5 key stages to look out for at the Tour de France
UTRECHT, Netherlands (AP) — A look at five key stages in the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday in Utrecht.
STAGE 1, Saturday: Individual time trial: 14 kilometres (8.6 miles) in Utrecht.
A Tour de France contender does not want to be in the position of regretting a few lost seconds on July 26.
The individual time trial gives contenders the chance to gain precious time on their rivals, pull on the yellow jersey and send out a strong statement of intent. It also gives his team the chance to take early control.
While not a favorite for the stage win itself, former Tour champion Chris Froome will be favored to gain some precious time on his main rivals, Alberto Contador, and defending champ Vincenzo Nibali.
Contenders to win the time trial include Dutch hope Tom Dumoulin — who sounds rather French — Rohan Dennis of Australia, German rider Tony Martin, and Swiss veteran Fabian Cancellara.
STAGE 4, Tuesday: Hilly 224-kilometer (139-mile) trek from Seraing to Cambrai in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France.
It is the longest of the Tour and promises to be a tricky one. Riders have to tackle seven sectors of cobblestones over a combined distance of 13 kilometers (8 miles), and Froome may be having nightmares about it.
As the defending champ last year, the British rider crashed on the cobbles in the 5th stage and went out of the race.
While Froome struggled badly, Nibali thrilled fans with his fantastic bike handling on the treacherous stones.
Froome will need to conquer his fear of falling, otherwise Nibali could stake an early claim this year.
STAGE 9, July 12: 28 kilometers (17 miles) from Vannes to Plumelec in the Brittany region of north-western France.
This time, the strength of unity as much as the skill of one individual is what counts in the team time trial, where Nibali, Contador, and Froome depend just as much on the strength of their teammates as their own form on the day.
Teams start at equal intervals, minutes apart. Riders take their turn at the front of the team while their teammates tuck in behind to make the most of the slipstream.
Getting the timing right of this is as crucial to a team's chances.
Riders on each team all get given the same time as the fifth rider to cross the line, so if one rider has a bad day, he can slow down the rest and then that can in turn impact on the team's main rider in the overall classification.
To the delight of reputed climbers such as Nibali, Contador, and Froome, the undulating and somewhat lumpy stage culminates with an uphill finish on Cote de Cadoudal.
STAGE 12, July 16: 195 kilometers (121 miles) from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille.
After two arduous days of climbing in the Pyrenees, some riders will be dreading this slog — which should shake up the peloton.
One of the main contenders could strike a serious blow with an audacious attack on the final climb up Plateau de Beille, a reputed Tour climb.
But before that, there are two extremely tough Category 1 climbs — the second most difficult category in the race.
The first comes approaching the halfway point on the Col de la Core, a 14-kilometer (9-mile) ascent with a 5.7 percent gradient.
The next is tougher: 13 kilometers (8 miles) with a 6 percent gradient up Port de Lers.
Then, it's time for Plateau de Beille, known as an Hors Categorie — or HC — climb because it is beyond classification. A desperately tough ascent of 16 kilometers (10 miles) with a 7.9 percent gradient explains why.
STAGE 20, July 25, 110.5 kilometers (68.5 miles) from Modane Valfrejus to the Alpe d'Huez, arguably the most famed of all the Tour's reputed climbs.
After three straight days of climbing in the Alps, many riders will already be on the verge of breaking point when they reach the penultimate stage.
What awaits them could either tip them over the edge, or closer to victory.
In 2013, hundreds of thousands of frenzied fans — many of them swilling beer, or dressed in wacky fancy dress outfits — packed the 14 kilometers (9 miles) of the climb, giving the impression of large armies camped on each of the 21 tortuous bends.
The raucous and party-hardened Dutch, bedecked in their traditional orange on one turn, doused riders with water or sometimes even beer.
Barrel-chested Norwegians dressed as Vikings on another corner; Australians dangling plastic kangaroos in the faces of exhausted riders on the next.
Each turn is almost like its own story, and this bewildering cacophony of noise and color is what awaits riders again on the last real day of action before the race ends with its largely ceremonial final stage on the Champs-Elysees.
If the race is close, which organizers must dearly hope it will be, it will be settled on this famed climb: A perfect ending.