Love got going in 1967, and it would be some time before the words "acid test" held any meaning whatsoever. But by the time I gained self-awareness, the Beach Boys were a staple of every summer, as were TV shows complementing the idea that on the opposite end of the North American land mass, people my age and up had completely redefined the idea of fun.
As I write this I am flying home from Cape Cod, scene of most of my summers, where we managed to crawl out of the toxic industrial sludge that engulfed our desperate, Dickensian lives for a bit of splashing around shark-filled waters. [I was nine when a landmark movie was released about a man-eating shark eating people off the beaches where we swam. Thanks Hollywood.] It was still pretty great. There were dunes to climb, clams squirting at us, crabs biting our feet, a penny candy shop, an ice cream truck that didn't exclusively sell drugs, and the kicker -- a stuck ship that had been sold to the local air force base, who proceeded to do target practice there on many a hot summer day.
Yep, that rusted, bombed out hunk of beached steel defined our summers. Sure, watching planes blow up the SS James Longstreet was completely awesome in its own way, but compare that image to this:
Exactly. California was surf and sand in the day and bonfires at night. It was beautiful sunshine and perfect surf. Parents seemed nonexistent, apart from providing the means to an endless succession of great days. School was never mentioned. The Beach Boys sang over the video images, speaking simply of joy and love. TV shows like the Brady Bunch projected a bit more of the real world, but even then their idyllic summer was just around the corner. Happy Days, where the people looked a bit more familiar to me, jetted off to SoCal when it was time for some real enjoyment. Oh and that California world wasn't just idyllic, it was Endless. You can't compete with that, not with all the cheap lobster in the world. I wanted to experience all of that -- or rather, I wanted to be transformed into someone who had any business experiencing that (e.g. taller, blonder, basically more Norwegian but with a better tan).
As I grew up, it got even worse. Not only were the surfers living it up from Santa Cruz on south, I came to realize, but in northern California the hippie subculture was creating its own version of summer fun. I'm sure it was a mixed bag, particularly the drugs, but hanging around Golden Gate Park in any state of mind seemed like a pretty great way to spend an afternoon. I've been to just enough Grateful Dead shows to wish that I'd gone to more Grateful Dead shows, especially in their native habitat. Neil Young moved to a ranch in Marin County, because that was where people like him wanted or needed to be. Music was seemingly everywhere, particularly outdoor festivals in beautiful sunny settings. And it was mostly gone before I knew it existed.
So as I contemplate summer and the Tour de France -- two things that go so well together -- and I struggle for one more way to separate the important stages of a stage race from the really important ones, my mind goes back to those mythic images of California summers, all nine months a year worth of them. What does this have to do with previewing the 2015 Tour de France parcours? Simple: watching cycling in July means being indoors by the telly rather than off doing something else you could be doing that glorious time of year. But to choose between the Tour and the mundanity of my life in July would be no choice at all. Watch a boring sprint stage or drive the kids to soccer? Sorry kids. No, we need harder choices to sharpen the contrast if we are to give any meaning to this preview. So, for this year's Tour de France stage I ask: what aspects of summer, up to and including the idyllic California summers we were sold as kids, would I give up to watch a particular Tour stage? Hopefully this will make sense sometime before the end of this post.
Stage 1: Utrecht (NL) ITT, 13.8km
Saturday, July 4
What It's About: An opening-day ITT around the flat urban scapes of ancient Utrecht. Another way of saying what it's about would be "paying off a city who just dropped (insert large cash amount) on a Grand Départ." The Dutch are reliably enthusiastic about the Tour -- check back in three weeks for more on that score -- and it'll be party time in the streets of Utrecht. The Giro schools the Tour on those in-between stages, but the Tour knows how to inaugurate a race.
Why It Matters: Because it's one of only two time trials, neither one of which is very long. The stage will be a chance for the world's finest time triallists to show their stuff (well, minus the World Champion and current Hour Record holder). Tony Martin will begin making his case for renewed supremacy, in the absence of Wiggins or a prime-form Cancellara. Homers like Lars Boom and Tom Dumoulin will want to fire up the crowd. And overall contenders like Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot will want to be smiling like Cheshire cats at the end, when they're down to a mere 28km left against the watch to fend off the cronoists like Froome and Contador.
What I'd Skip: A day of boogie-boarding/body surfing on outer Cape Cod. It's not the stuff of legends, but the beaches are gorgeous, the water temperature is comfortably chilly (you hear that, Puget Sound?), and the surfing is fun enough to forget about the great white shark warnings.
Stage 2: Utrecht (NL) - Zeeland (NL), 166km
Sunday, July 5
What It's About: A Dutch classic, dominated by engineering features and crosswinds. The course winds through old Holland, does an intermediate sprint in Rotterdam, and finishes in the Zeeland Delta, smack dab in the world of polders and dikes. Check out the negative altitude readings on your favorite rider's Strava page. If a pair of wooden shoes isn't spotted on the podium, I'll eat a wheel of smoked gouda.
Why It Matters: It's billed as a sprint stage, but there will be a multitude of obstacles thrown at the fastmen: potentially significant crosswinds (check back on opening day), narrow country roads over dikes and dams, nervous/irresponsible riding, the usual maddening succession of road furniture, the usual crashes caused by such furniture, and unexpected chaos all the way to the North Sea. [And by "unexpected" I mean "totally expected."]
What I'd Skip: A trip to the ice cream store. Cycling has a way of making you feel like you should avoid fatty foods anyway.
Stage 3: Anvers (BE) - Huy (BE), 159.5km
Monday, July 6
What It's About: Showing the Giro d'Italia that old dog ASO have learned a few new tricks. The stage finishes atop the Mûr de Huy, of Flèche Wallonne fame. Like, all the way on top, for reals. The race includes a few other côtes along the way to soften up the legs and get rid of the non-climbers, though at 160km it might not select out too many folks.
Why It Matters: Remember last year when Vincenzo Nibali announced his presence with authority on the road to Sheffield? It didn't exactly turn the GC on its head, but that stage gave us reason to take notice. First week form is a thing now, and whoever has it should show their hand by the day's end. Also, whoever doesn't might be exposed and battling from behind for a while.
What I'd Skip: A day of surfing in Malibu. Mind you, this scenario presumes I'm capable of surfing for a day in Malibu, and I'm passing on that fantasy too. So yeah, this is a pretty cool stage.
Stage 4: Seraing (BE) - Cambrai, 223.5km
Tuesday, July 7
What It's About: Cobbled horror. The longest stage of the entire Tour takes in a few Wallonian côtes (notably Namur) before bringing the Tour home to France, at last. And the peloton's reward for doing so? Six secteurs of cobblestones selected from the Paris-Roubaix parcours. And probably something cool like a giant tub of butter for the last rider to leave Belgium.
Why It Matters: Because last year the cobbles were so scary that Chris Froome fell off his bike (twice) just thinking about them. OK, that was maybe not the reason, but it rained, and it was a slice of hell that cost a lot of people not named Nibali a lot of time. My hunch is that drier weather is more likely (can we be that lucky twice in a row?), and this year's stones seem arranged to maybe not detonate the peloton so much, but as we all know, anything is possible in the Hell of the North.
What I'd Skip: A beach bonfire where I'm teleported back to my late teens, flown to Malibu, and been deemed nominally attractive by the local gals.
Stage 5: Arras - Amiens, 189.5km
Wednesday, July 8
What It's About: Sneaky-tough trek across the Somme region, past WWI battlefields and rolling farmlands, to a probable bunch sprint. After four bothersome stages in the Low Countries, this will seem like a relaxing affaire.
Why It Matters: Sprint stages are a little hard to come by this year, and I'm guessing that when we break down the points competition we will rule out the Kittels and Cavendishes from a shot at victory. But they can seize it for a while at least in places like Amiens. Breakaways are possible in these parts too, but the sprint teams will almost certainly be too determined to permit that here.
What I'd Skip: A boat ride in choppy conditions, but that's about it. Stage highlights can be watched over a post-beach cold one.
Stage 6: Abbeville - Le Havre, 191.5km
Thursday, July 9
What It's About: A very rugged ride along the coast of Normandie, with an uphill finish of 850 meters. It's starting to sink in just how screwed the sprinters are by this Tour.
Why It Matters: The stage should be scenic, exhausting, and no place for big men at the end. With five stages in their legs the GC guys might come out swinging as the race hits Le Havre.
What I'd Skip: A plate of fried clams. I really, really, really like fried clams. But they're not exactly a superfood.
Stage 7: Livarot - Fougères, 190.5km
Friday, July 10
What It's About: Keeping the line moving. The Tour skips across lower Normandie to the cycling heartland of Bretagne, where we will be told very many times that Bernard Hinault was born and raised. That would become a very dull bit of trivia if the Breton landscape didn't make riders into such hardmen.
Why It Matters: One more for the sprinters. Possibly the last one for a while. Escapes will be hunted to extinction.
What I'd Skip: A bowl of clam chowder. Unless it came in a sourdough bread bowl, in which case I'd revert to the original plan of just watching highlights.
Stage 8: Rennes - Mûr-de-Bretagne, 181.5km
Saturday, July 11
What It's About: More ups and downs, but with a major kicker at the end. The Mûr de Bretagne is 2km of pretty stiff climbing, the first half being 9-10% before gradually leveling off. You may think these funky finishes are becoming gratuitous, but this is the compromise made by ASO with local cycling fans who threatened to lie down in traffic if the Tour attempted to host a sprint finish on Breton soil.
Why It Matters: The Mûr de Bretagne hosted an early stage in 2011, won by future Maillot Jaune Cadel Evans, with the peloton blown to smithereens. There should also be some points-jersey skirmishing, with the intermediate coming after the cat-4 Col du Mont Bel-Air (1.5km, 5.7%). Expect sounds of "le sigh" emanating from Kittel HQ.
What I'd Skip: I wouldn't miss the last hour for a full-on beach luau. Am I mixing my west coast and Hawaiian metaphors? Do I mean a burrito bonfire? You get my drift.
Stage 9: Vannes - Plumelec TTT, 28km
Sunday, July 12
What It's About: Pretending that time trialling is a relevant skill to this edition of the Tour. And not doing a very good job of it, what with the race ending atop the Côte de Cadoudal (1.7km, 6.2%). Plumelec is in Morbihan, the other regional cycling capital after Saint-Brieuc. The overarching theme of these stages is I REALLY FUCKING LOVE CYCLING. NTTAWWT.
Why It Matters: GC, and only GC. Too obvious to warrant elaboration.
What I'd Skip: Anything that I can do another time instead. A bombing of the Target Ship? Back in the day you could come back in a day or two and catch it then. So yeah, scratch that for this stage.
Stage 10: Tarbes - La Pierre-Saint-Martin, 167km
Tuesday, July 14
What It's About: Had a nice rest day? Found things to do in Pau to stay busy? Good, because it's time.
The Tour's inaugural major mountain climb and MTF is the trek up to the Pyrenéean ski resort of The Peter St. Martin. And it's Bastille Day, which doesn't guarantee a French winner any more than an unrankable finishing climb does... but if one occurs, all hell could -- nay, should -- break loose.
Why It Matters: If your favorite climber-specialist wrong-footed Sunday's ITT, he'll be delighted to make amends here. [N.b., we will be doing detailed stage previews in due course. Trust me.]
What I'd Skip: A Dead show at Fillmore West. This is serious.
Stage 11: Pau - Cauterets, 188km
Wednesday, July 15
What It's About: The Col du Tourmalet.
Why It Matters: Scroll up one line. Oh, and I think the Souvenir Jacques Goddet is worth extra KOM points.
What I'd Skip: A Dead show at Fillmore West after a perfect day in Golden Gate Park.
Stage 12: Lannemezan - Plateau de Beille, 195km
Thursday, July 16
What It's About: Possibly the single hardest day of the Tour: four major climbs, including an MTF at hors categoire Plateau de Beille.
Why It Matters: Apart from the clear GC implications, you've got a cat-2, two cat-1s and an HC MTF. That's the mother lode of maillot-a-pois points.
What I'd Skip: A Dead show at Fillmore West after a perfect day in Golden Gate Park, sandwiched around a lunch on the pier of chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
Stage 13: Muret - Rodez, 198.5km
Friday, July 17
What It's About: Giving the breakaway its day in the sun. The GC teams will be desperate for a mental and physical time out. the KOM combatants will see nothing of interest here, and the points competition will probably stand down about ten seconds after the intermediate sprint, or however long it takes to coast back down to light spinning speed.
Why It Matters: Because Tour stages are precious jewels, and today is a chance for someone who doesn't sprint, climb, or time-trial well enough but is otherwise a fantastic cyclist. Once upon a time we imagined Thor Hushovd passing on his breakaway torch to a young Edvald Boasson Hagen, but Peter Sagan has ruined a lot of people's contingencies over the years.
What I'd Skip: An ordinary beach day. Every one of which is a gift, and I'd refuse to sacrifice one for a stage like this. But only because of the rise in on-demand video replay.
Stage 14: Rodez - Mende, 178.5km
Saturday, July 18
What It's About: Torturing people? This Tour has next to zero true transition days: you know, the long, straight, flat rides from point A (where something cool happened) to point B (where something cool is expected to happen). Where the peloton rides along at a gentlemanly pace until the final 5km or thereabouts, enabling everyone to just ride their bike and not be in a state of constant stress. The final 5km here include an ascent of the Côte de la Croix Neuve, which includes 3km at over 10%. Short enough for teams to act like it's not a climbers' stage, and tough enough to treat it like it is.
Why It Matters: Time gaps and a nifty stage win, again probably for a non-favorite who will enjoy his day of fame, along with whatever local goodies they want to show off. My money's on some sort of cheese.
What I'd Skip: A day at the beach with the kids. People say they grow up fast, but it seems to be taking years.
Stage 15: Mende - Valence, 183km
Sunday, July 19
What It's About: A downhill run away from the volcanic area of Languedoc-Roussillon, possibly leading to a sprint (!). I guess the Tour doesn't view Sundays as an opportunity to grow the viewing audience.
Why It Matters: Sprints come few and far between this Tour. And even this one, if it materializes, will likely see a few big names miss out, depending on how up their team is for pulling back the (Sagan-led) lead group after the Col de l'Escrinet (cat 2, 8km at 5.8%).
What I'd Skip: A day of washing beach towels and vacuuming sand out of the car.
Stage 16: Bourg-de-Péage - Gap, 201km
Monday, July 20
What It's About: More torture. Isn't the third Monday supposed to be one for resting? No. Not this Tour. It's a day for pointless climbing -- pointless in that the GC contenders will be loathe to sort out the prizes here, but you're going to climb pretty much all day regardless.
Why It Matters: A downhill finish, you say? I wonder who would like a downhill finish?
What I'd Skip: A dinner of homemade clam pizza. Trust me, this is a huge personal sacrifice I'm talking about here.
Stage 17: Digne-Les-Bains - Pra Loup, 161km
Wednesday, July 22
What It's About: Light skirmishing, unless someone is desperate enough to try a big move (coughContadorcough).
Why It Matters: Five categorized climbs, a pair of 2s and 3s plus a 1, make this the last great KOM prize stage. Look for two or three riders to be off alone all day battling each other at the summit.
What I'd Skip: Bowl of chowder. This is no time to exhaust your sacrifice-tolerance.
Stage 18: Gap - Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 186.5km
Thursday, July 23
What It's About: KOM points, and maybe a long-range attack. Still biding our time, unless we're not.
Why It Matters: Did I say Stage 17 was for the KOM guys? Well they'd better get a good night's sleep. This one's got seven rated ascents, including the HC Col du Glandon.
What I'd Skip: Surfing lessons from Gavia. I won't want to skip this, but I will have my priorities.
Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne - La Toussuire, 138km
Friday, July 24
What It's About: Is this the nastiest day of the Tour? I can't tell anymore. Still, it features the Glandon/Croix de Fer, two lesser bits, a finish at La Toussuire, and maybe 15km of flat ground, tops.
Why It Matters: EVEN MORE KOM POINTS. I hope a bunch of guys get involved here, because this could be quite a battle. Oh, and maybe the Tour winner will be decided too.
What I'd Skip: A chance to appear in a surfer movie featuring the Beach Boys, Dick Dale and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Stage 20: Modane - Alpe d'Huez, 110.5km
Saturday, July 28
What It's About: Deciding the Tour.
Why It Matters: Because the Tour is a competition.
What I'd Skip: Summer.
Stage 21: Sèvres-Grand Paris Seine Ouest - Paris Champs-Elysées, 109.5km
Sunday, July 29
What It's About: The usual boring parade to Paris.
Why It Matters: Sprinters will rejoice! They will cry tears of joy! Big, fat, salty tears of... joy!
What I'd Skip: The stage. But definitely come inside for the light show.