The biggest thing missing from the stages of the 2010 Tour de France are mountain-top finishes. This year's route has only three legitimate summit finishes, and the first of those, Station des Rouses on stage 7, is only a category 2 climb. What seems to be more critical this year are descending skills, both stages 9 and 15 have precipitous drops to the line after Hor Categorie climbs.
Does this mean that the 2010 Tour is easy? Add in the fact that there is no team time trial and only one individual time trial and you could easily think that. But, the race is about the riders (see Who Will Win the 2010 Tour de France?) so even if this edition of the race seems to lack a lot of the hallmarks of previous years, you know it will still produce a worthy winner.
If the peloton can survive the inevitable crashes due to all the road furniture in Holland (AKA the Netherlands) then the first big test will come near the end of stage 3 when the riders will encounter seven cobbles sections for a total of 13 kilometers. Many of the cobbled sections are used in the infamous Paris-Roubaix and we all know what that means: Riders can crash at any time for any reason. In 2004, the Tour also took the race over the cobbles. One of Lance Armstrong's main challengers, Iban Mayo, crashed and lost over three minutes. Mayo had put two minutes into Lance on Mont Ventoux a month previously, now his Tour was virtually over. Like Mayo, Alberto Contador is small in stature and particularly susceptible to the pounding of the stones. This will be a critical stage for Contador's quest for a third yellow jersey.
Stage 7 to Station des Rouses is deceptively hard. Though the final climb is not difficult, the profile leading to it looks like a set of dragon's teeth. It will be critical for all the overall contenders to be at the front when the climbing begins. A cheeky early move could pay off in a big way. Also, a well-planned effort by a well organized team could isolate a rider (Team RadioShack are you listening?).
The next day's stage to Morzine-Avoriaz is a more traditional mountain-top finish. The final climb is very similar to the Verbier ascent in 2009. Look for Contador to take the initiative here and show that he has the form everyone is dreading.
Stage 9 to Saint Jean de Maurienne has the most climbing of any stage in the Alps, but it is 20 miles from the top of the Col de la Madeleine to the finish which should neutralize any moves by the race favorites.
Stage 12 to Mende should not turn the GC upside down, however, the final climb is 3km at an average grade of 10 percent. It was here in 2005 that Armstrong blew the peloton apart averaging 450+ watts for the ascent which has been renamed the Laurent Jalabert climb as this is the legendary Tour rider's home town.
Stage 14 begins a tough final week mostly in the Pyrenees mountains. This stage, which ends on the Ax 3 Domaines climb is very similar to the route in 2005 when Armstrong dropped Ullrich and consolidated his hold over the yellow jersey. An on-form Contador has an advantage here, though a 1-2 punch from the Schleck brothers could really shake things up.
The next day's stage to Luchon crosses the fearsome Port de Bales only 12 miles from the finish. It is possible that a rider might be able to keep time gained on the ascent, we will have to see who is motivated to have a go.
Stage 16 to Pau has the most climbing as it goes over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque passes, a route that is affectionately known as the "Ring of Death". Unfortunately, the top of the last pass is 36 miles from the finish so it will take a very coordinated effort by a strong team to make this stage decisive.
Stage 17 finishes on the top of the legendary Col du Tourmalet and could be the most decisive stage in this year's Tour. The three major climbs, the Marie-Blanque, the Soulor and the Tourmalet are spaced pretty far apart which should allow the riders some recovery between each ascent. However, with 4500 feet of climbing from bottom to top the Tourmalet could, by itself, turn the GC (General Classification) upside down.
The race's one and only time trial comes the day before Paris on stage 19. The 52km course is almost dead flat which favors power riders over lightweight climbers like Contador. But, as we saw last year at Lac d'Annecy nothing goes according to form.
So, there you have it. Yes, it would have been nice to have a few more mountain top finishes and a second individual time trial, but there is no shortage of difficulty and, once again, the course will produce a worthy winner.
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. Find the latest news, rumors and more on his Active Expert blog. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Europe.