|Prologue — Saturday, June 30: Liège - Liège: 6.1km – 3.8 miles. After a one-year absence the prologue is back! This short individual effort against the clock won't matter much in the eventual GC race, but it will hand out the first Maillot Jaune of the Tour. He's had a rough, crash-filled season but Fabian Cancellara is the undisputed prince of prologues and would love to add another Yellow Jersey to his collection. Also watch out for prologue specialist turned GC contender Bradley Wiggins as well as rising-stars Peter Sagan and Luke Durbridge.
|Stage 1 — Sunday, July 1: Liège - Seraing: 198km – 123 miles. Normally a category 4 climb (the lowest ranking possible) wouldn't cause much excitement, but fireworks are guaranteed to fly when the peloton reaches Seraing. Philippe Gilbert and Cadel Evans won similar stages last year and the BMC duo could unleash an unstoppable one-two punch on the final slopes. Also look out for Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde, two riders that also excel on short, intense finishing climbs.|
|Stage 7 — Saturday, July 7: Tomblaine - La Planche des Belles Filles: 199km – 123.6 miles. The 2012 Tour is short on summit finishes, meaning every climb counts. Though this stage through the Vosges mountain range in eastern France won't cause huge splits in the GC group, a strong climber could use the final ascent to gain some time. Most likely, a relatively large group will sprint it out at the end. The unrelated Sanchezes, Luis Leon and Samuel, are two prime contenders for this type of finish.|
|Stage 8 — Sunday, July 8: Belfort - Porrentruy: 157.5km – 98 miles. One of the more unique Tour stages in recent years, this barnburner into Switzerland could cause chaos in the overall classification. Seven categorized climbs will cause pure, unadulterated suffering for the contenders. Even though there are no HC summits, the final climb (a cat. 1) tops out before a tricky descent to the finish. The composition of the final group all depends on how hard they push the pace. At the end, it could be fast finishers Valverde and Damiano Cunego duking it out.|
|Stage 9 — Monday, July 9: Arc-et-Senans - Besançon: 41.5km – 25.8 miles. More than a week after the Tour started in Belgium and it's time to time trial. There's no need to mince words; Cancellara, Martin, Wiggins and Evans are the only true contenders. This hot, flat test will create big gaps in the GC and the climbers will have to give it their all to limit their losses.|
|Stage 10 — Wednesday, July 11: Mâcon - Bellegarde-Sur-Valserine: 194.5km – 120.9 miles. Today's mountain stage has breakaway written all over it. It comes after the Tour's first rest day and right before the decisive summit finish on La Toussuire. Though the climb up to Grand Colombier will be tough, the long distance to the finish means no true contender will waste their energy with an ineffectual attack. Perhaps Thomas Voeckler and compatriot Sylvain Chavanel will do battle for the title of France's favorite rouleur.|
|Stage 11 — Thursday, July 12: Albertville - La Toussuire: 148km – 92 miles. Today's the day when the climbers will get their revenge on the time trialists. With over three vertical miles of ascending to cover, there's no hiding in this alpine test. Rabobank's Robert Gesink could use the big climbs to power away for his first career Tour stage victory. Or, maybe Euskaltel's climbing prodigy Mikel Nieve can add to his Giro and Vuelta stage wins with a powerful solo attack.|
|Stage 14 — Sunday, July 15: Limoux - Foix: 191km – 118.7 miles. What Stage 14 means for the overall classification remains to be seen. Two back-to-back cat. 1 climbs could put a serious sting in the legs of the favorites, but the long descent to the finish will most likely nullify any promising moves. The stage could be a slam dunk for the attackers and strong descenders. Alexander Vinokourov might use the final climb as a springboard to victory (as he's done several times in his career) in what could be his final Tour de France.|
|Stage 16 — Wednesday, July 18: Pau - Bagnères-de-Luchon: 197km - 122.4 miles. Again the Tour organizers confound logic by ending a mountain stage with a descent and stacking the hors catégorie ascents early in the day. Perhaps a climber like David Moncoutié or Igor Anton will channel their inner Marco Pantani with a Hail Mary long-distance breakaway. Canadian Ryder Hesjedal has performed well on similar stages in the past and Liquigas-Cannondale's Vincenzo Nibali is always down for a foray off the front.|
|Stage 17 — Thursday, July 19: Bagnères-de-Luchon - Peyragudes: 143.5km - 89.2 miles. With a savage time trial just on the horizon, the climbers will have to make their mark today, the final stage in the mountains. The Col de Peyresourde isn't the most difficult ascent in France, so they'll have to soften up the other favorites with a hard bit of tempo on the preceding HC Port de Balès. The stage is well suited to the characteristics of Lotto-Belisol duo Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Jelle Vanendert. Europcar's Pierre Rolland won a similar stage atop Alpe d'Huez in 2011 and could contend for the victory again today.|
|Stage 19 — Saturday, July 21: Bonneval - Chartres: 53.5km - 33.2 miles. There's just one day left until the podium presentation in Paris, making Stage 19 the peloton's final showdown. It could be a coronation for a strong time trialist like Wiggins or Evans, or a climber could be trying desperately to keep their yellow dreams alive. One thing is certain: at over 30 miles in length, the time gaps at this Tour-ending TT will be enormous. Look for Cancellara and Martin to reveal their pre-Olympics form.
|Cadel Evans (BMC): Finally a Tour de France winner, the defending champ will bring everything he's got to take home the title again. His 2012 has been relatively quiet, but wins at the Critérium International and Critérium du Dauphiné show that the Aussie is ready for another go at the Tour. Although he's not as strong a time trialist as fellow contender Wiggins, Cadel is perhaps the peloton's most canny tactician and will take back time at nearly every opportunity.|
|Robert Gesink (Rabobank): Young and ambitious, Gesink has a much-feared kick in the mountains and his wiry frame belies the time trialist within. He's scored top tens at major stage races throughout Europe thanks to his climbing speed and TT consistency. However, the Dutchman has yet to stand on the podium of a grand tour. With an overall win at the Tour of California earlier this year, perhaps the Rabobanker can finally break through with a Tour de France stage victory or high overall finish.
|Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda): Fresh off overall victory at the Giro d'Italia, the tall Canadian is coming to the Tour with newfound confidence and the best form of his life. A decent time trialist and exceptional climber (especially given his 6-foot, 2-inch frame), the Garmin-Barracuda man cannot be overlooked. The only question surrounding Ryder is how well he's recovered from his Giro exploits. If he's gotten in enough recovery time, he could very well add some yellow highlights to the Argyle Armada!|
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale): The 2010 Vuelta a España champ is basing his 2012 season around the Tour. So far he's won Tirreno-Adriatico and almost pulled off a victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a daring solo escape. One of the peloton's most aggressive riders, the Sicilian is also a top-tier time trialist, meaning he could very well better his 7th-place finish from 2009. And, he'll also enjoy the super-domestique services of two-time Giro winner and teammate Ivan Basso.
|Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): The 2008 Olympic champion is suprisingly still without a grand tour overall victory. His attacking style, world-class descending ability, fast sprint and powerful time trialing make him a contender at every race he enters. This year's Tour may be slightly out of his reach, but wins at the Tour of the Basque Country and Volta a Catalunya show he's ready for a stage victory or perhaps his second straight king of the mountains title.|
|Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan): Without little brother Andy by his side, Schleck the elder will be heading into the Tour as RadioShack-Nissan's overall leader. However, this year's parcours is less than ideal for the skinny Luxembourger who struggles to hold his own in time trials. He'll have to rely on his strong riding in the mountains to have any hope of a high general classification finish in Paris. If he's unable to climb with the best, his squad will have to rely on team stalwart Fabian Cancellera to keep them in the headlines.|
|Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): Despite missing the 2010 and 2011 seasons while serving a doping suspension, Valverde has had little trouble returning to the top tier of the sport. The sheer volume of time trialing means he has little chance of adding a Tour crown to his Vuelta a España title, but his enviable finishing kick and solid climbing ability make him a threat for stage wins and a high overall finish.|
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky): A grand tour contender in the mold of Miguel Indurain and Jan Ullrich, Wiggins is a hot favorite for this year's TT-intensive Tour. A late bloomer in cycling terms, the 32-year-old Brit has been on fire the past couple years with wins at Romandie, Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné as well as a 2nd place at the World Time Trial Championships. If he can keep his bike upright and climb with the other favorites, it would be hard to bet against Wiggo snagging a podium place (or better).
Other riders to watch: In addition to the big favorites, there is a lengthy list of interlopers who would love to get their hands on the Maillot Jaune. Leading the charge is one of the strongest American contingents to ever take on the Tour. Included in this group are Garmin-Barracuda's Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Levi Leipheimer and BMC's star in the making, Tejay Van Garderen. Nearly all of these men, bar Leipheimer, have a dedicated leader they'll be working for, but each could take home a high overall placing or stage win given the opportunity.
Rounding out the list of potential contenders and dark horses are three-time grand tour winner Denis Menchov, Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Euskaltel's Igor Anton. Menchov and VDB are both passable time trialists and could contend for the top ten while Anton will have to rely on his world-class climbing skills to make a run at the general classification.
And, there are two men who won't be in the GC hunt but should nevertheless be mentioned: Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. This year's Tour features three individual time trials including the prologue, meaning they'll be in the spotlight throughout the race. These two are also the premier contenders for the Olympic TT on August 1st. The 63 miles of Tour de France time trialing will show which of these two wizard of watts has the best chance of taking home the gold.
The sprinters: This year's Tour will also feature plenty of opportunities for the sprinters to shine. No doubt the pick of the litter is defending Green Jersey and current world champion Mark Cavendish. Team Sky is making a big ask of its domestiques by having them support both Cav' and Wiggo in their overall goals. Whether they have the horsepower to do so remains to be seen. The last time a team came home with green and yellow was 1997 when Telekom's Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel did the double.
Other sprinters toeing the line include last year's Green Jersey runner-up JJ Rojas, André "The Gorilla" Greipel, Tour rookie Peter Sagan and Orica-GreenEdge's Matt Goss. They each have the speed, cunning and skills to sail over the finish line first. And with a possible nine sprint stages, their battles will be both numerous and thrilling.
Peloton: The main body or group of riders. Also called the "pack," "field" and "group."
Stage: One of the individual daily races that make up the Tour. This year's event is composed of 21 days of racing (1 prologue and 20 stages).
Individual Time Trial (also called "the race of truth" and "the race against the clock"): A special event where riders cover a set course alone. Every rider's time is recorded and then compared to determine who went the fastest. Time trials often play a major role in determining the overall race winner because the strongest riders go the fastest and gain time on those who don't have the horsepower to maintain top speed without the support of their team. The prologue, this year's short opening stage, is a type of individual time trial.
General Classification (GC): This is the term used in stage racing for the current overall rider standings. Since stage races are comprised of multiple races, there are results for each race and also results for each rider's cumulative time for all stages. The person with the lowest time overall after all the races is first on GC and the winner of the race.
Maillot Jaune: The Yellow Jersey (left) is worn by the current race leader (see: General Classification). It is also a term used to refer to the leader. TV commentators might say, "The Yellow Jersey is flying today." The Yellow Jersey was created by Tour founder Henri Desgranges in 1913 to ensure the lead rider could be easily recognized by spectators. He chose yellow to honor a race sponsor, L'Equipe newspaper, who printed their pages on yellow paper. Interestingly, L'Equipe is still a major Tour sponsor and continues to use yellow paper.
Maillot Vert: The Green Jersey is worn by the leader in the points or sprinter's competition. Each stage has two to four intermediate sprints placed along the day's course. Points are awarded for the first three riders across the line at these sprints, and also for the top finishers at day's end. This jersey is highly sought after among the race's fastmen who battle for top placements during the flat stages. And unlike the other grand tours, the Tour awards more points at the finish of flat stages than hilly ones to prevent an overall contender from overshadowing the sprinters.
Maillot À Pois: The Polka Dot Jersey (right) is worn by the best climber in the King of the Mountains competition. Points are awarded at the top of designated climbs. As the climbs get tougher and correspondingly higher in ranking, more points are awarded.
Maillot Blanc: The White Jersey is worn by the leading rider who is under 26 years old. Sometimes these young talents go on to wear the Maillot Jaune in future editions of the Tour.
Rider Type: The size and shape of a rider often determines his racing specialty. Sprinters tend to be taller with ham-size legs ready to crush the pedals in a frenzy of speed. Climbers can be quite short, and all are rail thin for maximum anti-gravity advantage. All-around riders, the ones capable of winning the Tour, tend to be of average height and weight, and are blessed with the ability to climb, time trial and sprint at a very high level day in and day out.
Drafting: To ride so closely behind one or more fellow racers (left) that you are shielded from the wind, thereby saving considerable energy. The drafting effect increases as the size of a group grows, creating the potential for a number of riders to travel much faster than an individual cyclist (See: Paceline).
Attack: One of the more spectacular scenes in cycling is a lone rider, head down giving it their all to blast off the front of the field. These impressive leg-searing efforts are what makes bike racing so thrilling to watch. Nothing beats a high-speed chess match and sometimes a well-timed attack is exactly what a rider needs to speed to victory or get in the day's big breakaway.
Paceline: A formation of racers riding in a single-file line. Each racer spends some time riding at the front pushing the wind for those behind him. Sharing the workload allows a group to go faster than one rider on his own. (See: Drafting.)
Echelon: When a small group of racers forms a diagonal line across the road while riding into an oncoming side wind to best take advantage of the drafting potential. (See: Drafting.)
Breakaway: To ride away from the peloton in an effort to win a race. Because the peloton can ride much faster than an individual (see: Drafting and Paceline), breaking away is often a futile effort that usually leads to exhaustion with the peloton eventually catching and passing the hapless rider. However, sometimes the brazen attack pays off and the rider captures a dramatic win that can make their career.
Sprint: The final, crazed charge for the finish line at the end of a race. Top sprinters attempting to out accelerate their opponents can reach speeds over 40mph. The finishing chaos and speed often cause spectacular crashes.
Climb categories: Climbs are ranked on a scale of 1 to 4, with Category 1 being the most severe. However, there are climbs in the Tour that are so demanding they exceed this numerical ranking system. These "beyond category" climbs are referred to as Hors Catégorie (HC). Their extreme difficulty makes them some of the biggest factors when considering race strategy, as it's possible for a rider to gain minutes over a weaker rival. The tension and excitement around HC climbs also means the stages that feature them can be the most action packed of the whole Tour.
Descent: The tight, twisty mountain passes of Europe are notorious for rewarding world-class descenders and punishing those with less than superhuman bike-handling skills. It is common for descents to have upwards of 20 switchbacks in addition to other sharp curves that can make the difference between a race-winning effort and being reabsorbed by the pack. Some cyclists like Samuel Sanchez and Vincenzo Nibali wisely use descents to conserve energy and gain time over their rivals.
Domestique (Gregario): A racer who sacrifices his own chance of victory to help a teammate win. Tasks of these unsung heroes may include: carrying extra bottles and food for fellow riders, chasing breakaway groups, and even giving their bikes to the designated team leader should he have a mechanical problem. Simply put, domestiques do whatever is necessary to help their teammates win.
Equipment: Every rider has at least three bikes to choose from for any day of racing. A super-light rig for mountain stages, a deluxe aerodynamic machine for time trials, and a standard road bike for average racing days. Now, consider that every team uses at least 100 wheels and it's no wonder that a full-size bus is used for team and equipment transportation.
Directeur Sportif (Sport Director): The person responsible for coaching riders and managing almost all logistical concerns of the team. During a race, the Directeur Sportif drives behind the peloton watching live race coverage on a dashboard-mounted TV and informs his team on proper race strategy. He may also pass out drinks and help with medical or mechanical issues.
Auto Bus (Grupetto): This term refers to the large group of riders that band together on difficult mountain stages and simply try to finish the day while conserving as much energy as possible. After all, they are going to need it during the next grueling stage.
Crash: To fall off your bike and go "boom." As soon as a rider hits the deck, he is expected to remount and start racing again. Having a seriously broken bone is one of the very few things that will keep these tough men from continuing.
Time Limit (Time Cut): A way to eliminate the slowest riders in the race. After every stage a time cut is established by taking the winner's time and adding 10 to 20%. Riders who finish in excess of this buffer zone are not allowed to start the next day.
Caravan: A motorized circus composed of officials' vehicles, motorcycle police, team cars, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.
How is the overall race winner determined?
Cumulative times are kept for all 21 stages. After the finish of the last stage, the rider who covered the whole trip around France in the least amount of time wins.
It seems like a lot of the time, racers are rolling along in one big group. How do riders gain and lose time against one another?
During this multi-day race, it's quite difficult for race favorites to gain or lose time against each other while on flat or rolling terrain, as drafting and teamwork cancel out individual rider strength differences. Therefore, the mountainous climbing stages and time trials have a heavy impact on deciding who the final winner will be, as both require a competitor to ride on his own, without the benefit of drafting or help from his team.
How can 198 guys race all day and then be awarded the same time at the finish?
When a large group of riders, possibly the entire field, comes to the finish in one huge group, everyone is awarded the finishing time of the first rider to cross the line. This is done to prevent the final sprint from becoming exceedingly chaotic. Therefore, the sprinting madmen get to battle over the stage win while everyone else rides in safely just behind them, knowing they will not be penalized for their caution.
If one or two guys can ride ahead of the peloton and win a stage, why doesn't this happen every day? And, why does the peloton allow riders to pedal away and gain a few minutes of advantage?
The Tour de France is an incredibly demanding event and conserving energy is an important aspect of team strategy. With conservation in mind, the peloton will allow an individual rider or small group of riders a time advantage, betting the escapees will burn out, slow down, and be reabsorbed by the pack. (The pack will also speed up to catch escaped riders as the finish nears.) Letting riders build up an advantage is a calculated risk made by the teams without riders in the breakaway group. Sometimes, the pack's gamble backfires and the breakaway group stays away until the finish to contest the win among themselves.
How can a racer win the Tour de France, but not win a single Stage?
This scenario is possible but rarely happens. However, because the Tour leader board is organized by total overall time, the most consistent racer wins. For example, always finishing with the first few riders during every crucial stage (but not winning) will result in a very low overall accumulated time. In contrast, using up loads of energy trying to win a stage may result in a one-day victory, but the winning racer will usually pay for his energy output the next day, as exhaustion will more than likely cause him to finish near the back of the pack. Racers have a choice. Ride steadily near the front of the race, never using up too much energy in the hopes of winning the whole Tour. Or go all out attempting to win a stage, knowing full well they'll be exhausted the next day and overall victory will be impossible.
The Tour de France is just an endurance event, right?
Yes, grand tour racing requires an extreme amount of endurance, but it's far more complex than that. The Tour, and pro road racing in general, requires massive amounts of muscular strength to keep up with the many intense accelerations during the race. The most obvious examples are the finishing sprints and attacks at the front of the peloton. These intense bursts regularly require riders to sprint in a big gear, similar to doing weightlifting squats of twice their body weight as fast as they can for 10 seconds to a minute.
When you consider that riders put in these efforts from 10 to 30 times each stage just to stay within the peloton, you begin to understand what a Herculean effort is involved. What's more, these muscular efforts create micro-tears in the muscles, which can only be cured by proper nutrition and rest, two things cyclists can't get enough of at the Tour. So, not only are the world's best cyclists in the top percentile of endurance aces, but they are also muscular athletes gifted with the ability to sprint day-in and day-out up mountains and across the flats. In bike racing, it's rarely the strongest who wins, but rather it's the rider who can make different types of max efforts and still arrive at the finish fresher than the others.
I know what the Green Jersey is, but how do they win it?
Unlike the exciting race for the Maillot Jaune, the points competition is a little bit more complicated than just cumulative time. On any given stage, riders have up to 5 chances to score points that go toward their overall tally. These come in the form of intermediate sprints and the finishing sprint. Points go three places deep in intermediate sprints with riders scoring 6, 4 or 2 points. At the stage finish, points are scored up to 25 deep with a maximum of 35 going to the winner, depending on the stage type. Flat stages are worth the most and hilly, mountain and time trial days are worth less. This makes the Tour's points competition truly a race for the sprinters as it prevents the overall contenders from gobbling up all the points on days the fastmen can't compete.
Another interesting tidbit is how hard the fight for the Maillot Vert truly is. Even on rolling stages, the contenders must be acutely aware of their competitors. Six points lost in an intermediate sprint could be the difference between standing on the final podium in Paris and going home empty-handed. Often the points competition comes down to the final stage and even the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées. No matter who wins, though, they'll still be many victories back of Erik Zabel's record six Green Jerseys.
There can't be good weather every day of the race. Are there rain delays?
Nope. Riders race in any and all weather conditions. From blistering heat waves to biblical deluges, there are few meteorological events that will get in the peloton's way (rarely stages will be altered in cases of extreme weather). Some of cycling's most legendary escapades occurred in inclement weather. Lance Armstrong won the Tour stage to Sestrière in a downpour, Bernard Hinault took Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a driving snowstorm and Andy Hamsten, the only American ever to win the Giro d'Italia, took control of the race during an epic blizzard in the mountains of Italy.
That guy just gave a teammate his bike! What's up with that?
The Tour is a team event and each team is comprised of nine riders. Within a team, there are one or two riders who hope to achieve a high overall finish. Most teams also have a sprint specialist trying for stage wins during the flat days. The remaining five or six riders are considered domestiques or helpers, and they do just that, as their job description includes carrying extra food and water, and chasing down breakaway groups. Amazingly, a domestique is even expected to give up his bicycle to a team leader should he have a mechanical issue.
Why is that rider talking into his shirt?
All racers carry miniature radios in their back pockets that allow them to talk with their teammates and team director while rolling down the road. The earpieces of these high-tech intercoms look like spy paraphernalia. The microphones stay hidden, clipped to the inside of the rider's collar. Therefore, when you see a rider "speaking into his jersey" he is actually using his microphone to talk with someone on his team. This on-the-fly communication is of great value, as it lets riders who are scattered throughout the pack plan race strategy and ride accordingly.
Don't they get hungry?
Yes, they get very hungry! Nutrition is so important to racing success that some say the Tour is partially won at the dinner table, as riders who successfully fulfill their daily need of 7,000 to 10,000 calories are more assured of optimum results. While actually racing, riders mostly consume liquid sugar in the form of sports gels and drinks (Coke is a favorite). It's also no surprise to see mini ham sandwiches, candy bars, and pastries peeking out of jersey pockets. At dinner, it's a full-on feeding frenzy: pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, bread, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and yogurt is all fair game and consumed with gusto.
When do they go to the bathroom?
Ah, it's a question that someone had to ask. Many times the pack will make a group decision and stop for a quick "natural break" at the side of the road. Riders will also urinate off the bike, usually while coasting on lengthy downhills. If a rider really has to go and there's no downhill near, a teammate may push the bladder-challenged racer along as he relieves himself... hopefully while the TV cameras are not watching!
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