These are the 8 Tour de France stages you absolutely have to watch

I adore the Tour de France, but it can be a lot. The world’s most famous cycling competition will begin with 176 riders this year hoping to survive nearly 2,100 miles over the course of 23 days. Stages often start at 5 a.m. and finish around noon, and in that time the action comes in fits and spurts, and you have to rely on the dulcet tones of announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen to keep you occupied.

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I’m OK with that. I am perfectly content looking at the French countryside and the colorful fans by the side of the road in the long, quiet spaces between the massive crashes and the sudden, unexpected attacks on the peloton. The Tour de France is much more than a competition to me; it’s a celebration of country and will.

But I’m not everyone, and I would understand wanting just the good stuff, the straight shots of mayhem, legendary climbs, and history-in-the-making moments that also make the Tour one of the best and most compelling competitions in the world.

And what a Tour we have in store. Chris Froome is as vulnerable as he has ever been since his yellow jersey dominance began in 2013, with his Giro d’Italia win still sitting in his legs from May and a doping scandal looming over him. Romain Bardet of France, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands, and Nairo Quintana of Colombia lead the favorites capable of stopping Froome from winning the general classification for a fourth straight year.

Then there’s the course itself, an absolute monster that features six mountains stages, three mountain top finishes, and the return of cobblestones and all the chaos they contain.

If you were me, you’d watch every second of it. But you’re not, so let me help you. Below is the all killer, no filler experience: the eight stages you absolutely have to watch if you want to catch the biggest moments of this year’s Tour de France. Allons-y.

The 8 stage you absolutely shouldn’t miss during the 2018 Tour de France
Stage 3 — A team time trial to raise the stakes
Monday, July 9. 35.5 kilometers in Cholet
Yeah, you can skip the opening tipoff of the Tour de France.

There is something special about the buzz of Stage 1, and the winds off the coast of Brittany could wreak havoc early. But the first stage that should have a significant impact on the general classification is Stage 3, when each of the Tour’s 22 teams race against the clock.

There aren’t massive amounts of time to be gained on a 35-kilometer course, mind you, but yellow jersey contenders on weaker teams could wind up in an deficit.

The best part of team time trials is the death pull. Each team has eight riders, but the team’s time is recorded after the fifth rider has crossed the line. That means that late in the course, three riders can take turns sacrificing themselves by riding to the front of the train and pedaling as hard as their massive hearts can stand while their teammates save their energy by drafting behind them. The death pullers then peel off the front at the moment when their legs might actually explode.

It’s awesome.

Stage 9 — COBBLESTONES
Sunday, July 15. 156.5 kilometers from Citadelle to Roubaix
Cobblestones mean chaos. Have you ever ridden your bike over an unpaved or gravel road? It sucks, right? Well at the end of the longest week of the Tour, what’s left of the peloton will ride over 22 kilometers of pavé, including much of the famed Paris-Roubaix course, cycling’s most famous, and notoriously brutal, one-day Classic.

The last time Chris Froome didn’t win the Tour, it was because he crashed out on the early cobble stage in 2014. This year’s stage features the biggest total distance of cobble sectors of any of the Tour’s last five cobble stages. The types of riders who tend to win grand tours tend to be wispy little baby birds. They are going to hate this.

Whatever happens on Stage 9 will almost certainly be reflected in the final standings come Paris.

Stages 10, 11, and 12 — The Tour goes right to the Alps off a rest day and that’s terribly mean
Tuesday, July 17. 158.5 kilometers from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand
Wednesday, July 18. 108.5 kilometers from Albertville to La Rosière Espace San Bernardo
Thursday, July 19. 175.5 kilometers from Bourg-Saint-Maurice les Arcs to Alpe d’Huez
I’m lumping these stages together for two reasons: 1) They are all hard and potentially Tour-defining, and 2) They are all lined up after the first rest day, which is particularly cruel.

From a physiological standpoint, the second week may be the hardest of the three-week Tour. Riding a bike as fast as you can for hundreds of miles on successive days is a shock to the body, and after the first week, Tour riders are in a state of near-trauma — they’re losing muscle mass, they can’t possibly put back in all the nutrients and calories they lose, their immune systems tank, and so their bodies quite literally fight back against them. It is common for many riders to abandon the Tour due to illness on the first rest day.

So imagine feeling like absolute shit — perhaps the worst you have ever felt in your life — then being told you have to climb this:

I can’t tell you which of these three stage will be the most decisive. Any or none of them could swing the yellow jersey competition. And all of them are special in their own ways.

Stage 10 features a devilish new climb — Montée du Plateau des Glières — that averages an 11.2 percent gradient for six kilometers, and gets as steep as 20 percent. The cherry on top is the gravel road to greet riders at the summit.

Stage 11 is a shotgun blast — at 108.5 kilometers, it’s the second shortest stage of the Tour — with scarcely any flat road, which means that riders will have to be on constant watch for attacks from the outset.

Stage 12 completes the triumvirate with three of the Tour’s most iconic climbs: the Col de la Madeleine, Col de las Croix de Fer, and, of course, Alpe d’Huez for a :chef’s kiss: finish. Among the giants, however, is my favorite climb of the Tour, the Lacets de Montvernier. Lacets translates roughly to shoelaces, which makes sense once you take one look at the climb.

These three days are going to be as gorgeous as they are mean.

Stage 17 — A cannonball stage with an F1 start
Wednesday, July 25. 65 kilometers from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan
I called Stage 11 a “shotgun blast,” which fits. Most other years, it would have been the shortest stage of the Tour. This year, however, organizers decided to do something supremely weird.

Stage 17 is not only the shortest stage of this year’s Tour de France at 65 kilometers, it’s the shortest non-time trial stage in 30 years. Which, mind you, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Riders will be in a constant state of ascending or descending, and given that it should be one of the last few decisive days of the Tour, expect a popcorn-worthy stage, complete with brave and/or foolish solo attempts towards the final mountain top finish at the highest point of the race.

And because somehow all that’s not enough, riders will be starting the stage in an F1-style grid, in which the yellow jersey will be given pole position at the front of a staggered start based on each rider’s ranking in the general classification.

It’s hard to tell what effect the grid will have on the racing. Will leaders wait for their teammates to catch up behind them so that they don’t have to tackle the opening climb alone? Will it favor the stronger teams that may have several riders among the top 20? Or will it favor the solo artists who won’t have to bother fighting through a pesky peloton to make their inevitable move? Isn’t this kind of stupid and potentially ruinous for sprinters who need all the help they can get not to miss the disqualification time?

Nobody knows! Cycling is big and stupid and wonderful, but above all stupid.

Stage 19 — The Queen Stage?
Friday, July 27. 200.5 kilometers from Lourdes to Laruns
The Queen Stage refers to the most demanding, and potentially decisive stage of the Tour, and at 200.5 kilometers with two Hors Catégorie climbs, it’s hard argue that Stage 19 doesn’t have bona fides. But I’ll be honest, I just got really excited writing about all of the compact fun of the last four stages, and I don’t know if Stage 19 can live up to that hype.

That said, get a load of this.

Stage 19 is an old school monster, with the long and steep and potentially llama-infested Col du Tourmalet smack dab in the middle. Col d’Aspin and Col d’Aubisque are nasty in their own right, and a descent finish could ensure a thrilling conclusion to the Tour’s last day of climbing.

With riders like Froome and Tom Dumoulin likely to take full advantage of the individual time trial the next day, expect the pure climbers — Bardet, Nairo Quintana, and the like — to go for broke to try to secure the yellow jersey with a healthy cushion.

Stage 20 — A time trial and a coronation
Saturday, July 28. Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette
Yes there’s still one stage after this, but the champagne-sipping ride to Paris is for sentimentalists only. The yellow jersey competition of the Tour de France effectively ends on the last Saturday, and it should be decisive with gobs of time available in the time trial.

If Chris Froome is in the lead heading into the stage, it will be near impossible to rip the yellow jersey off of him. Last year, he finished fourth in the Stage 20 time trial, six seconds off the lead and well ahead of any general classification challengers, to win the Tour de France. If he is to be dethroned, he will have to have suffered in the mountains and be needing precious seconds back.

The good news for those challengers is that at 31 kilometers, this year’s time trial is very short, and an up-and-down parcours capped by a steep 900-meter climb near the finish should give the pure climbers a boost. (If you haven’t noticed, the French course designers may really want Bardet to win).

These solo final exams, after three very long weeks, are always compelling to watch. After thousands of miles of agony, the Tour comes down to a bunch skinny dudes, their bikes, and nothing else in their way except the will to push their screaming legs just a few more meters.

And then, mercifully, it ends.

Honorable mention
Consider these the B-sides.

Stage 1, Saturday, July 7 — It’s the first stage, which is exciting! And though it’s flat, it takes place along the coast of Brittany, which means there’s a chance of crosswinds that could split up the peloton and make this day more decisive than anyone anticipated.

Stage 5, Wednesday, July 11 — A bumpy, Classics-style stage that, though it shouldn’t affect the yellow jersey standings much, should be pretty fun to watch in its own right. Lots of short climbs mean almost anyone has a chance to win.

Stage 6, Thursday, July 12 — Another Classics-style stage! And this one could actually be important to the final results. Riders will climb the famous Mûr de Bretagne twice at the end of the stage, a short but definitively no-fun climb that tends to sucker punch a few GC contenders whenever it is featured in the Tour. Plus, lots of Bretons will be out in full force.

Stage 14, Saturday, July 21 — Yep, another fun profile, but a stage that may or may not actually affect the yellow jersey. The Category 2 climb to the finish is no joke though — three kilometers at 10.2 (!) percent.

Stage 15, Sunday, July 22 — Climbier than Stage 14, but a long descent before the finish probably ensures that no one with GC aspirations is able to take much time. It should be a great day for a breakaway to go the distance, however, especially coming just before the second rest day.

Stage 16, Tuesday, July 24 — Two big climbs within the last 50ish kilometers make this a good stage to flip on late. Before that, though, is about 160 kilometers of … not much. There is an extant chance that a yellow jersey contender makes a move, but given what’s to come on Stage 17, most riders may opt to save their spray.

Stage 21, Sunday, July 29 — That’s it! It’s all over! Wake up early and drink champagne with the victor, enjoy the sights along the Champs-Élysées, work up a sweat during the 30 seconds at the end when the racing is actually interesting, then slip into a long, deep, and peaceful Sunday nap. You’ve earned it.

Article Source: SB NATION

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