<header_tag> certification testing: 5_5000 (1520325519)
Blazin' Saddles: Tour de France 2018 stage guide
Mountains, rolling roads, flat sprints, time trials and cobbles... With the start of the 105th edition of the Tour de France fast approaching we take a look at all 21 stages and pick out the stand-out, must-see legs while highlighting all the moments which should shape the race.
<header_tag> certification testing: 5_5000 (1520325519)
Featuring the first anti-clockwise route since 2014, this year's Tour is a real mixed bag with eight flat stages suited to the sprinters (including one over the cobblestones of northern France), four hilly stages ideal for the breakaway contenders, two time trials (one team and one individual) and six mountain stages, including three summit finishes (with 53 categorised climbs in total).
The race takes place almost entirely in France with just one 16-kilometre stretch in Spain cropping up in the opening foray in the Pyrenees in the final week. Five flat stages in the opening week should give the sprinters the perfect platform to excel – and some rare opportunities to don the fabled maillot jaune.
Once again, there will be 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds up for grabs for the first three riders at the end of each stage (excluding time trials). And new for 2018, for the first nine stages (excluding the TTT) there will be 3, 2 and 1 bonus seconds awarded for the first three riders who reach a specific 'B' marker in a competition that's entirely separate from the usual intermediate sprints showdowns.
The route of the Tour de France 2018Eurosport
KEY – F: Flat / TT: Time trial / C: Cobbles / H: Hilly / M: Mountains
Stage 1: Noirmoutier-en-Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte (189km) F
The Tour's first yellow jersey will have the sprinters on high alert after a flat slog along the coast of Vendee. With the race's first Cat.4 climb coming 28km from the finish, the inaugural polka dot jersey is up for grabs too. If wet and windy, this long opening stage could be far from plain sailing.
Stage 2: Moulleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon (183km) F
Another day for the sprinters with just the one Cat.4 test en route to another likely bunch gallop.
Stage 3. Cholet to Cholet (35km) TTT
If not a veritable GC showdown then this tricky team time trial could see some of the favourites set up their stall early – and others drop off the radar on day 3. The likes of Team Sky, Mitchelton-Scott and BMC should relish the Tour's first TTT since 2015. The French teams and Movistar, less so.
Stage 4: La Baule to Sarzeau (192km) F
As the race enters cycling-mad Brittany the riders can expect fans aplenty with the route heading inland on an out-and-back loop to and from the coast. If marginally lumpier, this should be another stage for the sprinters – although another solitary Cat.4 climb should define any break and provide a polka-dot distraction inside the final third.
Stage 5: Lorient to Quimper (203km) H
Tour de France 2018 Stage 5 profileEurosport
With five categorised climbs and constant ups-and-downs, the longest stage so far should bid farewell to the sprinters and encourage puncheurs, baroudeurs and rouleurs alike to fight for a break. The hilly terrain, narrow roads and even a few cobbles will have the GC riders on red alert: a bad day or untimely mechanical here could prove very costly. This classic Brittany stage features a key climb of the Boucles de l'Aulne race and has something of the brutality of the Ardennes about it. Expect to see local boys Fortuneo-Samsic very prominent.
Stage 6: Brest to Mur-de-Bretagne (181km) H
For a stage starting in Brest, this has a suitable double ascent in the finale. Cadel Evans won at Mur-de-Bretagne on the climb's Tour debut in 2011 en route to securing the yellow jersey in Paris, while Frenchman Alexis Vuillermoz took the spoils when the climb last featured three years ago. The map below shows the final 20km and those back-to-back ascents, which sandwich another sharp climb at the top of which the bonus sprint features – making it all the more feisty.
Tour de France 2018 Stage 6 profileEurosport
Before the thrilling finale, some lumpy roads and two lower-category climbs should tease a break from the peloton. The old adage of the race not being won, but potentially being lost, could ring true today: the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Geraint Thomas all lost time at Mur-de-Bretagne in 2015.
Stage 7: Fougeres to Chartres (231km) F
Could we see a lucky break on the longest stage of the race? It falls on Friday 13th and takes the riders through Balzac territory en route to another probable sprint showdown.
Stage 8: Dreux to Amiens (181km) F
It's been a while since we've had a sprint stage on Bastille Day – six years, in fact, with Andre Greipel winning in Cap d'Agde in 2012 – but a combination of the World Cup and the later start to the Tour means the mountains are still a few days away. Last year, Warren Barguil ended the host nation's long wait for a winner on 14th July. The likelihood of Nacer Bouhanni following suit near the battlefields of the Somme is highly unlikely.
Stage 9: Arras to Roubaix (154km) F/C
The day most of the big GC favourites fear is a mini Paris-Roubaix with 21.7km of cobbles, spread over 15 sections varying from 500m to 2.7km in length. Vincenzo Nibali impressed when the Tour took on the cobbles on a day Chris Froome crashed out of the 2014 race, but one year later the Briton fared well in a stage won by Tony Martin in Cambrai. Expect previous Hell of the North winners Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet, Mat Hayman and John Degenkolb to come to the fore in a thrilling final 100km.
Tour de France 2018 Stage 9 profileEurosport
Stage 10: Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand (159km) M
Three successive days in the Alps follow the opening rest day starting with the much-hyped gravel section of the Plateau de Glieres, which features ahead of the Col de Romme, the Colombiere, and a zippy downhill run to the finish. Coming after the cobbles and a day off the bike, there could be carnage.
Stage 11: Albertville to La Rosiere (108km) M
Tour de France 2018 Stage 11 profileEurosport
The first major summit finish of the race is a carbon copy of June's Criterium du Dauphine stage won by the Spaniard Pello Bilbao. With four large climbs condensed into just over 100 clicks, we can expect a flurry of activity from the outset and a major shake-up on GC. All the better that every stage of the Tour is once again being broadcast from start to finish, then.
Stage 12: Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Alpe d'Huez (175km) M
Tour de France 2018 Stage 12 profileEurosport
The Tour's 30th finish atop Alpe d'Huez takes the riders via the tried-and-tested Cols de la Madeleine and Croix de Fer ahead of the famous 21 hairpin bends of Dutch Mountain. It's a familiar zoo when the Tour comes to town and with Pierre Rolland, Christophe Riblon and Thibaut Pinot winning on the last three visits, there will be high hopes for another home victory. Can Romain Bardet or Warren Barguil perhaps do the business?
Stage 13: Bourg d'Oisans to Valence (169km) F
On paper, this should reopen the door to the sprinters after a tough few days in the Alps. But when was the Tour last raced on paper? An early climb could prove the perfect springboard for a break while a succession of sharp hills – the Monts du Matin – in the final third could hinder the chase ahead of a speedy downhill run to the finish. Throw in the possibility of some Mistral winds and this is far from a routine transitional stage for the fast men.
Stage 14: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateau to Mende (187km) H
Messieurs Bardet and Pinot had their pockets picked by Steve Cummings the last time the Tour came to Mende in 2015. A tricky day in the Massif Central includes three categorised climbs ahead of the decisive Cote de la Croix Neuve – also known as the Montee Laurent Jalabert – before the road drops for what is usually an exciting and unpredictable finish at the Mende aerodrome.
Stage 15: Millau to Carcassonne (181km) H
The peloton passes through the beautiful Montagne Noire area of the southwestern tip of the Massif Central in a demanding stage that climaxes with the tough Cat.1 Pic de Nore climb – a mini Ventoux-type ascent amazingly only now making its Tour debut – ahead of a fast run to the chocolate box Medieval town of Carcassonne. This has breakaway written all over it.
Stage 16: Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon (218km) M
This long, slow-building behemoth of a stage could prove key as the weary riders hit the Pyrenees for the final phase of the race following the second rest day. Two small climbs break up the opening half through the plains before the race dips into Spain for a short stretch following back-to-back climbs. The race returns to France via the smooth but steep Col du Portillon while the finish comes after the last of three twisting and potentially treacherous descents. This is a day where going down could prove as important as going up.
Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Col du Portet (65km) M
Tour de France 2018 Stage 17 profileEurosport
The shortest road stage in 30 years has been described as "dynamite" by Tour director Christian Prudhomme. The first ever summit finish on the monstrous Col du Portet – at 2,215m, the highest point of the race and Souvenir Henri Desgrange – is preceded by the Cat.1 slogs up the Peyresourde and the Col de Val Lourdon-Azet, in the opposite direction from the stage in the 2016 Tour when Chris Froome showed of his daredevil descending skills en route to a win in Bagneres-de-Luchon. With 3,200m of vertical gain in just 65km, the race could explode from the outset.
Stage 18: Trie-sur-Baise to Pau (172km) F
The calm after the storm? An interlude in the battle for yellow? Although the breakaway specialists will hope to take advantage of two lower-category climbs and defy the sprinters, the fast men will be chomping at the bit for some potential green jersey glory in Pau. Given its location, this is the stage where the press corps (if not the riders) will no doubt be powered by cassoulet.
Stage 19: Lourdes to Laruns (200km) M
Tour de France 2018 Stage 19 profileEurosport
Recent flooding in the Pyrenees means the final mountain stage of the race may have to be tweaked a little, with many roads damaged or washed away. As it is, it's a traditional day out that includes the legendary trident of the Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque after a start in Lourdes (where many riders will be hoping for a miracle and/or divine intervention). A fast downhill final 20km to the finish will keep hearts-in-mouth all the way to Laruns.
Stage 20: Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle to Espelette (31km) ITT
Tour de France 2018 Stage 20 profileEurosport
This undulating and highly technical race against the clock in the Basque Country is far from your routine ITT and could well see the battle for the yellow jersey decided on the final climb of the race: the short (900m) but sharp (10.2%) ramp of the Col de Pinodieta, which summits just three kilometres from the finish. With hardly a metre of flat road, riders will have to make big decisions on their equipment and gearing. Those wanting to deny Chris Froome a fifth Tour crown will no doubt have to have a decent cushion on the Sky rider going into this final decisive test.
Stage 21: Houilles to Paris (115km) F
The traditional champagne celebrations for the man in yellow will preceded the annual showdown on the Champs-Elysees, which last year saw Dutchmen Dylan Groenewegen pick up his maiden Tour stage win in fairytale circumstances. Britain's Mark Cavendish has a record four wins in Paris but hasn't tasted glory here since 2012, with Germans Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel each winning twice since. Could Chris Froome's fifth Tour win be mirrored by Cavendish's drive for five, too?