So here we are. In less than 24 hours, the most important race in cycling will roll from Porto Vecchio with eyes on Paris. Almost four hundred eyes will fix similarly, with flashes of yellow, green, polka dots, or solo flyers for epic stage wins filling their dreams tonight—that is, if they can find a way shut for some much needed sleep. This is the Tour de France. No one rides the Tour de France for training. Le Grande Boucle sits atop almost any aspiring cyclist’s wish list. It is cycling.
The gateway drug for any fan of bike racing, this race stops the world in its tracks and captures its attention. Not just the pinnacle of cycling, the Tour de France sits upon a high pedestal for all sport. This year is particularly important, being the 100th edition of the race. But what makes le Tour so special? Why has it transcended cycling into the sports mainstream? There are harder, longer, tougher races. There are races that punish, humble, or even crush the strongest riders on earth more than the Tour. Why exactly is the Tour so special?
It seems like the Tour excited passions from the very beginning. The French were a very passionate people when it came to cycling—and there was significant prize money available for meager cyclists who were accustomed to a rough lifestyle. Cheating was rife in the first editions—mainly because the riders raced overnight, when foul-play was hard to detect. But controversy and prize money doesn't simply turn into the most successful bike race the world has ever seen.
The truth is, the Tour simply has this perfect combination of history, geography, stature, and culture to create a perfect storm of awesomeness—to use a technical term. France in July is simply unbeatable. The geography of the country is almost tailor made for a bike race. Two major mountain ranges, rolling terrain, and flats in the south for sprint stages. No other race has ever really staked a claim on July. July is le Tour’s to have and to hold, forever. It is the ideal weather for bike racing, and from its first edition to its last, the Tour de France will dominate July.
So now that we've explored a bit of what makes this race what it is, let’s look at what will be special about this year’s edition. For the first time ever, the Tour will visit Corsica with a sprint stage. A flat stage 1 is a rarity for the Tour, and this is the first time in 40 years that a true sprinter will pull on the yellow jersey after a bunch kick. Look out for Mark Cavendish, who has a fully committed team and badly wants to wear yellow in Corsica.
The first few stages of the race could be hectic. There is always so much nervousness in a race where every single rider in the peloton is gunning for a result. This year could be more tumultuous than usual, with stage 2 already presenting two category climbs. Look for a breakaway rider to climb into yellow and hold on for dear life until the Team Time Trial in stage 4. Don’t check out until the mountains though. Cross winds could easily play a role in the stages following the TTT. You won’t see someone win the tour in these winds, but you could see a favorite lose it if they are not attentive.
Stage 8 is the first mountain top finish. This is far too early to officially decide anything, but Sky will look to control the final climb and spring their man, even if only for intimidation purposes. It may be earlier than they would like to find themselves in yellow—although it worked out fine last year for Sky.
The ITT in week 3 will be an interesting watch for sure. It is not a straightforward flat ordeal. Two second category climbs will make for some big time gaps. The two legendary Alpine climbs, Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez both make an appearance in the final week in stages 15 and 18 respectively. This is (hopefully) where the fireworks ensue with the race hopefully decided late in the final week.
However it plays out, it will be a special three weeks. The Tour always is. That is what makes it the best race on the calendar every year. It just is.