PARIS -- Twenty-one stages, 26 tough climbs across six mountain ranges, three mountain-top finishes and two time trials will test the limits of 176 riders’ endurance and skill in the Tour de France, which begins Saturday in the Vendee area along the Atlantic coast.
Here is a quick look at what the peloton can expect in the 105th edition of cycling’s greatest race, a three-week marathon over a route covering 3,351 kilometers (2,082 miles):
OFF WITH A SPLASH
Two flat stages should provide a fast-paced start as sprinters battle it out for a chance to wear the race leader’s iconic yellow jersey - a highlight in any rider’s career.
Starting on the island of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, Stage 1 is a 201-kilometer introduction with gentle gradients to welcome 22 teams of eight riders to the race, and Stage 2 provides another early opportunity to shine.
This is great for spectators as riders will hold nothing back as they fight for the lead before one of the favorites can take over, increasing the likelihood of crashes that can damage top contenders’ chances.
TINKERING WITH TIME
To spice up the start even more, carrots of 3, 2 and 1 bonus seconds will be offered to the first three riders to reach a specific kilometer determined in advance over the first nine stages.
More conventional time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds will be taken off the overall times of the top three in each normal stage of the race (excluding time-trials).
All of the bonuses may result in more changes in race leadership.
Stage 3 is a 35.5-kilometer team time trial in Cholet that could see riders on weaker teams drop behind in the overall standings.
The only individual time trial comes in the penultimate stage and should settle the overall places before the riders point their bikes in the direction of the Champs-Elysees’ cobblestones for the largely ceremonial final stage in Paris on July 29.
HOBBLED BY COBBLES
Most riders hate cobblestones and Stage 9 on July 15 will be sure to test their bonhomie with 15 cobbled paths scattered along 21.7 kilometers of the 156.5-kilometer course from Arras to Roubaix, beside the Belgian border.
While exciting for spectators, the bumpy ride will be a nightmare for many competitors, particularly if the weather is wet or windy. Falls are likely and this stage could end some riders’ hopes of an overall victory.
The surviving riders are going to need their rest day in Annecy on July 16 before the Tour heads to the Alps for the first of three testing stages that could reshuffle the standings. All three legs in the Alps feature daunting climbs and frightening descents, culminating in the awe-inspiring ascent up the 21 bends that lead to the famed 1,838-meter high Alpe d’Huez finish on July 19.
Almost half of the mountain climbs will be in the Alps (12), with four in the Massif central and 10 in the Pyrenees, where the Tour will pass through Spain for a brief 15 kilometers. Otherwise, this year’s Tour is exclusively French.
This year’s so-called “queen stage” - the stage that stands out for its difficulty and race drama - appears to be the 200.5-kilometer mountain leg from Lourdes to Laruns in the Pyrenees on July 27.
It will provide “a last opportunity for riders to change the general classification,” according to race director Christian Prudhomme.
The route takes in the 1,490-meter Col d’Aspin, 2,115-meter Col du Tourmalet and 1,709-meter Col d’Aubisque, with a steep descent to Laruns providing a challenging finish for riders still competing for the yellow jersey.