As some of you know, I am a huge fan of a sport with a bit of a reputation on this site. I watch it, I play it, I practise all the time, which I understand, to many of you, probably seems quite weird. But that's me: quite weird. Instead of watching the crucial time-trial of the Tour de Suisse the other day, I was being frustrated by some Dublin-based batsmen. As Tom Dumoulin was slipping down the rankings of the Vuelta last year, my mind was focussed firmly on leg breaks and googlies. When I should have been seething about not picking Jasper Stuyven as he surged to a win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, I was searching for my bat and pads for the first practice of the year. And to those of you that understand none of the terms I've used in the above passage, the sport I'm talking about is cricket. For some balance, here's an educational video:
Now don't get me wrong, I don't play at a high level. I've been playing for six years, and have gradually improved in all of those, and I've had the opportunities to captain teams, which is always great fun, but I'm not exactly playing in the big leagues. I love the game, I get on well with everyone I've played with, and can genuinely say I enjoy every minute of playing the sport. And fortunately, events have happened to let me play a lot of cricket this summer. Basically, when all of you would go for a ride, I'll ring up a few mates, and go down to the nets for a bit of a practice session.
But now the Tour is on, and the cricket season is hotting up, so I do have to question myself: just what would it take for me to skip a bit of cricket? It's not as though I can just play an hour-long match in the morning — there are some fairly rigid schedules for games, and one of the things I routinely get mocked for is that they can last six hours. So if I'm going to play cricket one Saturday, I have to commit. It'll mean that the most I can get out of the stage is a quick check of Twitter when I'm wolfing down a sandwich at the [sigh] tea break. So which of these stages can be sacrificed in pursuit of an innings, and for which will I have to give my team captain an awkward phone call? Let's find out!
Stage 1: Mont-Saint-Michel - Utah Beach Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (188 km)
Saturday, July 2nd
What is it? It is what it looks like. A flat sprinter's stage to get us started, hand out the jerseys, and indulge Christian Prudhomme's dislike of prologues. It's going to be a sprint. And Marcel Kittel will likely win, to get his second race leader's jersey of the season.
Is it important? Only if there are crashes. Which in all honesty, there very well may be. Also, expect someone from a French pro continental team to attack at full gas, aiming for those mountain points. My money's on Pierre-Luc Perichon.
Howzat? I think I could afford to miss this one. I'll watch the neutral zone in the morning for the depart, and still be at the match on time.
Stage 2: Saint-Lô - Cherbourg-en-Cotentin (183km)
Sunday, July 3rd
What is it? It's a chance for someone to wrest the yellow jersey off Marcel Kittel’s back. Mostly flat, and along the coast, it should be a fast and frenetic stage, ending in a sprint up this thing:
Yeah, good luck in getting up that with your overall lead intact, Marcel.
Is it important? Slightly. Remember, the Tour is still doing bonus seconds this year, and there are ten to be gained here. The fact that the stage does end on a considerably challenging hill certainly lends itself to a stage win by an overall contender, which will put them into yellow early on in the race. Also, crosswinds and crashes can't be counted out on a coastal stage so early in the race.
Howzat? No, sorry, I think this one will be fun. Perhaps an hour of practise in the early afternoon, but there's no chance in hell I'm missing that finish. The Tour de France starts right here, folks, and who can resist an uphill sprint with the yellow jersey on the line? I know I can't.
Stage 3: Granville - Angers (224 km)
Monday, July 4th
What is it? Another chance for the sprinters, but this time it's well over 200 kilometres long, because there's nothing like a long, boring, flat stage to bring the Tour de France south to the mountains.
Is it important? Only in that it might help some proper sprinters keep the green jersey out of the clutches of Peter Sagan for a few more days. Otherwise, not really.
Howzat? Game, training, either, both. Hit me with whatever is available, I'm unlikely to miss much here.
Stage 4: Saumur - Limoges (238! km)
Tuesday, July 5th
What is it? See stage 3. It's almost exactly the same, just slightly more unreasonably long, and with a really long climb, the latter part of which is uncategorised.
Is it important? If you really like reading exasperated tweets from domestiques. They'll go to town on this one, and I'm not entirely sure I blame them. Still, at least we're still moving south.
Howzat? Just keep lining up the cricket. This stage is long enough that I could play half a dozen games and be back for the sprint.
Stage 5: Limoges - Le Lioran (216 km)
Wednesday, July 6th
What is it? It's justification for all that southward movement that's been going on. The race arrives at the Massif Central.
Well, doesn't this look fun. The racing should start right at the foot of the Pas de Peyrol, and not let up until the finish, with a final kick in the last kilometre leaving a grinding uphill sprint as a possibility for how the stage will be decided. Or, you know, it could happen on all those mountains. The racing should be à bloc from start to finish, as it tends to be on medium mountain stages like this.
Is it important? Yes. You won't win the Tour here, but you can certainly lose it. Anyone suffering could certainly pay for it on the road to Le Lioran, and there's certainly chances for a contender to make a sneaky attack. Also, whoever ends up in the break will find himself with more KOM points than he knows what to do with.
Howzat? Come on, I played the last two days. I'll be firmly planted in front of this stage. Not even a big league match could tempt me away. Probably.
Stage 6: Arpajon-sur-Cère / Montauban (191 km)
Thursday, July 7th
What is it? The last sprint stage before the race reaches the mountains.
Is it important? Sure, if you're a sprinter. Otherwise, it's importance is somewhat limited. Oh, and it gifts a few green jersey points to Peter Sagan, who should be have spent a couple of days in green by this stage.
Howzat? I'd probably skip a net practice for this. If it was drizzling.
Stage 7: L'Isle-Jourdain - Lac de Payolle (163 km)
Friday, July 8th
What is it? It is where the Tour enters the Pyrenees, where we have a flat early part of the stage, before a quick jaunt up and down the Col d'Aspin.
Then there's a quick descent, and an uphill kick to the finish at Lac de Payolle.
Is it important? This should probably see the first real GC battle of the race, and the first contenders to disappear under the weight of Pyrenean pressure. So yes, it's important.
Howzat? Oof, I dunno. First mountain stage. I'll pretend my bat's broken or something. Or maybe break it myself.
Stage 8: Pau - Bagnères-de-Luchon (184 km)
Saturday, July 9th
What is it? Yet another chance to climb the Col du Tourmalet, but who really cares about repetition. It's the Col du Tourmalet. Other famous climbs are also summited, such as the ever-returning Peyresourde, Val Louron-Azet, and La Hourquette (which means fork) d'Ancizan. Again, there's no summit finish, with the descent of the Peyresourde providing the final obstacle.
You remember the stage in 2013, where Movistar isolated Froome, and Martin outsprinted Fuglsang to win the stage? Yeah, they got the second half of that, flipped it, stuck the Tourmalet in front and, I dunno, probably said voila.
Is it important? Big yes. This could be one of the biggest stages of the race. From 67 kilometres in onwards, there's no letup, and there's sure to be one team that wants to drive the pace. And since there won't have been the first summit finish yet, Froome won't have jumped away from everyone and demoralised them. Mark this one down on your calendar, I can practically guarantee action.
Howzat? Step one of getting out of sports, practised by everyone at one stage or another: fake an injury.
Stage 9: Vielha Val d'Aran - Andorre Arcalis (185 km)
Sunday, July 10th
What is it? Summit finish time! And it's after a frankly cruel stage. Ducking into Spain for the departure, and (you guessed it) Andorra for the It starts off with a nineteen-kilometre climb, taking the riders above 2000 metres, and it doesn't let up from there. The short, sharp climbs of the Côte de la Comella and the Col de Beixalis lead to the foot of the climb to Arcalis.
The ten kilometre finishing climb has been used once before in the Tour de France, when Brice Feillu (And there I was, thinking there would be no need to mention the Feillus this year) won from a breakaway. It's not the toughest of the race's summit finishes, at only 7.5%, but it does go the highest of any of the races MTFs.
Is it important? If this is where you expect the eventual winner to Froome off into yellow, yes. And with a rest day to come directly after the stage, we can expect the climbers to go that bit deeper in their efforts to lay down a marker before the race leaves the Pyrenees.
Howzat? The injury excuse will hold out for another day, won't it? And if not, I can go into hiding. It's a rest day tomorrow.
Stage 10: Escaldes-Engordany - Revel (197 km)
Tuesday, July 12th
What is it? A chance for the breakaway to revel (see what I did there) in a chance to win a Tour stage. This is one of those stages that clings to the mountains at the start, again beginning with a first category climb to over 2000 metres, but then it's descent most of the way until the finish.
The Côte de Saint-Ferréol will provide a springboard for late stage-winning attacks.
Is it important? No, not really in the long term. If you're someone who wants to stagehunt, this is a day to underline in red ink.
Howzat? It would be suspicious to stay too long out with the injury. I'd go out for a cricket game during this stage. If it was sunny.
Stage 11: Carcassonne - Montpellier (163 km)
Wednesday, July 13th
What is it? By jove, it's a sprint stage. We haven't seen one since the other side of the Pyrenees. It's mostly a straight, flat run between Carcassonne and Montpellier, and gives a light at the end of the tunnel to hulking German sprinters grinding up Arcalis.
Is it important? Maybe for the green jersey, or Marcel Kittel's ego. Otherwise, not really, no.
Howzat? Cricket? I'd give this stage up for a game of table tennis.
Stage 12: Montpellier - Mont Ventoux (184 km)
Thursday, July 14th
What is it? A trek up Mont Ventoux! This is not a drill! To refresh your memory, this is what it looks like.
Is it important? What do you think? There are guaranteed fireworks, and not just because it's Bastille Day.
Howzat? I'd skip a cup final. On television. Don't skip this for anything, it might decide the race.
Stage 13: Bourg-Saint-Andéol / La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc (37.5 km)
Friday, July 15th
What is it? Another of the biggest stages of the race, and the longest, flattest time trial. There's a few kilometres of 5% climbing, but after that it's mostly flat and quite straight, with just a few bends in the closing kilometres.
Is it important? As usual, it is. Time-trials are always a crucial part of the Tour, whether we like them or not, and Chris Froome could have the chance to pad his lead or make up time here, and so could Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen.
Howzat? I don't know, could I be back to see the bigs finish? I don't think I'd risk it.
Stage 14: Montélimar / Villars-les-Dombes Parc des Oiseaux (209 km)
Saturday, July 16th
What is it? Another chance for the sprinters!
Is it important? No!
Howzat? Out! We done here?
Stage 15: Bourg-en-Bresse - Culoz (160 km)
Sunday, July 17th
What is it? More mountains. And yet again, it's not a summit finish. There's this delightful combination of climbs named Grand Colombier to provide the day's action.
Lots more steep climbs, lots more steeper descents, and then another chance for a sprint at the finish.
Is it important? This is the first stage for which I'm undecided about the answer to that question. There's a good amount of flat at the end of the stage to start a chase against attackers, and there's plenty of climbing to come. And for all we know, the Tour will have been decided by this stage. More likely, it's a chance for a Spanish domestique to have his day in the sun.
Howzat? If I want a breakaway battle, I wouldn't skip this stage, but I might chance my arm if I was worried about the GC.
Stage 16: Moirans-en-Montagne - Berne (209 km)
Monday, July 18th
What is it? It's another sprint stage, I surprise myself to say. Especially when you consider that there was exactly one sprint stage between stages 7 and 21 last year, and only two in 2014. This is the third in the second week. Well, probably. The route is a bit rolling, so who knows if tired sprinters teams can - to use the French term - be arsed to chase down a break.
Is it important? Unlikely. I guess there are no mountains in Switzerland. What's that, Will?
Howzat? Well, this is the last time I won't be glued to the TV in a while, so I'll grab my gear and get out there.
Stage 17: Berne / Finhaut-Emosson (185 km)
Wednesday, July 20th
What is it? Hey, you remember the time everyone was convinced Bert was back to his old self because he ran rings round an injured, inhaler-sucking Froome at the Dauphiné? Yeah, well remember the least awesome mountain stage in that race? Because this is a bit like that. It finishes on the same pairing of climbs as stage 7 of the 2014 Dauphiné, the Col de la Forclaz and the Col de la Gueulaz, to Emosson.
Is it important? Sure, it's an Alpine summit finish. It's not the longest climb in the race, but it's steep, and it'll be challenging.
Howzat? Well, I mean, I'd skip a lot of cricket to see this stage, but it's probably going to be the least decisive of the Alpine stages, and there's a treat coming tomorrow.
Stage 18: Sallanches - Megève (17 km)
Thursday, July 21th
What is it? An uphill time-trial. I repeat, an uphill time-trial! Okay, there's no need to call in the Foliforovs, it's not as tough as the one in the Giro, but it should certainly put the favourites through their paces. As a certain Signor Nibali can tell you, they aren't exactly risk-free either, these things. Can I also just point out that they put this in the worlds course in 1980? That would not be a fun year to do worlds, not fun at all.
Is it important? Sure, I mean, this is unique as mountain stages go, because every second counts. Also, that thing looks like a nightmare to pace yourself for. We can probably expect some people to fall back here.
Howzat? I'd skip any cricket match for any uphill time-trial. They are the unloved, but brilliant stages of GTs.
Stage 19: Albertville / Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc (146 km)
Friday, July 22nd
What is it? It's a short (146 km), tough mountain stage. First, the race cashes in on all the Forclazes it can find, and then there's the Montée de Bisanne, which Will is probably soon going to tell you is one of the Tour's most difficult climbs. It's 12 kilometres long, very steep, and will soften the legs up nicely for the summit finish, which has also been tested in the Dauphiné before. The Le Bettex climb starts off with a very steep section, then eases off, relatively speaking. The last 4km is all around 9%.
Is it important? Absolutely. While the false flat to Megève would probably take the sting out of any attack made on the Montée de Bisanne, there's no chance that this stage goes by without drama.
Howzat? It's stage 19 of the Tour! I could probably give up cricket. It would be painful, sure, but I'd get over it.
Stage 20: Megève - Morzine-Avoriaz (146 km)
Saturday, July 23rd
What is it? It's a short (146 km), tough mountain stage. And again, it's decided with a descent. This is the fourth of this year's mountain stages to end on a descent or flat, the most for quite a while. Only one did last year, and two in 2013. Anyway, the presence of a late descent will allow desperate contenders for victory to take risks in order to make a late attack stick. Also, the Joux Plane is back, baby! Nothing weird has ever happened there.
Is it important? Feck yes.
Howzat? Nothing short of an international call-up could make me miss this stage. Ah, who am I kidding. Nothing could!
Stage 21: Chantilly / Paris Champs-Élysées (113 km)
Sunday, July 24th
What is it? It's the last parade to the Champs-Élysées, to put the icing (or rather cream) on our Tour de France gateaux.
Is it important? Yes, to sprinters. And all of the cyclists who are tired of traipsing around France. Which I would say is a majority.
Howzat? I'm probably skipping this one, cricket or no cricket. But I'll watch the highlights later, if only for the podium presentation.