The Tour de France is, in essence, very simple – 198 cyclists race over 3994km (split into 21 stages) and the one who does it in the shortest time wins.
But that is a gross simplification. Those 198 riders, rather than going every man for himself, are arranged into 22 teams and most of them dedicate their efforts to their leaders’ bids for glory. Tour tactics are complex and enthralling.
Some riders – and their teams – focus on winning individual stages, whether flat or mountainous, and the green and polka-dot jerseys awarded to the best sprinter and ‘king of the mountains’ respectively.
The big one, however, is the maillot jaune (yellow jersey), contested by a special category of riders – those who can climb well, perform in time trials and know where to be within the peloton at all times.
Corsica to Champs-Elysées
The 2013 route was designed as a celebration of the Tour’s 100th edition (it began in 1903, but lost years to the two World Wars), and it is one to test the abilities of the world’s best riders.
The race visits Corsica for the first time, and the first three stages on the island look likely to set the touch-paper on the battle for the green jersey. Stage one is almost entirely flat, so favours Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, but the bumpy outlines of the next two stages are more suited to the charismatic Slovak Peter Sagan.
After that we should see Team Sky come to the fore in the team time trial in Nice. In stages eight and nine the race visits the Pyrenees before half a week of hilly stages and flat finishes, plus an individual time trial. Then enter the Alps.
Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez are two of the most famous names in Tour history, and there’s no drug scandal that can erode their brutal greatness. They may not be the last mountains the riders tackle – so will confirm no winners – but their roads are embedded with tragedy and triumph. On a more pragmatic note, anyone aiming for yellow has to be at the front when Ventoux and d’Huez loom ahead.
We finish, of course, on the Champs-Elysées. Race organisers have pushed the timing of the 21st stage back so that we end in Paris at dusk, the lights of the city sure to make it a spectacular finale.
Froome the favourite
This is a route with a lot of climbing, more so than last year’s, but also three time trials, so it favours – as it should – the all-round Tour rider. And in terms of ability and form, there’s only one favourite: Chris Froome.
Froome is poised to dominate the race as Bradley Wiggins did in 2012. Injury has prevented Wiggins from returning to defend his title, and it also denies us a fascinating Team Sky sub-plot – Froome nominated leader but Wiggins making him work for it.
Froome has admitted that Wiggins’ absence is something of a “relief”, and it does allow Sky to focus all its efforts on ensuring Froome is in yellow in Paris.
He has eight wins to his name in 2013, a record far superior to any of his main rivals. In the Critérium du Dauphiné, the traditional warm-up for the Tour, Froome won with ease.
The man expected to push Froome closest in the Tour, Alberto Contador, could not keep up with the Brit in the Dauphiné and it is fair to say that he has not been close to his best since a drug ban in 2010.
It is another Spaniard, Joaquim Rodriguez, who seems more likely to threaten Froome, although his time-trialling will have to improve for that to happen.
Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing are another two vying for the podium – and here we might just get some internal team friction between the old stager and the young pretender – but neither are likely to knock Froome off his perch.
If Sky show their usual ability to control the race, protect their leader and get him into the right positions, then – accidents aside – a Froome victory is by far the most likely outcome of this race.
It would be remiss of me to preview this year’s race without mentioning the shadow hanging over it. Lance Armstrong’s doping secrets were investigated and exposed in 2012 and Armstrong confessed to Oprah in January 2013.
His seven wins (1999-2005) were erased from the Tour records and the scandal has caused cyclists and spectators to question whether the sport’s governing bodies are fit for purpose, as demonstrated by UCI president and Irishman Pat McQuaid losing the support of his countrymen in his re-election bid.
The Tour is strong enough to survive these choppy waters, with teams like Sky and Garmin-Sharp leading the fight against doping (if their rhetoric is to believed).
It has always been an event plagued by cheating, from competitors hopping onto trains in 1904 (yes, really) to the ‘Festina Affair’ in 1998 that almost ended the Tour altogether.
And the achievements of Tour greats like Fausto Coppi and Laurent Fignon have been clouded by their use of drugs to boost performance.
Nor is cheating in sport restricted to cycling. ‘Crashgate’ (and now ‘Tyregate’) and ‘Bloodgate’ have shaken Formula 1 and rugby union, while Eufemiano Fuentes’ trial earlier this year implicated football and tennis players as well as cyclists.
Cheating will always be present in sport, with doping an arms race between testers and cheats. That does not mean that we should accept it. Tom Simpson’s amphetamine-induced death on Mont Ventoux in 1967 was the result of authorities turning a blind eye to drugs in the Tour.
Armstrong has taught us that fairy tales can make convenient masks for liars. We should celebrate the beauty of the Tour and the bravery and endurance of the men who battle each other and the terrain, but should also be mindful of the liars and the need to expose them, whatever the cost to the sport.