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Countdown to the Tour: Part III

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

Once upon a time, it didn’t matter too much if a main contender had a slow start to the Tour de France. Back in 1949, Fausto Coppi overcame a half-hour deficit in the opening week before eventually winning the Tour. And on the first road stage of the 1990 Tour Greg LeMond conceded 10 minutes to Claudio Chiappucci and still managed to pull back time throughout the race before taking the yellow jersey from the Italian on the final weekend’s time trial.

Giving up such large chunks of time (and still winning) is unthinkable today. Just ask Chris Froome. When a late puncture cost him 90 seconds on the opening road stage of the 2012 Tour, he had no choice but play second fiddle to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins for the rest of the race—despite out-climbing his fellow Brit on every mountain stage.

So, the vital ingredient for today’s contenders is not just avoiding early time losses but also getting a truly great start. That was the case for Cadel Evans three years ago when he placed second on the opening stage, led his BMC team to second place in the team time trial and then won the fourth stage in an uphill finish to take the race lead. In 2012, Brad Wiggins got a flying start by placing second to specialist Fabian Cancellara in the Liège prologue. And last year, Froome benefited from Sky’s third place in the early team time trial before winning the first mountain stage to don the yellow jersey.

There is no prologue and no team time trial to give strong time trialists an early boost in the 101st Tour, which starts this Saturday in the northern English city of Leeds. Instead, the organizers have inserted a variety of challenging stages in the opening week that could see some yellow jersey contenders winning big—and some losing big. The greatest focus has been placed (correctly) on stage 5 across sections of Paris-Roubaix cobbles in northern France; but there are many other places where the top men could get caught out if they don’t come into the Tour on top form, or if their teams are not totally alert—even on the flatter stages. So here’s a stage-by-stage rundown on just where key moves could happen in the Tour’s opening week:

Stage 1: Leeds-Harrogate
A breakaway is certain to develop in the opening three hours of a stage played out on the scenic, hilly and winding roads of the Yorkshire Dales. And that breakaway will likely be chased down in the final hour, on mostly flat, straight highways, where the sprinters’ teams will do everything they can to ensure a battle between the Cavendishes, Greipels and Kittels in the slightly uphill sprint into Harrogate. The danger for GC contenders is twofold: getting caught behind when echelons form in crosswinds in the final 25 kilometers through and after the town of Ripon, or being involved in pileups that nearly always happen on opening stages—especially if the forecast rain showers slicken downhills and turns on the more technical sections of the notoriously tricky back roads of Yorkshire.

Stage 2: York-Sheffield
This 201-kilometer stage with nine categorized climbs in the Pennines of northern England has been described as the Liège-Bastogne-Liège stage of this Tour de France; but the roads to be raced on are very different from those used in the last of the spring classics. Nearly all of the downhills and lead-ins to the next climbs in Belgium are on wider roads; whereas most of this English stage’s finale, including the last four climbs, will be contested on narrow, twisting back roads with very tricky descents. Besides the hills, there are two danger spots where the race could split apart. The first is at the end of the fast downhill from the exposed Holm Moss climb, with 53 kilometers to go, where the course turns sharp left and joins a long section of main road with a likely tailwind. The second is at the top of the Bradfield climb, 26 kilometers from the finish, where the riders will head (probably with the wind) along a dead-straight road on a plateau for 2.5 kilometers before turning left for another kilometer of flat to a steep downhill leading into what should be the stage’s crucial climb at Oughtibridge. The locals call it Jawbone Hill, where massive crowds will line the 1.5-kilometer, 9-percent “wall” that top out 19 kilometers from the finish. And with another steep climb (with 25-percent ramps!) to come up Jenkin Road in Sheffield, 5 kilometers from the line, a Contador, Nibali or Valverde could score big here.

Stage 3: Cambridge-London
This appears to be straightforward stage devoid of hills that will end in a bunch sprint outside Buckingham Palace, the central London residence of Queen Elizabeth II. There will be a mass finish, but there also could be splits in the peloton. Those could happen at the day’s intermediate sprint in Epping Forest, only 47 kilometers from the finish. Most of these final kilometers are through the streets of East London, where constant changes of direction and roads exposed to west winds on the run-in along the River Thames will accentuate any splits. And, of course, with a field of almost 200 men racing flat out, crashes will be a constant danger in that final hour.

Stage 4: Le Touquet-Lille Métropole
This first, short stage in France is likely to be the fastest of the Tour, a fact that will put all the team leaders on full alert. The speed will likely keep the race together until the final hour—when there are a few places where contenders could be caught unawares if they’re not well placed. The short climb and descent of the Mont Noir (“Black Mountain”), with 46 kilometers remaining, is immediately followed by a long, flat road across the Flanders plain where back/crosswinds are likely; and the final 20 kilometers are within the Lille metro area, where some rough road surfaces and sharp turns are among the ingredients for a substantially sized breakaway group to succeed.

Stage 5: Ypres-Arenberg
One of the keys to success in this stage of the cobblestones (and key to the Tour itself) is having your team car near the front of the line of follow vehicles, ready to help out the team leader after mechanicals or crashes—which are inevitable on the stage’s nine sections of rough cobbles that annually figure in the Paris-Roubaix classic. The cars’ positions are based on the top rider in each team, so with no time trials to decide a pecking order, the General Classification will likely mirror the finish order of the hilly stage 2 into Sheffield. Smart teams will put one of two strong classics’ riders in the day’s early breakaway, so they will be at the front to support their leaders when the race inevitably splits apart. The place where the biggest splits are likely to occur is 30 kilometers from the finish, first in the narrow, straight section of pavé after Orchies, and then on the long, winding cobbled sector between Sars-et-Rosières and Tilloy-les-Marchiennes. This is where the experience of classics specialists such as BMC Racing’s Marcus Burghardt and Greg Van Avermaet, Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld and Johan Van Summeren, and Sky’s Bernhard Eisel and Geraint Thomas will boost the GC chances of respectively Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky and Chris Froome.

Stage 6: Arras-Reims
High-speed crashes frequently occur on the approaches to, or exits from, roundabouts. In the final 6 kilometers of this relatively flat stage into the Champagne region, there are nine roundabouts (or similar intersections) to negotiate; and any of them could cause a crash or a split in the peloton. That’s why all the team leaders, especially those in the top places after the cobblestone stage, will need to be at the head of the peloton as they race into Reims. And when you add into the equation the many sprinters’ teams wanting to put theirs fast men into good position, you have a recipe for danger.

Stage 7: Épernay-Nancy
With more than five hours of racing in their legs on this rolling, second-longest stage of the Tour, the riders face a demanding finale into Nancy. All the GC leaders will need to be close to the front when the peloton passes through the city of Toul (35 kilometers to go) and the town of Villey-le-Sec (28 kilometers to go) as the peloton races alongside the Moselle River before taking a left turn into the first of two last climbs. Once over the first (the Côte de Maron), they will be in the Nancy suburbs until they turn sharp left into the dead-straight final climb, 1.3 kilometers long at an average 8-percent grade (steeper at the top) up the Avenue de Boufflers. And with 5 kilometers of descending roads and five tricky turns before the flat final straightaway, there will be no chance of dropped riders returning to the front.

This opening week is certain to see aggressive racing and it will set the pattern of what should be a dynamic 2014 Tour—even before the first mountain stages are reached. It will be an exciting week for everyone, especially the fans, a very different scenario from the once monotonous first weeks when a LeMond or a Coppi could lose chunks of time and know that they could take it all back in the mountain stages and time trials that lay ahead. This year, the Froomes, Contadors and Nibalis will need to be alert from their very first pedal strokes.