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Viewers’ Guide to the 2018 Tour de France - Part One

In which the draft comes to cycling previews

FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

So, there’s this bike race you might have heard of? Happens in France every year? Kind of a big deal? Goes on for ages? This one time, this American guy won it lots of times, except he didn’t? Anyway, we try and talk about it every year, because, I dunno, people like it? Yeah. Whatever.

The Tour is coming, guys. With it comes the annual Podium Cafe stage by stage guide. This year, we’re trying something new. Instead of working out how important the stages are relative to other things in our lives, we’re drafting them. I was joined by m’colleague, Conor, and asked him to pick the stage he’s most looking forward to watching. Not necessarily the best, or the most important, just the one he’ll give up the most to watch. We argued for a bit, and then I picked my favourite of the remaining 20, until none were left. All clear? Excellent.

Before we start, a quick look at the map:

If you haven’t been keeping track at home, by my count there are 3,551km to cover, including:

  • 8 flat stages;
  • 3 bumpy stages;
  • 2 very bumpy stages;
  • 6 mountains stages;
  • 1 Team time trial (TTT);
  • 1 Individual time trial (ITT).

In amongst that little lot, you can expect

  • 2 uphill finishes;
  • 3 Mountain top finishes (MTF); and
  • One cobbled stage!!!

Without further ado, then, let’s have a look at the stages. We’ve reversed the order in which we picked, because we’re a proper pair of drama queens. So we start with the least exciting stage (in our view) and work upwards. Look for the top 8 picks tomorrow.

Pick No. 21: Stage 7 - On the flat stuff for the race’s longest stage.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH. “What do we want? Long, flat stages without a hope of meaningful action! When do we want it? July the 13th, 2018!” Said protesters in a land that didn’t understand slogans. Or cycling. Or what protests were for. Or when to cut your losses with a joke. Or when not to use meta-humour. Yes. Anyway. Easily the worst stage of the Tour. Too long and too flat to watch. An apt choice for Friday the 13th.

Andrew: You know what? I’ll be watching the more interesting Austria stage on the same day. Okay, I won’t. But if I had to watch something, I’d watch that. At least we agree on the worst day.

Conor: The Tour of Austria’s capable of producing “interesting” now? Well I’ll be...

Andrew: More interesting. Not, y’know, interesting.

Pick No. 20: Stage 18 - Blessed relief for the riders.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: Well, let’s be very clear. When I picked stage 18, there were two stages to choose from. This one was shorter. That’s a factor. If I was really trying, I’d point out that this stage comes between two very tough stages and has a hill in the last 20km, so we might see a “will the break make it” finish – they can be exciting. There’s also only one flat stage after this, and there’s an early sprintermediate, so if the green jersey is in play that might bring some intrigue… but I’m not too optimistic. Fans should take a day’s breath between 17 and 19 – that’s what the GC boys will do.

Conor: The later in the race that sprint stages come, the less patience I have for them. I don’t expect a breakaway win, but I don’t expect to be too bothered either way.

Pick No. 19: Stage 8 - Featureless Flat Day #3

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Chris has a tendency to point out when the most-watched, weekend stages are the worst in terms of excitement. Now I’d point out all the fallacies involved in that of course, if only for the fact that it’s right on the money. And yes, I know a flat stage of a decent length is maybe useful to get us towards the cobbles, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

Andrew: It is Bastille day, so the breakaway will be French, and doomed. That’s a nice holiday tradition.

Conor: If I use the word “fireworks” in relation to this stage, do please punch me.

Pick No. 18: Stage 13 - Break or Sprint?

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: The next time someone tries to drag me into a “Giro vs Tour” debate, I’ll try and remember stage 13. I tend to think of the Tour as the better race because of the profile and the quality of riders (though the latter difference is shrinking) but the parcours argument in favour of the Giro is a good one. The Tour finishes in towns that can afford to host it – hence the last 21km into Valence, which turn this from a short stage finishing on a small ramp into a mid-length flat stage to be won by whichever sprinter is winning this year. It dropped to number 18 in our draft for a reason.

Conor: Yeah, what’s that, the third time a stage has turned up in Valence in six years? Good spot there. I honestly haven’t much to say about this one. Mind you, look at the Giro’s stage 13s for the past six years or so. Only one of them is hillier than this one, which is a weird pattern. Maybe it’s a good day for this kind of stage.

Pick No. 17: Stage 4 - Bumpy, but still flat.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Ah yes, another pan-flat stage, with the mystery of who might win the sprint getting smaller and smaller every day. Hopefully, though, enough will remain to prevent this being the latest chapter of the Gaviria/Kittel/Cavendish/Pasqualon-fest. I predict my stage preview to be ever so slightly irritable. This is also where I’m putting the over/under on the “stage Bouhanni goes home for weird reason” sweepstake.

Andrew: I’ll take the under. What are the odds that he rides the TTT on his own and misses the cutoff?

Conor: I think it’s more likely he’ll start the TTT on the front and punch anyone who tries to take a pull off their bike, with the same result.

Pick No. 16: Stage 2 - Standard first-week fare.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: I thought I’d get to pick the first stage here. My argument was going to be “there’s loads of sprint stages, but the most exciting are the early ones, because we know what the pecking order is halfway through the race and that takes the edge off it. However, Conor got ahead of me by drafting the first stage fifteenth, and will make that argument a few lines down, so I’ll take the second stage and repeat it less strongly.

The bad news? I count three roundabouts and two ninety degree bends in the last few kms, so this is a strong candidate for my least favourite Tour tradition – the early stage with a semi-avoidable massive pile-up that inevitably impacts the entire race.

Conor: Yes, I pretty much agree with all of this, though I can’t count the number of stages with dodgy roundabouts about which I’ve warned in the preview, only for the stage to go swimmingly in the end. You can never really guess where the Tour’s first major crash will happen, though I admit this is a fairly safe bet.

Pick No. 15: Stage 1 - Pan-flat pipe-opener.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Look, I’ll call a spade a spade: this is the first flat stage I’ve had to pick, and to be realistic, it’s unlikely to be a stunner. It’s my favourite of the flat stages, however, because it gives us the beauty of hope. The beauty of the light at the end of the tunnels that are monotonous flat stages: the hope of crosswinds. It’s early in the race, check. It’s along the sea, check. It crosses the Passage du Gois, triple check. Anyway, even if we don’t get so lucky, the first stage of the Tour always has a certain charm, doesn’t it? The yellow jersey is to be awarded, and we’ve got a sprint field that’s better than ever.

Andrew: The first stage of any Grand Tour is exciting. Sunshine helps, the coast helps. I don’t really know who’ll be in yellow, and it could be someone new (Groenewegen?). That’s nice, I guess. Still, we’re down at pick 15 for a reason.

Pick No. 14: Stage 21 - Ceremonial stroll becomes chaotic sprint.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: Now, I know from the response I got when I made the pick that Conor’s about to hand it to me, so I’ll keep this short. This isn’t a proper stage. I know. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t care.

I wouldn’t pick this as the best stage, and I haven’t, but there’s a lot of stages left that don’t interest me that much. This will be a day of smiles. These guys have worked bloody hard and earned it. I’ll enjoy watching them riding along and chatting, I’ll enjoy the fast-paced sprints on those Paris roads we all know and love, and the presentations, and all the traditions of it. Especially if I like the winner. It is fun. If that makes me a sap, so be it. It is one day out of a cycling year. Have a heart. Conor, you heartless beast, talk me around.

Conor: You have picked this as the fourteenth-best stage of the Tour. I can just tell you now that by exactly no metric will this be the fourteenth-best stage of the Tour. There’s a cycling club that goes past my house — if I want to watch cyclists enjoying themselves and having a chat, I’ll drive alongside them on their recovery ride. I want to watch proper racing, which is guaranteed in the last kilometres, but practically banned before them. Following up a short crit with poorly composed speeches and awkward standing on a podium does not improve this stage in my eyes.

Andrew: Come for the yin, stay for the yang. That’s the Conor ‘n’ Andrew show, folks.

Pick No. 13: Stage 15 - Between mountainous and hilly.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Remember last year’s stage fifteen? The one Bauke Mollema won out of a break while AG2R looked threatening but achieved little? Yeah. Well this is that, to all intents and purposes. The breakaway will almost certainly win, and that doesn’t mean the stage won’t be exciting — just don’t expect it to have huge GC implications. Really, this is the runt of the litter when it comes to the mountain stages, and that’s okay. One of them has to be.

Andrew: Yeah, I agree. Happy you had to think of a paragraph on this, instead of me. As with Valence, so with Carcassonne. We’ll probably see an unexpected stage winner, and that’s always nice.

Pick No. 12: Stage 14 - Another sharp hill to close a difficult day.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: With 11 stages picked, plenty of the mountains are gone, and some of the other fun stages, too. This looks... fine. As the key day of a flattish week-long race, it’d be positively thrilling. This year it looks likely to be breakaway fodder, and whilst there might be some gaps on GC, I can’t see this being decisive. That said, the early scuttlebutt on Croix Neuve is that it is pretty tough, and there’s enough descent to make for a thrilling finish. Plus, the Ardeche countryside will be beautiful, and this is definitely going to make for a stage well worth watching.

Conor: You’re really taking the words out of my mouth for these second week stages — it’s grand. Fifteen minutes of fun for your Saturday afternoon, not much more than that. The gaps won’t be huge — this one’s missable.

Pick No. 11: Stage 5 - Classics-style short sharp hills in Brittany.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Ah, the hilly early stage of the Tour that’s cropping up a little bit more often these days. Think Jenkin Road in Yorkshire, for example. No big gaps, of course, but watch out for the wild “you won’t win the Tour today...” quote, which tends to hunt in packs on days like this. It’s not tremendously hard, with only a quintet of category three-and-four climbs. However, the road is scarcely flat all day, with the route very similar to the French semi-classic of the Tour de Finistère, the finishing group of which this year comprised only nine riders. This stage should be the highlight of the first week, with hopefully at least a small GC shakeup in question.

Andrew: I wanted to pick this stage. My “cycling in Brittany is awesome” comments come (much) later, but this is the sort of day that is all sorts of fun. Can’t fault the pick.

Pick No. 10: Stage 16 - An arrival in the Pyrenees.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: I picked this because I thought I should. I like a descent to a finish. I like a cross-border stage. I like comparatively unusual climbs. I even think this might be an important stage in determining the eventual winner. Still... 218km at this stage of the race? No action for about 150km? Seems a little harsh, just to get Carcassonne a stage start, at least to me.

I want to like this a lot more than I do. After 15 stages of the Tour, I just can’t get too excited. Especially with what’s coming in stage 17.

Conor: If somebody wakes up after the rest day with really good legs, they might have a go on this stage. Other than that, it looks like a breakaway day as everyone saves their legs for the all-singing, all-dancing following stage.

Pick No.9: Stage 10 - A first foray into the mountains.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Well, what a lovely little introduction to the mountains. The most notable thing on that profile is the shortest HC climb I’ve ever seen on the Tour de France, the Montée des Glières. When I saw it I thought “why is there a little voice in my head called Will waxing lyrical about this climb.” Then I realised. Not to rain on the parade or anything, but I reckon giving it the HC treatment is a little much. Then again, I doubt Pierre Rolland’s going to be too upset about it. What he might be a bit upset about will be the gravel roads at the top of the climb, which are probably a bit gnarlier than the increasingly-steamrolled Finestre. Anyway, that’s the highlight of this stage, but it’s not all downhill from there, with still the hardest side of the Col de la Colombière via the Col de Romme to go. For somebody who wants to make a post-rest day statement, this terrain looks fairly ideal. For somebody with a post-rest day jour sans, it looks like a nightmare.

Andrew: Yeah, we may have pissed Will off a little bit by including this in the “not interesting” half of this uber-article. It’ll be a good day, on interesting roads, and I’ll be watching. A sensible length, tough climbs, and a descent to the finish. There’s a lot to like, and in truth I probably should have grabbed it earlier. Still, that just means that the eight stages that are left are really, really good.

We’ll get to them tomorrow.