The 2014 Tour de France kicks off this Saturday, July 5th. This year's race begins with 3 stages in the UK before moving to France. Week one features largely flat stages suited to the sprinters and should feature some exciting bunch sprints. As was the case last year, the opening stage will not be the traditional individual time trial format, so the sprinters will have a little extra motivation since the winner will earn the right to wear the yellow jersey.
Stage 5 breaks up the opening week's sprinter friendly trend by featuring 9 cobble stone sections. Cobble stone sections, as made famous by the spring classic Paris-Roubaix, are a grueling test of strength, bike handling, determination, and at least a bit of luck as rider and bike alike will be battered and shaken to their limit. The overall leader may not be decided on this stage, but a GC contender's chances can certainly be dashed here.
Stage 8 will likely be the opening salvos in the battle for the general classification as it features the first, albeit short, uphill finish. After a week of trying to keep safe and clean out of the spotlight, look for GC contenders to test each other here for the first time.
Stage 10, 13, 14 are in the high mountains of the alps and all feature cat 1 or HC climbs at the finish. IMO, this is where the race for the yellow jersey will be won and lost. Stage 15 and a rest day offer a brief respite before the race moves into the Pyrenees, with another pair of decisive uphill finishes in stage 17 and 18. This stretch, coupled by the fact that there is only one time trial stage, may make this one of the most climber centric Tours in recent memory.
Stage 20's individual time trial will be the last chance for the GC contenders to make up time on their rivals. Although it is the only race against the clock this year, it is a long and tough course at 54km and hilly. With how tough the mountain stages are, I think whomever emerges as the best climber likely has the GC sewn up at this point, but it doesn't mean this stage won't decide the rest of the podium.
The favorite for the GC has to be Chris Froome. Although he's had some setbacks due to crashes and illness this year, he's shown that in top form his climbing ability is unmatched. This course will definitely suit him. His team, Team Sky, will also bring a strong contingent, including his trusty lieutenant Richie Porte, that is focused solely on helping him win.
Alberto Contador will likely be Froome's biggest threat. Contador is coming back into form we haven't seen since he won the Giro 2 years ago. He and Froome duked it out in the Tour tune up race, the Criterium du Dauphine, in June, with Contador ultimately victorious taking advantage of a crash-wounded Froome. His chances took a big hit however when his right hand man, Roman Kreuziger, was barred from racing due to biological passport irregularities. Look for Contador to animate the race with aggressive attacks as he seeks to find a crack in Froome's and Team Sky's armor.
For the Green Jersey, points classification, I think Peter Sagan will run away with it again. He has an unique ability to place well in sprints while showing the climbing ability to snatch intermediate points on stages where the other sprinters will be struggling just to make the time cut-off. Sagan, however will likely not be a factor in the big bunch sprints with three explosive sprinters in Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, and Andre Griepel. None of these guys have been able to assert dominance over the others, and when no one and on one team dominates, sprints tend to be chaotic and dangerous as multiple teams jockey for position in the final kilometer. Expect some exciting stage finishes that come down to the last inch and probably a couple of big wrecks as well.
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