It’s that time of year again: time for the biggest bike race on the planet. The lead-in to this year’s Tour de France might have been overshadowed by the Chris Froome saga, but now that’s finally sorted, it’s time to focus on the race itself. And what a race it’s shaping up to be.
Ahead of Saturday’s Grand Départ of the 105th Tour de France, with thanks to our mates at CyclingTips, we bring you up to speed on the course, important stages, contenders, how to watch and much more with this preview of the great race.
Last year’s Tour de France started away from French soil — in Dusseldorf, Germany — which means that, as per recent tradition, this year will start in France. In 2018, it’s the Vendée region on the country’s western coast that will play host to the Grand Départ.
There are two sprint stages to kick off proceedings — both of them likely to be affected by strong winds — before a 35km team time trial on stage 3. On stage 4 the riders head north west into Brittany for three days: one sprint stage (stage 4) and two stages with punchy uphill finishes (stages 5 and 6). Stage 6 is particularly noteworthy — the Mur de Bretagne (2km at 6.9%) is a testing finish.
The race heads east then north over the next three stages, with the sprinters likely to get two more chances (stages 7 and 8) before the much talked-about stage 9. This stage features 15 cobblestone sectors for a total of 21.7km of pave, and finishes in Roubaix.
On the first rest day the entire Tour circus heads nearly 800km to the south east, into the Alps. Stage 10 is the first proper mountain stage, with five categorised climbs, then it’s back-to-back mountain-top finishes on stages 11 and 12. The latter of those finishes atop the legendary Alpe d’Huez.
Route map courtesy of letour.fr
Stage 13 is likely to end in a sprint, and stage 14 is a lumpy day with four climbs that sees the race begin its journey west towards the Pyrenees. Stage 15 is the last before the second rest day and could end in a reduced sprint (courtesy of a 12km climb that ends 41km from the finish).
The final block of racing begins with stage 16, a day that features a brief visit to Spain and five climbs, including a final ascent that peaks 10km from the finish. Stage 17 is the headline-grabbing 65km stage with three back-to-back Pyrenean climbs (and a weird starting procedure), stage 18 is likely to be a sprint, and stage 19 is the last road stage that will affect the GC. It features six climbs, the last being the Col d’Aubisque 20km from the line.
Stage 20 is the race’s only individual time trial — a lumpy 31km with a 900m climb (at 10.2%) 3km from the line. At that point the riders fly from the south-west corner of France up to Paris for the traditional final-stage gallop down the Champs Élysées.
The Battle for the GC
You need to be a complete rider to win the Tour de France, and that’s particularly the case in 2018. Whoever wins the Tour won’t just need to excel in the mountains and against the clock, they’ll also need to battle their way through a very tough start to the race.
There will almost certainly be strong winds to contend with on the opening days along the Atlantic Coast and the stage 9 “mini-Paris-Roubaix” will pose a real challenge for riders more at home in the mountains.
It’s worth noting, too, that this is the first Tour de France since teams were reduced to eight riders. This means that GC leaders will have fewer domestiques to split between the competing needs of support in the crosswinds and on the pavé, and support in the mountains.
The cobblestones wreaked havoc on stage 5 of the 2014 Tour. Chris Froome crashed out that day before the race even reached the pavé.
The Tour won’t be won in those opening nine days, but it’s more than possible that a GC contender or two will crash out or lose big chunks of time here. Particularly on the rough farm roads to Roubaix.
Of course, it’s in the mountains and time trials that we’ll expect the most decisive time gaps to emerge. The stage 3 team time trial should create the first differences between GC contenders, and stages 11 and 12 — back-to-back uphill finishes — will show us who is climbing well.
Stage 17’s sawtooth profile means it’s likely to be decisive, stage 19 should have an impact, and the stage 20 ITT will be the last chance for riders to make up time. Stages 10, 14, 15 and 16 might have an impact as well, depending on how they’re raced. But of course, time gaps can open on any stage at any time. That’s the beauty of the Tour de France and of stage racing more generally.
Regardless of how you feel about Froome’s salbutamol case and how it ended, the Briton is racing this year’s Tour and he’s probably the rider to beat. Winning again this year would give him a record-equalling five Tour wins, putting him alongside Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain. It would also make him the winner of the past four consecutive Grand Tours (Tour, Vuelta a Espana, Giro d’Italia, Tour) and the first man to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year since Marco Pantani in 1998.
Froome won the Giro d’Italia in May. Could he win the Tour a few months later?
Froome has several things going for him, not least his experience at the Tour and the stellar team he’ll have around him. Geraint Thomas recently won the Criterium du Dauphine and will be a valuable ally both in the tricky first nine days and in the mountains. He’ll also be a very competent Plan B if something happens to Froome.
Michal Kwiatkowski, too, is a proven performer in the Classics and will be invaluable at the start, but so too in the mountains. Tour of California winner Egan Bernal and Wout Poels will provide excellent support in the mountains. And of course Froome himself is among the world’s best both in the mountains and on a TT bike.
There remains a slight question about how Froome will have recovered from the Giro but given he started that race in lacklustre form, it seems more than plausible that the Briton could win the Giro-Tour double this year.
Richie Porte (BMC)
Froome’s biggest rival at the Tour will arguably be his former teammate Richie Porte. The Tasmanian comes into the Tour off the back of an impressive victory at the Tour de Suisse — a win that he describes as the biggest of his career. He was also third at the Tour de Romandie a little earlier in the year.
Porte won the recent Tour de Suisse, a great sign ahead of the Tour.
Like Froome, Porte brings a strong team into the Tour. Damiano Caruso (11th last year) and Tejay Van Garderen will be valuable in the mountains, Stefan Kung will be a great support in the TTT, and Simon Gerrans will be an invaluable road captain.
We’ve said this before the past few Tours too, but this might be Porte’s best shot at winning the race. He was well placed last year when he crashed out and assuming he can stay upright this time around, he’ll be as good a chance as any. It will be interesting to see if his tactic of coming into the Tour slightly underdone will pay dividends.
Most teams have just one (or zero) GC contenders. Movistar have three, with Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa all apparently starting the race with equal billing.
It’s a bold strategy. It could end up being a disaster (three leaders, five domestiques, varied terrain – who’s riding for whom?), or it could be a masterstroke (if one of the three crashes in the first nine stages they’ve still got two contenders).
Valverde, Quintana and Landa. Who will prove strongest?
On paper Quintana is perhaps the best chance of challenging for the overall victory. He’s podiumed in three of the four stage races he’s done so far this year and he won a stage of the recent Tour de Suisse (en route to third overall).
Valverde has had a scintillating start to 2018 with 11 wins already — second only to Elia Viviani, who’s not racing the Tour this year. Valverde’s been top 10 at the Tour on six occasions but probably lacks the top-end climbing ability in the mountains to challenge the likes of Froome.
Mikel Landa was fourth at last year’s Tour riding in support of Froome, but has had a quiet start to this season. He was second at the Tour of Basque Country and won a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, but other than that he hasn’t had much to write home about.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Vincenzo Nibali’s victory at Milan-San Remo in March is a shining light in an otherwise mediocre season thus far. But don’t let that fool you — Nibali can absolutely win the Tour de France.
Nibali’s got one win in 2018, but it was a ripper.
Few riders of his generation are as adept over three weeks — the “Shark of Messina” already has four Grand Tour titles to his name, including a Tour win in 2014. He’s also been third and fourth at the Tour in the past.
Even if Nibali seems off the boil in the opening half of the race, it would be little surprise to see him at the pointy end when it counts. And don’t forget: when Nibali won the Tour in 2014, he was by far the best of the GC contenders over the cobblestones on stage 5, finishing third on the stage.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb)
After finishing second at the Giro to Froome, Dumoulin is back to try his luck at the Tour. His best result at La Grand Boucle is 33rd, but he’s matured significantly as a GC rider since that result.
Dumoulin is probably the world’s best against the clock, and his climbing is right up there now too. The question might just be how deep he had to go at the Giro and whether that will affect his Tour ambitions.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Adam’s brother Simon had a breakout performance at the Giro in May, before cracking spectacularly in the closing days. Could Adam put in a similarly impressive ride, but stay strong through to the end?
It’s hard to see him beating the likes of Froome, Nibali and Porte, but he’s been fourth before (in 2016, when he was the best young rider), and he brings some good form to the race with second at the Dauphine. The podium certainly isn’t out of reach.
Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo)
The Slovenian, and former ski jumper comes into the Tour with probably the best form of his career. He won the Tour de Romandie in the lead-up, beating Porte, Bernal and Jakob Fugslang, and more recently he put nearly two minutes into Rigoberto Uran at the Tour of Slovenia.
Roglic won the Tour de Romandie against some quality opposition.
Most noted as a time-triallist and stage winner in the mountains — he won stage 17 at last year’s Tour — Roglic should be aiming higher this time around. Could he be a surprise challenger? It doesn’t seem impossible. He’s got a strong team behind him: Steven Kruijswijk, Robert Gesink and Antwan Tolhoek should all be valuable allies in the mountains.
Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac)
Speaking of surprise challengers, Rigo Uran was that guy last year. He was barely in the conversation before the Tour then just about won the thing.
He comes into the Tour with two wins so far — stages at Colombia Oro y Paz and the Tour of Slovenia. It’s not a huge haul, but he was similarly unremarkable before last year’s race. Don’t make the mistake of ruling him out like we did last year. With three second-place finishes at Grand Tours, this guy knows how to be there when it matters.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale)
The Frenchman’s record at the Tour is impressive. In the last four editions, he’s gone sixth, ninth, second and third. There’s no reason to suspect he won’t feature near the top again in 2018.
Bardet is France’s best hope for a Tour victory and has been for some time.
He might lose a bit of time in the time trials — the TTT and the ITT — but he’s great in the mountains and he’s willing to go on the attack to make up time where necessary. He’s got one win to his name this year, and was third at the Dauphine behind Thomas and Yates. Could he be on track to be the first French winner of the Tour since Hinault in 1985?
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)
The Dane has made a name for himself in recent years as one of the world’s best at one-week stage races, but he’s yet to translate that to the three-week format. His best Grand Tour result was a seventh at the 2013 Tour de France but he could well do better than that this month.
He was second at the recent Tour de Suisse behind Richie Porte, and Porte himself admits that Fuglsang would have won “if Astana hadn’t blown the team time trial like they did.”
Fugslang’s had other good results this year too: top five at Romandie, fourth at Ruta del Sol, third at Valenciana. Also worth noting: on the cobblestoned stage 5 of the 2014 Tour, Fuglsang finished second, helping then-teammate Nibali to a handy GC advantage.
Top 10 Contenders
Beyond the big favourites mentioned above, there are a handful of other riders that could be in the mix for the top 10.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) – The Dutchman has a team built around him but will find it very difficult to find the top step.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) – Third at the Vuelta last year, but has had an average year so far with 10th at the Dauphine his best GC result.
Zakarin’s been a bit off his best in recent times but should still feature at the Tour.
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) – Been top 10 at the Giro and Vuelta. A dangerous rider in the mountains. Top 10s at the Vuelta a San Juan, Abu Dhabi Tour, Tour of California and Tour of Slovenia so far in 2018.
Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) – 10th last year off the back of the KOM jersey and two great stage wins. Has had an average year but the same was true last year pre-Tour.
Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) – Sixth last year, ninth in 2016. Top 10 should be possible again. Building nicely with 10th at Romandie, fourth in the Dauphine.
By our reckoning there could be as many as nine stages that end in a bunch sprint at this year’s Tour. That’s plenty of opportunities for the fastmen, which is why it’s no surprise to see virtually all of the world’s best sprinters on the start list.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)
With a dominant five stage wins, Marcel Kittel was far and away the best sprinter at last year’s Tour de France. If his lead-in is anything to go by he’s unlikely to be quite as dominant this time around — his two victories so far this year (both at Tirreno-Adriatico) are a long way from the nine he had by this time last year.
Kittel will be hard-pressed to replicate the five wins he took at last year’s Tour.
That said, there can be no doubting the class and prowess of the big German. It would be little surprise to see him step up on the biggest stage and add to his tally of 14 Tour stage wins, especially if he’s overcome the issues he had with his new lead-out train earlier in the year.
Fernando Gaviria (QuickStep Floors)
While Kittel has moved on to Katusha-Alpecin in 2018, QuickStep Floors will hardly be left wanting when it comes to the sprints at this year’s Tour.
Fernando Gaviria is a true rising star of the sprinting world and a rider with seven wins to his name already this year. He finished second on three occasions at the recent Tour de Suisse but don’t be surprised if he steps up over the next few weeks. He may be making his Tour debut but as he showed in his Giro debut last year — where he won four stages and the points classification — he’s more than capable at the highest level.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
It’s been a terribly frustrating season for Mark Cavendish so far, with several crashes meaning he’s taken just one win so far. But with a rider of Cavendish’s pedigree, a bad run-in counts for almost nothing. Remember the 2016 Tour when everyone (us included) had written him off as too old and too slow? He won four stages that year.
Cavendish crashed out of last year’s Tour in an incident that saw Peter Sagan kicked off the race.
Sure, he’s now another couple years older, but write the Manxman off at your peril. He’s a master of his craft, he’s got unfinished business after crashing out last year, and he’s got the added motivation of being just four wins away from equalling Eddy Merckx Tour de France stage wins record (34).
Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal)
Greipel has six wins beside his name in 2018 — a solid return but not his best lead-in to the Tour. Greipel is usually good for at least one stage win at the Tour. In fact, last year was the first Tour since 2011 that he didn’t win a stage. Expect him to get back to his winning ways again this month.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
After his dramatic exit from last year’s Tour, Sagan will be looking to bounce back this year. It would be a shock for the Slovakian not to win at least one stage (stage 9 into Roubaix, anyone?), and something will have to go wrong for him not to win a record-equalling sixth green jersey as well.
Peter Sagan won Paris-Roubaix this year. Can he win into Roubaix on stage 9 of the Tour too?
That’s because he’s probably the most versatile rider in the world — he has the top-end speed to duke it out with the best flat-land sprinters, the strength to contest the punchy uphill finishes and the Classics-like stages, and the climbing ability to break away in the mountains to secure points there as well. Always one to watch.
Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ)
The Frenchman brings solid form into the Tour having won the final sprint stage of the Tour de Suisse. He’s not the sort of rider that takes a huge number of wins each year, but he’s a proven performer on the big stage. Expect him to add to his stage win from last year.
Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo)
It might come as some surprise but of all the sprinters at the Tour, it’s Groenewegen that comes in with the most victories so far this year (nine). There are some impressive wins in there too — victories at the Dubai Tour, Paris-Nice and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne against quality fields. The Dutchman won on the Champs Elysees last year — his first win at the Tour. It would hardly be a shock if he was able to add to that tally in 2018.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb)
‘Bling’ hasn’t had his best year ever. A crash at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad thwarted his early season plans and a victory in the Tour de Romandie prologue is his only success so far. Then again, he’s not a rider that tends to win a huge number of races.
Matthews won green at last year’s Tour but will have a hard time doing so again
Matthews won two stages and the green jersey last year (the latter thanks to Sagan and Kittel both departing the race). If Sagan makes it to Paris Matthews will find it tricky to defend his green jersey, but he is a great shot at a stage win or two. He might find it tricky in the flat sprints, so instead look to him on the tough finish to stage 5, and possibly on stage 14 or stage 15.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates)
The last time the Norwegian won a stage of the Tour de France was in 2014 (where he won two). He’s found it tough going since then but, on his day, he’s certainly capable of snagging a win.
Others to Watch
Of course, the Tour de France isn’t just about the GC contenders and the sprinters. There are plenty of stages that will suit different riders; plenty of opportunities for riders that are willing to ride aggressively and take a chance. Here are some we think you should keep an eye on:
Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors): One of the most exciting and versatile riders in the world today. Look for him to be aggressive on lumpy days with punchy finishes.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC): The Belgian will spend much of the Tour riding for Richie Porte (he did an excellent job of it at the Tour de Suisse) but if he’s let off the chain, he’s a favourite for the mini-Roubaix stage 9.
Greg Van Avermaet is an accomplished Classics rider, but will he get his own chance at victory?
Niki Terpstra (QuickStep Floors): Like Van Avermaet, Terpstra will be one to watch on stage 9. Unlike GVA, Terpstra doesn’t have an out-and-out GC favourite to ride for so he should have free to fly.
Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie): An aggressive opportunist that loves getting away on his own. Won a mountain stage solo from the breakaway last year. A chance to do likewise in 2018.
Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo): An exciting, dynamic rider who excels at late attacks. Only his second Grand Tour but one to watch.
Unable to watch every stage of the Tour? Here are the seven stages we think you should make an effort to catch:
Stage 6: The Mur de Bretagne finish should be explosive. Likely not a GC day, but exciting nonetheless.
Stage 9: Pave at Le Tour! Worth watching for two reasons: to see the best cobblestone riders duke it out, and to see how the GC men get on.
Stage 11: A short stage (108.5km) and the race’s first mountain-top finish.
Stage 12: Finishes atop Alpe d’Huez. Enough said.
Stage 17: 65km stage, three climbs, two descents. Fireworks!
Stage 19: Last mountain stage.
Stage 20: The race’s only ITT. Time trials don’t make for terribly exciting viewing, but this could decide the Tour.
Dutch corner on Alpe d’Huez, a cauldron of noise and excitement.
How to Follow the Tour
No cycling event gets as much coverage as the Tour de France — in 2018 it’s being broadcast into 190 countries. If you’re in Ireland you’ll be able to catch live coverage daily on TG4, hosted by Páidí Ó Lionáird & Pádraic Ó Cuinn. Coverage details can be found here.
NBC Sports has coverage in the U.S., including live streaming via NBC Sports Gold. SBS TV has the rights in Australia, ITV will be covering the UK and Eurosport has live coverage across many territories.
The official hashtag of the 2018 Tour de France is #TDF2018.
A modified version of this article originally appeared on CyclingTips
Imagery Courtesy of CorVos