The 2014 edition of the Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious multiple-stage race, is set to depart from Leeds on Saturday, with three stages planned in the United Kingdom before the race turns to the European mainland.
Belgium and Spain will also be getting a piece of the action, making this year's race one of the most well-travelled editions we've seen in a long time. Of course, the bulk of the stages will take place on the legendary roads of France, and this year's route almost guarantees fans will see plenty of spectacle.
Event organisers have elected to only stage a single time trial throughout the entire race, with a heavy emphasis on uphill finishes and passages over the Tourmalet and Pla d'Adet.
Fans of attacking cycling will be giddy with excitement, so let's have a look at the full schedule for the 2014 Tour de France and highlight some of the key stages that will help shape the outcome of this year's race.
|1||5 July||Leeds/Harrogate||190.5 km||Flat|
|2||6 July||York/Sheffield||201 km||Hill|
|3||7 July||Cambridge/London||155 km||Flat|
|4||8 July||Le Touquet-Paris-Plage/Lille||163.5 km||Hill|
|5||9 July||Ypres/Arenberg Porte du Hainaut||155.5 km||Flat|
|6||10 July||Arras/Reims||194 km||Flat|
|7||11 July||Epernay/Nancy||234.5 km||Flat|
|8||12 July||Tomblaine/Gerardmer La Mauselaine||161 km||Hill|
|9||13 July||Gerardmer/Mulhouse||170 km||Hill|
|10||14 July||Mulhouse/Planche des Belles Filles||161.5 km||Mountain|
|/||15 July||Rest Day|
|11||16 July||Besancon/Oyonnax||187.5 km||Flat|
|12||17 July||Bourg-en-Bresse/Saint-Etienne||185.5 km||Hill|
|13||18 July||Saint-Etienne/Chamrousse||197.5 km||Mountain|
|14||19 July||Grenoble/Risoul||177 km||Mountain|
|15||20 July||Tallard/Nimes||222 km||Flat|
|/||21 July||Rest Day|
|16||22 July||Carcassonne/Bagneres-de-Luchon||237.5 km||Mountain|
|17||23 July||Saint-Gaudens/Pla d'Adet||124.5 km||Mountain|
|18||24 July||Pau/Hautacam||145.5 km||Mountain|
|19||25 July||Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour/Bergerac||208.5 km||Flat|
|20||26 July||Bergerac/Perigueux||54 km||Time Trial|
|21||27 July||Evry/Paris||137.5 km||Flat|
Stage 10: Mulhouse/La Planche des Belles Filles
This is the last stage before the first rest day, as riders gear up for the journey towards the Alps and the heaviest stages they will face. The first week is traditionally reserved for sprinters, though several hilly stages will give less-heralded riders a shot at eternal glory.
Stage 10 will give us our first glimpse at the top contenders, however. The climbs in the Vosges aren't as long as the ones riders will face in the Alps, but the route towards Planche des Belles Filles is littered with them.
A total of seven climbs will be waiting for the riders, with virtually no time to recover in between. The final climb is surprisingly long, and the race win will most likely go to the rider who can best recover from the Col des Chevreres.
Stage 13: Saint-Etienne/Chamrousse
The first real stage in the Alps, the profile of this race is fairly straightforward—two climbs that will serve as a warm-up before a brutal uphill finish towards the ski station of Chamrousse.
This is not the stage that will make or break a rider's Tour, and with much of the course set up in preparation for the final climb, even the sprinters shouldn't have too much trouble recovering in time for the next stage, towards Risoul.
Stage 14 will be a lot more difficult, with three major climbs standing in the way of the pack, but Stage 13 will show us exactly what kind of form the top riders are in. With a fairly easy road towards the start of the climb to Chamrousse, all of the contenders should still be fresh and ready to attack.
Saturday's action will be more spectacular, and we shouldn't be surprised if one or two top contenders fall way down the leaderboard upon arriving in Risoul. But Friday will give a clearer picture of the balance of power in the pack, and it will be a preview of what's to come in a couple of days.
Stages 16-18: Carcassonne/Hautacam
Welcome to the Pyrenees, riders. After a well-deserved rest day, the pack will face three consecutive days in the high mountains. Whether the event organisers were hoping for fireworks or simply thought the riders hadn't suffered enough, we'll probably never know.
Stage 16 isn't too bad compared to some of the mountain stages we've seen so far, but with the winner of the Tour likely decided over the course of these three stages, the pack will be extremely nervous heading towards Bagneres-de-Luchon.
The next day will be more of the same—the riders will be in the very heart of the Pyrenees, and there's no place to hide or recover from the constant climbing. Tour de France (ESP) shared this image of Stage 17's profile, towards Pla d'Adet:
And then there's Stage 18—just two real climbs, but they just so happen to be the Tourmalet and the finish at the ski station of Hautacam.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Tour de France: The Tourmalet is an absolute monster, and it has often decided the outcome of the entire event in the past. It's one of the fiercest climbs in all of cycling, over 17 kilometers long and with an average of 7.3 percent.
Facing this climb after two consecutive days in the high mountains and near the end of the 2014 Tour is absolutely brutal, and how the top contenders survive Stage 18 will largely determine what the final leaderboard will look like.
Stage 20: Bergerac/Perigueux
The only individual time trial in the 2014 Tour de France, Stage 20 will be the final chance for the top contenders to move up or down the leaderboard. Stage 21 towards Paris is nothing but a showpiece, and the finish on the Champs-Elysees hasn't decided a final winner of the Tour in a long, long time.
At 54 kilometers, this particular time trial is surprisingly long, and with the course not being entirely flat, riders who recover from the Pyrenees well will have a chance to make up tremendous ground on some of their competitors.
After 19 harsh stages, technique will only get you so far—raw power and form will determine who shines in this stage and, ultimately, who secures the 2014 Tour de France victory.