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

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We unveil the 8 most exciting stages of the race

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Twenty One Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In part one, we covered our picks from the 21st to the 9th best stage of the Tour de France. Join us now to count down to our top draft pick.

Pick No.8: Stage 3 - Team time trial. Potential for chaos.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: The guy who wrote the blurb at the top (okay, that was me) had it right - potential for chaos. This stage won’t be beautiful, and it probably won’t end up being hugely impactful. On the other hand, it will definitely have a hand in team selection (especially with squads reduced to eight this year) and will make a big difference to who wears the jerseys for most of the next week. There are years that the climbers can turn up in ordinary form and ignore the first week - with a team time trial, the Mur de Bretagne and cobbles, this is not one of those years.

The last team time trial we saw was in 2013. It was shorter, flatter, less technical and with an extra man on each team, and gaps were kept below a minute to almost all teams. This year’s Dauphine had seven man teams - with plenty of strong riders in the Suisse race or recovering from the Giro - but was a flat 36km. The gaps there were up to three minutes for seven-man teams. What will we see here? Probably about two minutes between competitive squads, is my guess. That’s a lot. Watch this stage closely.

Conor: Ugh. I cannot stand team time-trials, though this stage does deserve such a high ranking, as the Dauphiné shows how important the results can be in the context of the general classification. As an avowed Dan Martin supporter, this stage will have a marked effect on how disappointed I feel when he inevitably falls in a ditch. It’s said that team time-trials favour teams with money and I suppose maybe they do, but Bahrain-Merida have plenty of money and I doubt that will be any comfort to them on this stage, with Nibali set to suffer. Sky, on the other hand, should make their presence felt.

Pick No. 7: Stage 19 - A last burst of mountains

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Full disclosure: I made this pick when I expected the Aubisque to be impassable. It won’t be, apparently, so if I got the chance again, I’d probably have picked it earlier. Meh. At least I didn’t pass it up for the Mûr de Bretagne. Anyway, this stage takes in some classics of the Tour in the Tourmalet and the aforementioned Aubisque, though this different way of climbing it over the Col du Soulor certainly makes it a little more irregular. Much longer, also, as the final climb will now effectively take thirty-six kilometres with just a few minutes’ descending for respite. The stage is undoubtedly hard, but that’s not the quality for which I like it — I’m looking forward to this one because it demands (and will reward) risk-taking. There’s a good chance someone will need to make up time on this stage, and if they’re willing to go all-out, they can do so on the way up and down the Aubisque. I’m thinking especially of Romain Bardet, for example — he’s a descending fiend, it’s not unlikely he’ll be one of the top climbers and he’ll need all the seconds he can get before the following day’s time-trial. Look for him, or someone in a similar situation, to attack here.

Andrew: The Aubisque vs the Mur de Bretagne: proof positive that size doesn’t matter. This will be an important day, a tough day and possibly even an exciting day. In terms of “wow, that’s a cool bit of race planning,” nul points.

Pick No.6: Stage 6 - The first uphill finish of the race.

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: You know what? Maybe I’m just not that crazy about mountain stages. I enjoy them, sure, and I know that there will be Alpine and Pyrenean (Pyreneesian?) stages that have a bigger impact on the overall result, but this will be fun. Brittany is cycling-mad, and this will be a stage with masses of fans and the first chance for a climber to win. It’ll start to give us some sense of who is going well and will shake up the GC, the first road stage where we can say that.

Also, although the Mur isn’t big, it is tough, and they take it twice. I can see the Martins, Alaphillipes and Valverdes of the field creating some gaps on this.

Conor: Will it be fun? W-will it be? Because as far as I’m concerned, this is going to be a collection of sprint leadouts into a diluted version of the Mûr de Huy. Upon arrival at which, Alaphilippe (or one of his ilk, but probably Alaphilippe) will attack just at that six per cent bit and win. No gaps of note, just an uphill sprint. Which is fine, of course, but I wouldn’t have drafted this one until we got to double figures.

Andrew: We’re not going to see the winner of the Tour win here, and the gaps won’t matter. It’ll be the best test of climbing legs thus far in the race, and that’s exciting. Also, Brittany cycling fans would get a lot more press were it not for Flanders and the Basque Country. That’s worth something.

Pick No. 5: Stage 11 - The race’s first MTF, as seen in the Dauphiné.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: We’ve now reached the point in the draft where I can stop pretending the stages I’ve picked are perfect, and get back to my usual schtick of being curmudgeonly. This stage is indeed not perfect, far from it. La Rosière is not steep enough to facilitate attacks if the Sky train have any measure of control. However, this stage is short enough that control should not be taken for granted. Basically, if some semblance of a peloton is still together at the top of the Cormet de Roseland, and there are any domestiques left, don’t expect too much from the final forty kilometres. If it breaks up before then, of course, we’re in for a treat, which is the reason I’ve picked it so high. Under the right circumstances, this could be a legendary stage. Under the wrong ones, we’ll forget about it.

Andrew: Well, you’ve picked a great stage and then crapped all over it. That’s definitely curmdgeonly. Good to have you back in your comfort zone. This looked exciting enough in the Dauphine that I can see fireworks coming, especially with the GC gaps coming out of the first rest day likely to be bigger than we’re used to.

Conor: Yes, I can see that happening, I just know the Tour’s recent record on final climbs such as this one. Honestly, I’m feeling conflicted about this stage. I’ll certainly pay attention to it.

Pick No. 4: Stage 12 - A classic ride up storied climbs

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: I’m about to do something I consider pretty stupid, so bear with me. I’m about to disagree with Will about climbing in the Alps.

I’m glad we have a mountaintop finish on Alpe d’Huez.

Okay, let’s go back a bit. I don’t really disagree with Will. There are loads of great climbs in France and clearly the race has been made more exciting in recent years by going up new climbs and exploring more of the region. We’ve seen beautiful passes, great racing and a more varied parcours. That’s all wonderful.

Still. If you’re a golfer, and you can win one Open, you want it to be at St Andrews. If you’re a racing driver and you can win one Grand Prix, you want it to be Spa (or Monaco, or Imola - just not Azerbaijan). If you’re a cyclist, you want to climb Alpe d’Huez, and ideally win on it, wearing yellow. There may be other iconic climbs, but this one has the name and the history and that stuff makes it more exciting.

Also, this is a tough, tough day in the saddle and the final climb is more than good enough to be a decisive moment in the race and live up to the hype and the high draft position.

Conor: Yes, yes, I’ll get to L’Alpe in a second. First can we talk about the Madelaine? I really like to see its inclusion because I just think it’s one of the most challenging climbs the Tour regularly loses. Not to mention it was the only thing that scared David Millar more than the gendarmerie. Point is, that climb, along with the Croix de Fer, will really soften the legs up ahead of the big show. Now, whenever the Alpe gets mentioned, I think of Nico Roche’s autobiography (written in 2011, so it thus left out, yet also very much included, the rest of his career). Why do I punish myself in this way? Well, because when he talks about L’Angliru in Spain, he compares it in terms of difficulty to two other climbs. Monte Zoncolan...and Alpe d’Huez. Now, it’s not an easy climb, far from it. However. It is nowhere near that exalted company. Being famous doesn’t turn it into a climb that should strike fear into the hearts of the riders. But of course, it’s hard enough for the purposes of potentially being a decisive day after two tough stages beforehand.

Pick No. 3: Stage 17 - Incredibly short stage that’s pain from km 1.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: In 2014, we had a 125 kilometre stage to Pla d’Adet. In 2015, it was a 111 kilometre day ending on L’Alpe. In 2017, we got a 101 kilometre ride to Foix. And on each of those occasions, I seem to remember a little bit of grousing that the stages were getting too short and that the Tour was losing out by having them. Clearly, this has had no effect on the race directors, as they’ve shortened the shortest stage each year, bar 2016. This time, they’ve gone further (or rather less far) than ever before, in what may be a plot by riders to secure a fourth rest day by simply waiting till they accidentally shorten a stage to zero kilometres and hoping nobody notices.

Either way, this stage will have to be entertaining, it’s hard to imagine another thing occurring. The fact that they’re trialling a grid start for the stage got a bit of publicity but it’s a good idea, hilarious as the thought of a GC guy losing half an hour because he was getting a croissant in the depart village may be. This stage is probably harder than any other shortened mountain stage I remember, also, with the tough Peyragudes, the nearly-as-tough Col du Val-Louron and one of the more difficult summit finishes I’ve seen in the Tour, the seventeen-kilometre Col du Portet. Look, this stage will be two hours of cycling at its best. Even if the yellow jersey looks sewn up, which I doubt it will, I still expect wall-to-wall attacking.

Andrew: I agree. In a cobble-free year, this would be my top pick. Fun new wrinkle, the very-short stage. You’re also right that they’ve picked the parcours very intelligently, and the Portet finish is great. Hard to see any more than a handful of domestiques in with the bigs at the foot of a very long climb. Here’s hoping for mano-a-mano stuff.

Pick No.2: Stage 9 - Cobbles!

What was said when the pick was made?
Andrew: Let me start by reminding you of the criteria: this is the stage we’re most excited to watch. Not the best, the most important, or the most “Tour-like”. The most exciting. We’re about to see the Roubaix roads, ridden by the GC guys. I’m excited. If there was a cyclo-cross stage, I’d be excited about that. You know what? I’d be excited if they had to play rugby sevens, or netball, or a crossword competition. This will take guys way outside of their comfort zone, and I think that’s fantastic.

Unlike rugby or cruciverbalism, I also think this is a reasonable test. We’ve come to accept that the GC winner is a climber who can time trial acceptably or, in some cases, a time trialist who can climb acceptably. Fine – they’re two essential skills. But if you think a Grand Tour winner should be a superb all-round road cyclist, and I do, then seeing who has cobbles skills occasionally is entirely valid.

This is going to be a few things – another chance to see some of my favourite roads, an exciting race for the stage win, a good GC battle for a few guys out of their comfort zone, and an absolute suffer-fest for a few guys who can no longer even glimpse their comfort zone in the distance. Oh, an almost certainly another explosion of polemica from the curious collection of Movistar riders.

Also, this should finish just as the world cup final starts. If this was “days of sport I’m looking forward to for 2018” I’d still be drafting right at the top.

Conor: Okay, yes, obviously this stage is quite likely to be very good. And of course, I’m looking forward to it tremendously. However, I have to think that we were spoiled by Nibali, Fuglsang and Boom’s heroics in 2014, because this stage is unlikely to live up to that, as is shown by 2015’s cobble day, where Tony Martin was followed home by a group that warrants the name “peloton.” I’m expecting something in between here, caused by the additional cobbles. Don’t get me wrong — someone’s going to lose their GC chances today from a puncture or crash (statistically, probably one of the Movistars). This will of course be a Jour J for the Tour de France.
Also, sevens rugby. Now that I’d like to see. Wait for my rest day article in which I pick a rugby team out of the Tour riders. If only Betancur were riding, I’d have a tighthead prop ready to go.

Pick No. 1! Stage 20 - An ITT with some serious climbing.

What was said when the pick was made?
Conor: Look, yeah, boo and hiss all you like. I am aware it’s a time-trial. I can absolutely guarantee you that no all-or-nothing attacks or plucky breakaway victories will happen on this stage of the Tour de France. That does not, however, stop it from being the biggest stage of the Tour de France. Which it quite simply is. We view the mountain stages as important because they are “where the race is won and lost,” as we like to say (and I don’t doubt I’ve been guilty of that cliché on numerous occasions in the past) but this time-trial is far more likely to decide the person wearing yellow in Paris than any other stage.

Could it be a dead rubber? Of course it could, but the same can be said of practically any individual mountain stage. The fact is, nobody will be safe in yellow until this stage is dealt with, and any amount of time can be won and lost in these thirty-one kilometres. The hilly nature of the Basque course - the biggest challenge is the climb of Pinodieta - will make the stage a lot less predictable than most other Tour TTs in recent memory. It’s somewhat hard to discern how difficult the hills of the stage are, but it’s safe to say they’ll be no picnic on a TT bike. I would say the variable nature of the course enlarges the pool of possible winners, also. I can say, hand on heart, that I’m greatly looking forward to this stage.

Andrew: Boo. Also, hiss.

Yeah, it is the biggest stage of the race, no arguments from me. As someone who spends Grand Tours trying to grapple with writing, watching, and all the stuff that real life brings with it, I like a time trial, because I don’t need to watch them. An occasional check on a time list and I’m sorted. So, you watch this, and you waste the top pick on it. I’ll get on with my weekend and come back to relish the significance of the results.

Oh, and if you’re looking for something to do while you’re waiting for the top pick to get interesting, google JaMarcus Russell.

Conor: Yeah, time-trials are never dramatic. Ask Laurent Fignon. Ask Cadel Evans. Herman Van Springel too. This stage is not guaranteed to be amazing. However, it’s entirely possible that it’s edge of the seat stuff, with the Tour de France at stake. At which point nobody is going to disagree with this as the top draft pick. Not to mention the effect the presence of the time-trial might have of the previous mountain stages. Could this be a JaMarcus Russell? Yes it could. Will it be worth it if it’s not? Hell yes.