Cycling’s biggest race is back. While Americans have an idea about its significance, few sports fans on this side of the pond still know little about this three week affair.
Jumping in cold turkey is super difficult. Watching 21 stages that can last five – six hours.
Sitting in front of the tube from start to finish is a herculean effort for even the most fervent cycling fan. Here is what you need to know to enjoy the 2016 edition even if your attention is kept at arms length.
What is the Tour de France?
Like golf and tennis, cycling has majors too(only three though) called the Grand Tours and actually Le Tour is my second favorite.
The Giro d’Italia starts in May, but many of the world’s best hold out for the TDF.
For the Tour de France, you’ll see all the top General Classification contenders ride along with the best domestiques, but it always seems like a race where the racers are afraid to lose instead of taking big risks to win.
The Vuelta de Espana is my favorite starting in late August because it features all the riders who missed out winning on the TDF hungry for a grand tour win.
In order to end on the Champs d Elysse in yellow, you have to be an excellent climber, good to great time trialist and finish with the bunch on sprint stages(everyone gets the same time when grouped together at the finish line to avoid more crashes).
Still, there are a lot of riders there for other reasons. Supporting their GC leaders and getting airtime for their sponsors is part of it, but I’m always intrigued by all the races within a race going on. For example, there’s also the Points Classification(mainly for sprinters), King of the Mountain (points given for hilltop positioning at various peaks), Young Rider’s(white jersey) and Team Classification.
Quintana won the White Jersey in 2015, but has aged out for the competition this year.
This may sound rudimentary, but going for stage wins is huge too. The GC riders won’t chase down every breakaway, especially when their filled with riders that won’t have an impact on the overall lead. In other words, there may be more than one race going on at a time.
Who to look for?
There are many GC contenders for this year’s edition and with the unpredictable dynamics of Le Tour, anything can happen. Once again, the favorite this year is two-time winner Chris Froome. The amazing thing is if he didn’t retreat to help Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and crash out in 2014, Froome could be going for his fifth consecutive victory this year.
Nairo Quintana is a worthy rival finishing right behind Froome twice in his wins. If there’s a moment to remember between the two, it was the epic battle up Mont Ventoux in 2013. Quintana’s biggest weakness so far has been slow starts in the first week, so with improved work on time trials, Nairo is a legit contender to unseat the stem staring one.
Expect to see Nairo Quintana right behind Chris Froome’s wheel frequently
Alberto Contador may be in the sunset of his career, but with considerable results this year, El Pistolero will still a force to be reckoned with.
Team Astana sports a potent one-two punch with 2014 TDF winner Vicenzo Nibali recently coming off an exciting GC win in the Giro. Teammate Fabino Aru is also fresh off his win last year in the Vuelta, which may be in part due to Nibali’s creative racing strategies(please go to the :35 second mark).
America’s main GC contender is Tejay van Garderen, who has finished 5th twice here in the previous even years. He will also be chasing yellow with his enigmatic teammate Ritchie Porte, hoping that this one-two punch will throw off the leaders.
The biggest question mark will come from the emergence of the young and upcoming French riders Etixx’s Julian Alaphilippe, FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot and AG2R’s Romain Bardet.
With this much talent in the fold, maybe we’ll see some unpredictability in the standings.
The only other American of note in this race is Olympic Selection Taylor Phinney, who may solo for a stage victory or take a win in one of the time trials.
The other main attractions is for the green jersey as Peter Sagan(Tinkoff), Marcel Kittel(Etixx), Mark Cavendish(Dimension Data), Andre Greipel(Lotto Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff(Katusha) are close enough in ability that any sprint finish is going to be exciting.
How will the race unfold?
The great part about Le Tour is that the course changes every year. This particular addition is missing out on some of my favorite features, like team time trials, cobblestones and early climbing stages, but there will still be drama.
Stage 1 will be exciting because, well, we waited 11 months for this. The opener will be appealing to Game of Thrones fans for the send off from Mont Saint Michel and for the Americans finishing at Omaha Beach. Otherwise, this will be a flat stage that’ll see a sprinter, most likely Marcel Kittel, come out wearing yellow after day one.
Mont Saint Michel provides a scenic opening to the Tour de France
The next stage is just hilly enough to leave the sprinters out of it, except for the likes of Peter Sagan. If he’s in the mix, expect him to wear yellow through stages 3 & 4 which are also sprintable.
Expect minor lead changes for the first week, but the first GC shakeup is expected to happen not until week 2 on Stage 9 ending with a 6 mile climb averaging 7.2%. Tune in that Sunday.
After a rest day and a couple of stages for sprinters to strut their stuff, Stage 12 will bring some of the best fireworks of the race as they battle up the iconic Mont Ventoux. The starkness of the landscape might fool you, but this is a ten mile climb averaging 9% in grade, so this will no doubt be a sufferfest and possibly the most exciting stage of the race.
While empty now, Mont Ventoux will be filled with cycling fans come July 14th
The next day will be important in the standings as well as the Tour’s first time trial will be another punishment for the racers. I find individual time trials difficult to watch, but this will be important as there’s bound to be some variance over this hilly 23 mile stage.
Stage 15 might have a downhill finish, but racers will be covering the alps include two heavy climbs in the Alps.
There will be a lot of drama over the last week of action, as stages 17 through 20 will be the ones to watch.
The action begins on Wednesday, the 20th as riders depart the Swiss capital of Berne for a 115 miles concluding with an eight mile climb at a steady 7.9%, a quick five mile reprieve ending with a six mile stretch that kicks up to 12.3% at the finish line.
Stage 18 will be a short 10.5 mile time trial, but will be mainly climbing and seconds will be critical at this juncture.
Will Peter Sagan win his fifth straight green jersey?
The following day departs from the Olympic City in Albertville to what may be the most defining day over this four day stretch. While there is an above category climb in the middle, Stage 19 finishes with an eight mile climb over 8% that once again gets steeper as they ascend.
Stage 20 has two Cat 1 climbs early with an above category climb near the end. What may make it difficult to create time gaps though is the 7.5 miles of descending after they’ve crossed the highest portion of the stage.
The final stage will be ceremonial for the GC riders, but the sprinters will likely be going for points in the green jersey competition.
We may see the peloton let the retiring Fabian Cancellara take the first turn onto the Champs-Elysees, but he hasn’t had a penchant for finish grand tours lately. If that’s the case, it’d be more appropriate for him to lead out on a motorcycle anyways.
It’s really hard to pick against Froome. Try to win the Tour means having to expose yourself and when you take off on a climb, expect the rest of the GC contenders to follow. While Quintana could be the best rider out there, I’m going to go off the board and pick Fabino Aru.
To unseat Froome, you need to shake things up a bit and having this one-two punch gives Team Astana to push the envelope.
As for the points classification, I’ll go with Peter Sagan wearing green on the Champs-Elysees until someone unseats him. He may not even win a stage this year, but he’s a good all-around rider to pick up many of the intermediate points and all the other sprinters tend to crash or drop out before reaching Paris.