There aren't that many things one can be certain about in cycling. When a three-man break goes up the road on a random flat stage of the Giro, they aren't sure to be caught. When Oleg Tinkov gives an interview, he isn't definitely drunk. When Patrick Lefevre is in the team car during the Tour of Flanders you can’t be certain he won't sometimes lower his voice. No, from a few years of watching and writing about this sport, I've come to believe that the only thing you can rely upon is people complaining about how it's broadcast, or more often not broadcast, with schedulers often missing important climbs of mountain stages to show ski jumping or snooker.
I empathise with these complaints, truly I do, but at the same time I do understand that cycling is not the only sport for which people watch Eurosport, impossible as that may seem. And so I present to you the Viewers' Guide to the 2017 Tour de France, in which I will get into the mind of whoever it is in the HQ of Eurosport, RAI, ZDF or whichever channel on which you watch cycling and try to understand why they refuse to show our magnificent sport when they perhaps ought to. I am fully aware that there probably aren't evil moustache-twiddlers in Eurosport's (my channel of choice) studios who sit at boardroom meetings and with sinister intent decide to show some other sport than cycling during a perfectly acceptable stage of the Volta a Catalunya. I am equally aware that if they do exist, they have chosen to inundate us with Tour coverage this July. But if you were taking me seriously by this point, you wouldn't have gotten this far down the page.
Alright, let's get going with this.
Stage 1: Düsseldorf - Düsseldorf (13km)
What's going on? It's a prologue time-trial! Except it's too long to be officially given that title, because the prologue time-trial is definitely a concept that makes sense and I could totally explain it to a newcomer. We're outside of France, just in case you hadn't noticed, finding ourselves in the lovely environs of Düsseldorf, a city in the bit of Germany where they got bored of using land for anything but the building of cities. I'm writing this in a house practically surrounded by fields, so never think that isn't a compliment, Düsseldorf. Anyway, it's thirteen kilometres, pretty much out and back.
What might happen? Ooh, I don't know. Rohan Dennis
will win would have won if BMC liked winning. As it is Tony Martin should take another yellow jersey. After that we'll all spent a few minutes/hours/days dissecting what it means that GC contender A lost six seconds to GC contender B, paying special considerations to the variables which affected their respective rides.
Is it important? It's not really that important. Some GC contenders will lose twenty seconds or so. The whole thing should look pretty much a copy of the comparable fourteen kilometre time-trial in Utrecht two years ago. It'll give the crowd a spectacle and the TV viewers a decent race on a Saturday afternoon.
What does the boardroom say? You have to show the first stage, right? Get people interested. There's plenty of time for advertising during the early runners.
Stage 2: Düsseldorf - Liège (202km)
What's going on? Ah, what have we here? A stage finishing in Liège? Well, we know all about the hills around that region, don’t we. So what are we talking, a good hilly stage to soften the legs in the first week, like we've enjoyed early in Grand Tours before? Well...
It's a flat stage. I'm not thrilled, but I'll get over it. It brings the race out of Germany and towards France, at least.
What might happen? We'll get a look at who's going to challenge in the sprints all Tour, is what it looks like, in addition to which leadout (Quickstep) is going to do the majority of the work in chasing down breakaways. This is the first stage where we will tune in at eleven in the morning and wonder at the slight futility of showing all of these stages.
Is it important? If you like sprints, it's rather important indeed. The yellow jersey is very unlikely to change hands, so unless the heightened likelihood of a crash actually makes for one, it's not the most vital stage to the GC contenders.
What does the boardroom say? I'd imagine there'd be arguments for showing highlights of Diamond League athletics or a SuperBikes race at this time. I'd probably listen to some of them.
Stage 3: Verviers - Longwy (202km)
What's going on? There are a few hills for the first time all Tour, with a sharpish uphill finish on the Côte des Religieuses. The race moves through Luxembourg, and finally home to France.
What might happen? There will undoubtedly be an uphill sprint. Not all that selective of an uphill sprint, however — the final hill is 1.6 kilometres with an average of six per cent, but the first half of the climb is much tougher than the second, meaning a good chance for Sagan and whoever will come second.
Is it important? It's where Sagan takes the green jersey, if you consider that vital to the race. Other than that, and the obvious shadow of crashes, this should be fun to watch for about ten minutes at the end.
What does the boardroom say? Hell, I'd probably watch snooker over much of this stage. Those evildoers at Eurosport are arguing vehemently for it. They'd all be for showing the finale though.
Stage 4: Mondorf-les-Bains - Vittel (208km)
What's going on? It's another long flat stage, which one might expect on a Tuesday where the Tour's main job is getting away from Luxembourg, brought into focus by the fact that this stage goes directly south, towards the Vosges and eventually the Alps.
What might happen? Again, this looks like a sprint day, with just one climb, and that category four, over the 208 kilometres of the stage. Expect a slow day with a fast finish.
Is it important? If the winner of this stage took the honours two days earlier, this could be the stage where we see who will dominate the Tour's sprints, a question to which we don't have much of an answer as of yet. There oughtn't to be any great GC challenges on this stage.
What does the boardroom say? I could imagine arguments for cutting this one from the coverage altogether and showing highlights of ski jumping (or live ski jumping. Is there summer ski jumping?) instead. There will be a lot of bored viewers for a large portion of the stage.
Stage 5: Vittel - La Planche des Belles Filles (160km)
What's going on? It's the first mountain test, with the new Vosges favourite of La Planche des Belles Filles on the menu after a short, rolling day through the Haute-Saône. This is the third time in six Tours where the short climb has been featured, with the 2017 stage looking more like stage seven of the 2012 Tour than stage ten of 2014 — the climb is thrown in at the end of the stage to introduce the mountains, rather than the full-blown mountain day which finished on La Planche three years ago.
What might happen? I think we'll see a bunch of not-quite tuned-up GC contenders, er, tuning up. This is not a climb to make big gains and the show put on by Sky in 2012 was only achievable in, yes, 2012. I think the peloton will turn up at the foot of the climb and attacks will be shut down until about a kilometre and a half from the line. Whoever is strongest - forward slash - whoever cares least about keeping their cards close to their chest will likely come out with an attack at around that point, and maybe they'll win the stage.
Is it important? This, again, is not a climb on which one can make big gains. First place and second, assuming the break is caught, will be separated by no more than twenty seconds - I'm more inclined to think less than ten. - Therefore, I don't think anyone will show their hand.
What does the boardroom say? Oh, this is one that would have to be shown no matter how much those boardroom members hate cycling.
Stage 6: Vesoul - Troyes (216km)
What's going on? Another flat stage, just as long, just as resemblant of a pancake and just as likely to cause excitement if it's the third you've had. The Tour is diverted from its course and heads north-west, most likely because Troyes had a budget surplus last year.
What might happen? Another sprint, move on.
Is it important? To sprinters and sponsors.
What does the boardroom say? The arguments to show Watts, or indeed just a blank screen instead of this stage are oddly compelling.
Stage 7: Troyes - Nuits-Saint Georges (214km)
What's going on? What's going on? What is going on with all these flat stages, that's my question. This is another day of more than two hundred flat, turgid kilometres.
What might happen? There will be another sprint and we'll all have to deal with that.
Is it important? As much as these stages can be. Sagan might worry about losing green about now, but that's it.
What does the boardroom say? Not much — I expect they've fallen asleep.
Stage 8: Dole - Station Les Rousses (187km)
What's going on? The Tour hits the Jura, with a series of toughish climbs to harden up the legs before ten flat kilometres at the end to decide the stage. A category one climb, eleven kilometres in length with an average gradient of six and a half, will be the biggest obstacle so far faced by the peloton.
What might happen? Again, there are factors which make me suspect we won't see a lot of action on this stage. The final climb is not very hard - it touches eight per cent at its steepest - and the ten flat kilometres will discourage attacking. A breakaway may be given some leeway (and perhaps a loan of the yellow jersey) here while the GC contenders conserve.
Is it important? It is, and it will likely be a fast day which will have some impact on the riders' performances on the tougher stage nine, but I think it's unlikely that much is going to happen as far as the final GC is concerned.
What does the boardroom say? They’ve gotten into a rhythm of showing the Tour by now. This one hits the screens with no argument.
Stage 9: Nantua - Chambery (181km)
What's going on? It’s a queen stage contender, with three HC climbs in the form of the Col de la Biche, Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat over 181 punishing kilometres. All of those climbs have an average gradient of over nine per cent, meaning twenty-seven kilometres of relentless, steep climbing.
The problem with the stage comes in the flat sections. The fifty kilometres of no real climbing between the top of the Grand Colombier and the Mont du Chat may help dropped team mates get back on, which the thirteen kilometres of flat between the bottom of the final descent and Chambéry will dampen the chances of a decisive attack.
What might happen? That said, there will be attacks here. In this Tour, there aren't a lot of chances to take time on your rivals and the Mont du Chat is a prime one. On gradients as sustained and steep as those of the final climb, team help will cease to be useful with some kilometres still to go as gravity alone drops riders out the back. That should lead to a group of three to five contesting the stage in Chambéry.
Is it important? Beyond a doubt. It's one of the three biggest stages of the Tour, and it's where we'll start to see who has it and who doesn't. The GC begins to take shape here.
What does the boardroom say? Oh, they're all on board with showing this one. It's a pretty good use of a Sunday afternoon, with a rest day tomorrow.
Stage 10: Périgueux - Bergerac (178km)
What's going on? Making sure that anyone with post-rest day dead legs gets off lightly, with a meander between the two towns which hosted the final time-trial in 2014, because that was, er, memorable. It's pan-flat again, but shorter this time.
What might happen? Sprint number what, five? The leadout trains must be getting bored by this point.
Is it important? Not likely.
What does the boardroom say? I think some of them thought the race was over at the rest day, meaning this one makes TV fine. They'd be up in arms if they were paying attention though.
Stage 11: Eymet - Pau (202km)
What's going on? Pau is the convenient Pyrenees drop-off location, so this stage drops the race off, after yet another two hundred plus kilometre flat stage. It's the last proper sprint for while, but it's the sixth in the first eleven days, something that hasn't happened in any recent Tour.
What might happen? I think this is where everyone truly gets bored, especially if I'm wrong and the GC isn’t close. If there's a dominant sprinter, he'll have cleaned up by this points and sprints will be less a spectacle, more a chore.
Is it important? Definitely not. It's probably okay to skip this one.
What does the boardroom say? If this stage were in Tirreno-Adriatico, it would probably mysteriously disappear off the schedules to be replaced by darts, or something. As it is, we'll sit through it.
Stage 12: Pau - Peyragudes (214km)
What's going on? It's a Port de Balés-Peyragudes stage, which if you haven't noticed, is kind of becoming a thing. It was done in 2012 (there's quite a few references to be made to that Tour this year) and again in the 2013 Vuelta. And I'm not all that convinced it works. The Peyrasourde is not that tough a climb compared to some of the other Pyrenean giants, and the two kilometres tacked on the end aren't going to make that much of a difference.
What might happen? Again, I could see a group of four or five finishing together here, which once again, isn't going to do a whole lot to split up the GC. This race does not have enough mountains to do that, and I don't know if the response to the Sky Train is to cut down on train lines, or the organisers actually think that fewer mountains are going to make for a more exciting race, but at this point we're twelve stages in and there's been no real place to make a truly decisive move.
Is it important? Yes, it's absolutely important, but more for who goes out the back than who goes off the front. Peyragudes is not a place to win the Tour de France, places that have been rare lately.
What does the boardroom say? They didn't inspect the profile closely enough, and are showing it with fewer reservations than I have.
Stage 13: Saint-Girons - Foix (101km)
What's going on? What a good question. Short stages are all the rage recently, and this Tour isn't disappointing with three category one climbs packed into one hundred kilometres. Actually, that's not true. They're packed even more tightly than that, a fact with the unfortunate side-effect of a more boring stage, with thirty downhill and flat kilometres until the end of the stage.
What might happen? I'd like to think there'd be all-out attacking all day, but I think short stages are at their best when everyone is on their last legs, which I don't think anybody will be at this point. I also think they work best when risks seem very likely to lead to rewards, which given the flat at the end of the stage does not seem true of this stage.
Is it important?Once again, nothing will be decided here. That's three mountain ranges gone without a really brutal summit finish, so the top ten could still be seriously close by this point. Like, ninety seconds close. This is not a Tour de France for anyone to dominate.
What does the boardroom say? They're thrilled about this one. Three hours of coverage and then a cut to under-19 football.
Stage 14: Blagnac - Rodez (181km)
What's going on? Remember that stage Van Avermaet won in 2015? Well this is a copy of that, because five hundred metre uphill sprints are something for which we all get really excited on the penultimate Saturday of the Tour, apparently.
What might happen? There'll be a five hundred metre uphill sprint, probably between Van Avermaet and Sagan again, which will be a cool continuation of the rivalry, I admit, but it'll be a continuation of the rivalry that lasts five hundred metres.
Is it important? If you like the Sagan-Van Avermaet quasi-rivalry, I suppose it is. But that's fourteen stages down with a close GC battle, or I'll be shocked.
What does the boardroom say? Peter Sagan's made for television. This gets shown, unfortunately. I'll skip it.
Stage 15: Laissac-Severac L'Eglise - Le Puy-en-Velay (189km)
What's going on? The only answer I really have to that question is "not much fun."
This looks like one of those stages you hear a sprinter call "brutal" despite the lack of climbing and real GC action.
What might happen? It's a nailed-on breakaway stage, at least. I suppose attacks could be made on the Col de Peyra Taillade, but again, there's thirty kilometres from summit to finish line.
Is it important? Compared to some of the other recent stages, maybe, but this is a very innocuous stumbling block if you consider how many mountains had been summited by this point in previous Tours.
What does the boardroom say? I think they all bugger off on Sundays, so this stage should be fine.
Stage 16: Le Puy-en-Velay - Romans-sur-Isère (165km)
What's going on? Oh, for feck's sake. It's another one, by which I mean another flat stage. That makes seven now, with two more to come. I have had enough.
What might happen? Nothing might happen. This is a stage for nothing to happen.
Is it important? My struggle to not switch the channel is important to me.
What does the boardroom say? I think this one would barely scrape through the boardroom. A few bribes would be required.
Stage 17: La Mure - Serre Chevalier (183km)
What's going on? Hello, Galibier.
Hello Télégraphe and Croix de Fer, also. This is a proper mountain stage, where racing should be on for the last hundred and twenty kilometres. That descent to the finish, however, looks prime for chasing back on.
What might happen? This one is the most difficult to predict. you'd have to assume that if there's a dominant climber in the race, he'd get away on the Galibier but that's by no means certain. Then there's the fact that again, this stage does not end with a climb, instead a descent that gradually gets less steep, once again inviting chasers. There's a good chance of a convincing win here, however.
Is it important? It's one of the biggest stages of the race, and actually one of the least predictable, especially if the GC is close going in.
What does the boardroom say? They can't find any decent underfunded motor racing, so they'd show even if it wasn't such an intriguing stage.
Stage 18: Briançon - Col d'Izoard (202km)
What's going on? It's the Tour's only proper summit finish, on the famous Col d'Izoard, a climb which has never hosted a stage finish before. While the climb proper starts of course from Guillestre, the meat of the climb is a fourteen kilometre stretch at an average of almost eight per cent, getting more and more severe as the climb goes on. This all comes after climbing the Col de Vars on a long stage.
What might happen? This is where everyone has to Just Go Mental. There's nowhere to lose your hard-won advantage, no need for much gamesmanship, the strongest climber likely wins. As to who that will be, we'll have a better idea nearer the time.
Is it important? You betcha.
What does the boardroom say? They're all getting rather excited now. Even a boardroom full of cycling-haters can embrace this stage.
Stage 19: Embrun - Salon-de-Provence (220km)
What's going on? This stage contains my absolute pet hate as a viewer of Grand Tours. The flat stage nineteen is such a useless, yet such a common abhorrence at the end of a race which has had enough sprinting. There is no need for this stage. Mont Ventoux is forty kilometres away from the stage finish. C'mon, which would you rather watch?
What might happen? Even the sprinters (this is flat stage number eight) will likely be bored and tired by this point, so a break will probably get away. Because that's exactly the type of drama we're all looking for at this point.
Is it important? It could have been, but absolutely not.
What does the boardroom say? The boardroom are all bemused because this ought to be a mountain stage.
Stage 20: Marseille - Marseille (23km)
What's going on? Final time-trial, people! It's a technical jaunt around the Marseille seafront, with a small climb in the middle to break the rhythm.
There you are. It's short enough, as these things go, so really only the best time-triallists could hope to take any more than a minute.
What might happen? The yellow jersey might just be on the table, and it might just be close enough between two good time-triallists (calling Chris and Richie) that we have a real showdown. Or, maybe it's just a coronation for the eventual winner.
Is it important? It's just as important as any of the mountain stages for time loss. It might even be a decent spectacle.
What does the boardroom say? They've all gone to Marseille to see it live and they've left me in charge. It's on TV.
Stage 21: Montgeron - Paris Champs-Elysées (103km)
What's going on? It's the standard procession to Paris.
What might happen? Champagne, Champs cobbles, big sprint and the winning team crossing the line arm-in arm.
Is it important? It's nice to watch. But god no.
What does the boardroom say? They care as little as I do. They'll watch anyway.