In less than a week, 198 cyclists from 22 teams will converge on Utrecht in the Netherlands for the July 4 Grand Depart of the 2015 Tour de France. The race commences with a 14-kilometer time trial — the only individual time trial of this year’s race. The dynamics of the 2015 route will play a major role in the way the race plays out, with the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees given center stage and time-trial specialists largely left behind by the course layout.
Roads more often featured in the spring classics are given the spotlight in the first four stages, as the Tour winds down through the Netherlands and Belgium before crossing the border into France for the finish at Cambrai on July 7. The first week is largely one for the sprinters, as the undulating landscape doesn’t present any serious climbs aside from the Mur de Huy that is the star of the Fleche Wallone every April and provides the finishing line for Stage 3.
After the Stage 9 team time trial affords the last opportunity for strong teams against the clock to build gaps in the general classification, the sprinters will be swept aside as the climbing specialists take charge over three stages in the Pyrenees. The race probably won’t be won over the second weekend, but it can certainly be lost at this point in the route. Stage 11 will ride over the Col d’Aspin on the 20th anniversary of Fabio Casartelli’s tragic death on its slopes before sending the racers up the Tourmalet.
Even the transition stages between the Pyrenees and Alps will offer little respite as whatever riders remain at this point charge forward toward the final weekend of racing. The four days between Muret and Gap feature 13 categorized climbs — including four Category 2 pitches. Sprinters will essentially hope to hold on until the Champs Elysees for their last chance at glory.
The Alps will make or break this year’s final result and determine who wears the maillot jaune into Paris. Stage 17 on July 22 offers an appetizer for the pain still to be endured, featuring four categorized climbs on the course before finishing with a fifth to the summit finish at Pra Loup. The following day presents seven categorized climbs, including the 22 kilometers of the hors-categorie Col du Glandon. Day three in the Alps sends the riders up four more climbs, including another trip up the Glandon before ramping even higher to the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer and concluding with a Category 1 summit finish at La Toussuire.
The real challenge comes on the penultimate stage of the race and the last day in the mountains. Whoever has survived the attrition of the route to this point will face a day that includes two hors-categorie climbs that are among the most mythic in cycling. Though just 110.5 kilometers in total, the day will include 43.4 kilometers of climbing at an average pitch of 7.3 percent. The day begins with 13.5 kilometers of downhill until the road begins rising at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne to begin the slog up the Col du Telegraphe. At the summit, riders will get just under five kilometers of downhill respite before churning the pedals up the Col du Galibier and the highest point of this year’s race. A long run-in leads riders into Bourg d’Oisans for an intermediate sprint. At that point, the legendary switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez await already tired legs.
With only the ceremonial processional into Paris remaining after that last mountaintop finish, the winner will be crowned at Alpe d’Huez. The laps in the capital city will be a formality for all but the sprinters salivating over one of the most prestigious finishes in cycling. For the GC contenders, time gaps coming into this stage could be tight as teams jockey for dominance, so look for the last day in the Alps to directly decide who emerges victorious.
Knowing what challenges the course presents, who has the best shot of wearing the yellow jersey at the end? Can any all-around GC rider contend with the climbing specialists given the design of this year’s route? Which sprinters will distinguish themselves over the three weeks of racing, and which ones will still be riding come Stage 21? To prepare you for the race, here are four more predictions about how everything will unfold over 23 glorious days of racing in July.