Brevity rules! At least when it comes time to generating pre-Tour de France content.
Stage 1: Bilbao - Bilbao, 182km
You probably know that this is the second Grand Départ from the Basque Country, and that Basque riders have made their mark at the Tour de France during the entirety of all our lifetimes. Because I doubt if any of you were born before July, 1936, when Federico Ezquerra won a stage of the Tour from Nice to Cannes. Probably the first stage into the heart of Basque Country was the 1949 stage to San Sebastián, which will be visited for the third time. And in 1992, we got a Basque winner in San Sebastián when Miguel Indurain won the prologue there.
Stage 2: Vitoria-Gasteiz - San Sebastián, 209km
The Tour almost never starts with two consecutive challenging courses, what we now call “hilly” stages. I searched back to 1992, which was the only other start in Euskal Herredia, and which (following a prologue) launched two successive stages from San Sebastián, both of which were called “hilly,” though in fact the first of them ended in something of a mass sprint, and only by stage 2 did things get more convoluted.
By far the more analogous start was just two years ago, in Brest, when both of the first two stages in the coastal hills of cycling-mad Bretagne featured late climbs and uphill finishes. The upshot of this two-part opening drama was that on day 2, Mathieu van der Poel stole away from the peloton and into yellow for a while (as the race transitioned to normal week 1 excitement levels). So for you classics/puncheur types eyeing Grand Départ glory: he who laughs last, laughs loudest.
Stage 3: Amorebieta-Etxano - Bayonne, 193km
This is the last time the Tour de France will get a glimpse of salt water (unless the Dordogne gets brackish down that way?). That’s not totally strange — the 2019 Tour never got even a single look at the Atlantic, or Mediterranean. But this Tour is decidedly inland, barely even coming in contact with provinces which have coastline. It’s also very much the third in a (now rather traditional) Grand Départ triptych of stages, with the course traversing from Hegoalde (the southern a/k/a Spanish portion of ancient Basque territory) to the northern portion, Iparralde, in France. In Bayonne only some 14% speak the Basque language, but across Iparralde the number of people who understand and speak at least some is over 30%, particularly the closer you get to the Spanish border.
Stage 4: Dax - Nogaro, 182km
The daily intermediate sprint takes place somewhere in the vicinity — or maybe in the back parking lot — of La Chapelle-Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes, which is exactly what it sounds like: a church dedicated to cycling. I’m not particularly religious, but as a Cycling Evangelist I welcome all: fathers, sons, holy ghosts, you name it.
This particular cycling chapel dates back to its former use as a knights templar fortress in the 12th century, before the Black Prince knocked down the estate, leaving just the chapel, in 1355. Roughly 603 years later, the latest occupant, Father Joseph Massie, decided to make a shrine to cycling in the spirit of the Madonna del Ghisallo, and by 1959 it became official (I guess back then you could just call the Pope and be placed on no more than a short hold?). Sounds like it’s not entirely decked out in cycling icons, though a former pro rider designed its stained glass depiction of the Virgin Mary.
Stage 5: Pau - Laruns, 163km
This first Pyrenean stage of 2023 is the earliest that the Tour de France has featured a major mountain stage from either the Pyrenées or the Alps, since 1979. Only once, in 1981, was there a major mountain stage as early as Stage 5, except that was only called stage 5, even though it came after a prologue, a split day with a road stage and another TT, then two more road stages and another TT. [Then stage 5, into the Pyrenées, then another TT. The fact that Bernard Hinault won by 14 minutes doesn’t feel totally coincidental.]
Of course, you only get super early mountain stages if you start somewhere pretty far south, and even then, the Tour has mostly just gone around them, like the start from Nice in 2020 that skirted the Alps and made it to the Pyrenées for stage 8. Oh, and a bonus Interesting Thing — the Grand Départ has never even once taken place in Italy... a distinction that will be done away with one year from now as the Tour takes off from Tuscany.
Stage 6: Tarbes - Cauterets-Cambasque, 145km
Apart from being the first mountain-top finish (MTF as the kids say), and therefore the first place where we can
expect hope pray for rule out maximum hostilities among the GC types, the race goes over the Col du Tourmalet for the 85th time in the race’s history... and for the ninth time in Tour history the rider first over the Tourmalet will win the Souvenir Jacques-Goddet, along with a cool €5000. Four former winners — Pierre Latour, Rafal Majka, Julian Alaphilippe, and double winner Thibaut Pinot — will be back for another try.
Stage 7: Mont-de-Marsan - Bordeaux, 170km
Every single stage of this Tour has a rated climb. Even the time trial. Even the stage to Paris. Even this stage, which ascends the fearsome cat-4 Côte de Béguey, a 1.2km ascent of 4.4% average gradient. It might be possible for the pros to do this entire stage in the big ring.
Stage 8: Libourne - Limoges, 201km
If you can think of something interesting to say about this stage, I am all ears. It should actually be a very pretty stage, winding through some forested areas, and there is a near-certainty that the breakaway battle will decide the stage. Especially since it sounds like I am being negative about it. I’m not. It’s just not very bloggable.
Stage 9: St-Léonard-de-Noblat - Puy-de-Dôme, 182km
My guess is that the real action starts here. It’s hardly the queen stage, and at 1,415 meters the summit finish is not lacking in oxygen, compared to what’s coming. But the final 4+ km are entirely over gradients in excess of 11%. It’s also getting on in the race, and with 182km of up and down all day, this is a real chance to catch a rival with something less in the tank. If you are looking for a sneaky-great stage, this is probably it? Not sure how sneaky it really is though.
Stage 10: Vulcania - Issoire, 167km
Uh... there are theme park starts and then there’s Vulcania.
This is the European Park of Vulcanism, which looks like the coolest theme park ever, even before you consider that there is actual vulcanism to witness: lava domes, strombolian cones, lava flows, volcanic chimneys, political kickbacks, mining activity, magma... EVERYTHING!
Stage 11: Clermon-Ferrand - Moulins, 180km
Moving things along... Clermont-Ferrand is the rest day host town as well as the stage 11 start, because they
spent a lot of money are one of France’s great cycling towns. Raphaël Géminiani calls it home still, 98 years young, and can claim several Tour stages plus a KOM jersey to his name. I implore you to read his Wikipedia page — pretty much every chapter of his story is kind of nuts.
Stage 12: Roanne - Belleville-en-Beaujolais, 169km
Remember how I said earlier that every stage has a rated climb? Not only that, but this Tour has a grand total of 30 climbs rated Cat-2 or higher. Recent editions have had as many as 29 (2021) but this is a rather huge number no matter how you slice it. There are 11 different stages, as diverse as the Côte de Pike on Stage 1 and the Joux-Plane, which contain ramps in excess of 9% (denoted as black in Tour mapping keys).
Stage 13: Châtillon-Sur-Chalaronne - Grand Colombier, 138km
This is a good time to remember that intermediate sprints are worth 20 points to the winner, descending as 20-17-15-13-11-10... Prior to this stage, all of the intermediate sprints looked easily reachable for the bunch gallopers, but now things are about to get... Woutified. This unrated climb might not end up being all that much, but the next three days’ stages will each present serious challenges to the sprinters to even nab an intermediate point. Like, even one. Van Aert, of course, will be up the road somewhere, minding his leader and pouncing on whatever points aren’t absorbed by the break. Drip drip drip...
Stage 14: Annemasse - Morzine-Les Portes Du Soleil, 152km
This should be all about the Joux-Plane, one of the real legends of the Tour, in part because they don’t go there very often: 12 times since 1978 and only 3 since 2000. Why? I would guess it’s the combination of no space for a MTF, which requires a treacherous descent down to Morzine, something that will hopefully get plenty of consideration so that we can have a safe stage. Anyway, for American fans, this is where Lance cracked, and Landis soared — two memorable performances (for opposite reasons, both to Landis’ delight) which have been scrubbed from the record books thanks to doping.
Stage 15: Les Gets Les Portes Du Soleil - Saint Gervais Mont Blanc, 179km
More Doors to the Sun. Apparently Les Portes du Soleil is a grouping of like 17 ski resorts between Mont Blanc and Geneva, each of which isn’t among France’s most famous or majestic destinations, but together they add up, and benefit from some micro-conditions that dump a lot of snow in there. And along those lines... don’t overlook the little climb hidden among the giants. As part of the finale, the course spends 2.7km ascending the Côte des Amerands — a beastly little 10.9% average that kicks up to 17% before a short break and the final climb.
No less an authority than Thomas Hobbes once called this climb “nasty, brutish and short.” And he isn’t wrong! It gets extra interesting as a prelude to the finale, which comes on a long day featuring five rated climbs and 179km of riding. Don’t be at all surprised if the real action is on the Côte as a setup to some real damage to Saint-Gervais.
Stage 16: Passy - Combloux, 22.4km
The total KM against the watch is absurdly small, for reasons I don’t totally get. Just doubling down against a Froome Comeback for the Ages? The fact that 2.5km of the 22.4 are on a rated climb further drives the point home. And with the subsequent stage, this could be a rather uneventful affair.
Stage 17: Saint Gervais Mont Blanc - Courchevel, 166km
The Queen Stage of this year’s Tour, hitting its highest point, the Souvenir Henri Desgrange, at 2300 meters on the Col de la Loze, which I believe is making its fourth appearance at the Tour, or at least Courchevel is. All this climbing... some numbers for you. The total meters climbed is estimated to be 55,400 for the three week race. Last year’s total was roughly 49,000 (these are not fine calculations), and maybe 52,000 in 2021, though the 2020 Tour supposedly hit 59,000 total meters ascended. Although they got extra rest before riding it so...?
Stage 18: Moûtiers - Bourg-en-Bresse, 185km
Just this once I will talk about food, because the Cycling Podcast tipped me off to ... the poulet de Bresse. As a chicken guy, I am all for some good hen-talk, although the part that ends in death isn’t awesome. Anyway, this is the local breed, and for 300 years the Bresse locals have been extolling the virtues of their chicken. Lots of people in the cooking world seem to agree and it’s considered one of the world’s best eating birds, even though literally anyone can (and mostly does) grow chickens. They are raised in a distinct way — indoors, outdoors, eating grass, then just corn, etc. So it’s a thing. Of course then someone has to cook it properly, which is probably also a thing, or was until the tourists moved in on little Bourg-en-Bresse.
Stage 19: Moirans-en-Montagne - Poligny, 173km
I guess this stage could be super interesting as where the pre-Paris jockeying among the remaining sprinters begins. Anyone still around will be eyeing that final gallop and Parisian glory, obviously, and with the crowd thinned out some (you’d expect), the bunch sprints will look different than they did almost three weeks earlier. The Chicken Stage should be a sprint too, but if someone didn’t win that, you can bet they’ll come back here to see if they can get momentum before Sunday’s finale.
Stage 20: Belfort - Le Markstein Fellering, 133km
There are five major mountain groupings in mainland France (leaving out Corsica), and with this the Tour de France will have touched them all. The Pyrenées came first, obviously. The Massif Central hosted the Puy-de-Dôme stage and the subsequent one. The Alps... you know about. Stage 19 will have somewhat quietly traversed the Jura. And by contrast, the Vosges are about to announce their presence with authority!
Stage 21: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines - Paris, 115km
This is the northernmost point of the Tour de France. In fact, the finish line itself may be the exact northernmost point in the race, given that somewhere in there is the northernmost point in the stage. It’s not exactly unheard of, although most Tours get at least a little bit north of Paris, or on a vaguely similar latitude at least, out in Normandy or what have you. The 2020 race was similarly southern-situated, not coming anywhere near the Parisian latitude until the penultimate stage to the Planche. Beyond that, you’d have to go back to 2009, or even further if you want to get picky about such things.