Even though the Tour de France has 21 stages, some are more critical to the overall results than others.
To be sure, we have seen some drama on the flatter stages, such as in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov's team put the hammer down and isolated French hopeful Christophe Moreau. But, all things considered, it is in the mountains and the time trials that the race for the yellow jersey is decided.
The 2009 has three mountain-top finishes, two individual time trials (TT) and one team time trial. And while there are four other stages which can be considered mountain stages, the distance from the top of the final ascent to the finish line is critical in determining if a stage with significant climbing will be a factor or not.
The First Test: The Race of Truth
The first stage of the Tour rolls out on July 4 in the principality of Monaco and is undoubtedly one of the most critical for a number of reasons. First off, it is a 9.6-mile (15.5km) individual time trial, but it also has enough climbing to make it a crucial test for the riders aiming at a general classification (GC) victory. A rider who has trouble on the gentle grades of the Cote d'Azur's Moyenne Corniche will be in big trouble in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
Secondly, teams like Astana who are trying to sort out who their team leader will be can anticipate some major fireworks from their top riders. Look for Alberto Contador to silence all the speculation by stamping his name on this course. Other riders who are contending for the overall will need to prove to their teammates that they are worthy of their sacrifices in the coming three weeks. Cadel Evans, who let down his Silence-Lotto teammates by coming up short in the final TT of the 2008 Tour, needs to prove that he will do better in 2009.
Stage 4 on July 7 is a 24.2-mile (39km) team time trial around Montpellier. There is no significant climbing on this stage, but better teams will be able to open gaps of up to two to three minutes on the weaker squads. Look for this stage to be a shoot out between Columbia-Highroad, Garmin-Slipstream and Astana.
Into the Mountains
Stage 7 on July 10 finishes on the slopes of Arcalis in Andorra. Jan Ullrich was the last winner here in 1997 on his way to his first and only Tour win. Though it's the longest stage of the Tour at 139 miles (224km), all the overall contenders should be together at the base of the 3,000-foot climb. So close to Spain, this should be Contador's day to shine.
Stage 8 the following day heads out of Andorra over the massive Port d'Envalira, and then climbs the moderate Col de Port before cresting the Col d'Agnes as the final mountain of the stage. The top of the Agnes is about 15 miles from the finish, which means a concerted chase could bring back a solo or small group of riders. This stage has a chance to be decisive, but more than likely that will not prove to be the case.
Two of the Tour's landmark climbs—the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet—are crossed when the riders move from Saint Gaudens to Tarbes during Stage 9. Unfortunately, it is about 40 miles from the top of the Tourmalet to the finish in Tarbes so again, it is more than likely that the GC riders will not be able to gain any advantage over their rivals.
Entering the Alps
Stage 15 on Sunday, July 19, is a true mountain-top finish; the final climb to the ski station at Verbier in Switzerland is over 3,000 feet of moderately steep climbing. With a rest day following this stage, look for all the GC contenders to be going all out on this ascent. A rider like Carlos Sastre could show some aggression on this climb.
Two days later, Stage 16 from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice starts with the 6,500-foot ascent of the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass, the home of the legendary St. Bernard rescue dogs. Next on the route is the Petit, or "little", Saint Bernard a 4,500-foot climb.