As the Tour de France prepares for its 100th edition, it continues to innovate and break new ground. In the case of the Grand Départ, the race finally rolls into the only two département of France the Tour has never visited. Corsica, so long engaged in a struggle for independence, proudly hosts the opening three days of the Tour before it heads back to the mainland.
Other innovations are a stage that includes two ascents of Alpe d’Huez, giving the riders 42 hairpin bends to negotiate and a difficult descent of the Col de Sarenne, a narrow back-road off the mountain, in a couple of dramatic hours. And the finish in Paris, moved back so the race will finish at dusk, with the city lit up and oozing the charm of a Woody Allen movie, promises a breathtaking finale.
On its way round France there will be fresh challenges as well as familiar ones, the emergence of new stars as others flicker and fade. Just as it always does, the Tour de France defines not just the cycling season but now, as Britain enjoys a surge in interest, it is coming to symbolise an entire sporting summer.
The race, invented by journalists as a way to sell newspapers, remains every bit the media-driven event it always was. The Tour may have evolved significantly but the drama still unfolds episodically, the narrative twists and turns on a daily basis while the dramas and controversies are fanned to a white heat by a thousand tweets.
Television viewers rush home from work to catch the highlights before hearing the result and, for the most important stages, they may sit down to enjoy a whole afternoon’s racing. Slowly, the Tour is beginning to occupy the same place in Britain’s sporting landscape as it does in France. The yellow jersey has the power to create household names of the previously unknown.
It is the human story that captures the imagination: the battle of man and machine against the mountains, the inspirational sight of a well-oiled team working for a common goal, the pain and suffering of the sick and the lame, often battling on against common sense for no greater reason than it’s the Tour.
Element of surprise
Every day -even the most formulaic of sprint stages – throws up something of interest and this year’s Tour will do the same. As much as we like to think we know what lies ahead of us in the next three weeks, the Tour has the capacity to surprise. Of course, everything about the cycling season so far points us in the direction of a victory for Chris Froome. He has plotted his way towards the Tour serenely. In fact, he has followed almost exactly in the wheel tracks of his team-mate Bradley Wiggins, winning stage races in February, March, April and June to cement his position as the man most likely to triumph in Paris.
The fact his team-mate and potential rival Wiggins will not be in Corsica to defend his title alters the dynamic not just for the Sky team but also for the race. Those who enjoy the Tour when it is a grand, preposterous soap opera on wheels sighed a little sigh of disappointment when Wiggins confirmed he would not be riding. The thought of watching the battle for supremacy at Sky added an extra dimension to the Tour, but in the absence of that sub-text something else will emerge to grab our attention.
The route itself is packed with promise. The absence of a prologue time trial to settle the nerves and give everyone a six or seven-minute introduction to the Tour, means that nerves will be frayed from the start. The rugged landscape and twisting roads of Corsica make the opening three days extremely testing. Then comes the team time trial, which will begin to sort the peloton into some sort of order.
Mark Cavendish has plenty of opportunities to win a handful of stages. If everything goes to plan on the opening day he could pull on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. As Christian Prudhomme has said, a rider of Cavendish’s stature should have the chance to wear the maillot jaune. His decision to do away with time bonuses means the sprinters are hindered in their bid to take the race lead in the opening week but this is a great opportunity for Cavendish to do it.
Even the briefest glance at the race route tells us that the final week or so is the most eye-catching. From Mont Ventoux to Alpe d’Huez, with a mountain time trial in-between and a short, action-packed mountain stage before the finale leg into Paris, the final eight days offer, potentially, non-stop drama.
And just as last year’s race brought the names of Peter Sagan, Thibaut Pinot and Chris Froome to a global audience, we can look forward to the emergence and development of some new stars.
With the Tour just around the corner, we think we know what’s in store. Last year’s race and the formbook give us plenty of clues. OmegaPharma and Lotto will battle for the sprints, with Cavendish and André Greipel trying to keep Sagan at arm’s length in the race for the green jersey. Sky will seek to control things in the mountains, Thomas Voeckler will attack in his trademark style, and Froome and Alberto Contador will save themselves for the key points in the mountains, usually the final two or three kilometres, before seeking to gain the crucial seconds they need.
We think we know what’s in store but history tells us that the greatest surprises usually happen when the pattern of the race appears to be set. There’s a lot of ground to cover between Porto-Vecchio and Paris. Anything can happen.
Tour de France 2013: Stages
||Sat Jun 29||Porto-Vecchio||Bastia||212km
|2||Sun Jun 30||Bastia||Ajaccio
||Mon Jul 1||Ajaccio||Calvi||145km
||Tue Jul 2||Nice
|5||Wed Jul 3||Cagnes-sur-Mer||Marseille||219km
||Thu Jul 4
||Fri Jul 5
|8||Sat Jul 6
||Castres||Ax 3 Domaines
||Sun Jul 7
Mon Jul 8
||Tue Jul 9
|11||Wed Jul 10||Avranches||Mont-St-Michel||33km ITT
|12||Thu Jul 11||Fougères||Tours
|13||Fri Jul 12||Tours
|14||Sat Jul 13||St-Pourçain-sur-Sioule||Lyon
|15||Sun Jul 14||Givors||Mont Ventoux||242km
||Mon Jul 15||Vaucluse||
||Tue Jul 16||Vaison-la-Romaine||Gap
|17||Wed Jul 17||Embrun||Chorges||32km ITT
|18||Thu Jul 18||Gap
|19||Fri Jul 19||Bourg-d’Oisans||Le Grand-Bornand||204km
|20||Sat Jul 20||Annecy
|21||Sun Jul 21||Versailles
Tour de France 2013: Teams
Tour team tracker 2013>>
Ag2r La Mondiale (Fra)
BMC Racing (USA)
Omega Pharma-QuickStep (Bel)
Orica GreenEdge (Aus)
Tour de France 2013: The jerseys
Yellow jersey (maillot jaune) – overall classification leader
Green jersey (maillot vert) – points classification leader
Polka-dot jersey (maillot à pois) – king of the mountains classification leader
White jersey (maillot blanc) – best young rider
Tour de France: Recent winners
2012: Bradley Wiggins (GBr)
2011: Cadel Evans (Aus)
2010: Andy Schleck (Lux)
2009: Alberto Contador (Spa)
2008: Carlos Sastre (Spa)
2007: Alberto Contador (Spa)
2006: Oscar Pereiro (Spa)
Tour de France: Last year’s top ten (2012)
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky in 87-34-47
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky at 3-21
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 6-19
4. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol at 10-15
5. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing at 11-04
6. Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Radioshack-Nissan at 15-41
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 15-49
8. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 16-26
9. Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana at 16-33
10. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-BigMat at 17-17
Tour de France 2013: Related links
Tour de France 2013: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index
Tour de France 2013 team tracker