That coveted yellow jersey is close enough to touch.
The Tour de France is the greatest bike race on earth, and the 104th edition is already proving one of the most thrilling in recent memory. Christian Prudhomme, the director of the race, has stated that the 2017 route has been specifically designed to encourage riders to attack each other from early on, right through to the Champs Elysees finale on 23 July.
Though it has just three summit finishes and fewer categorised climbs than previous years, the Tour will visit every one of France’s five mountain regions: the Alps, the Pyrénées, the Massif Central, the Jura and the Vosges. With up to nine potential sprint stages, spectators can expect aggressive racing from the get go. In honour of this sporting spectacular, we’ve put together the ultimate guide of the Tour de France 2017. Allez! Allez!
Will Froome Snag his Fourth Title?
For cycling enthusiasts, the Tour de France is the best three weeks of the year: the fluid motion of the peloton moving past at warp speed, colourful jerseys whipping through mountains and raising glasses of fizz on the streets of Paris. However, for the 198 GC riders gearing up for the Grand Depart, the race is three weeks of hell for the body. The punishing endurance event is the sum of 21 stages, 2000 miles, up to 6 hours per day on the saddle, a combined burn of 25 million calories and just two rest days. But le malliot jeune, the paramount prize in professional cycling, makes it all worth it.
British cycling legend Chris Froome is once again the bookies’ favourite to win this year, but the odds aren’t overwhelmingly in his favour. The three-time winner and former super-domestique for Bradley Wiggins is already one of the most successful stage-racing riders of all time. Last year, the Team Sky rider gave us a truly extraordinary performance. Who could forget the sight of him running up Mont Ventoux, desperately hunting for a bike to replace his own mashed-up machine? Speed over distance has thus far been Froome’s forte, but this year’s route has a distinct lack of time trial kilometres. Couple that with the fact that he’ll head into the Tour without a single victory this season, it’s possible that the British hero will be dethroned.
His greatest rival is Aussie powerhouse Richie Porte. Despite the unpredictable weather scuppering his otherwise triumphant performance in the opening stages of Paris-Nice in March, his impressive wins of the Tour de Romandie and close edge at the Dauphiné make interesting stakes for bookies. If he can keep good time on the flat stages, he’ll be Froome’s key challenger.
Has Cavendish missed his chance?
After a nasty bout of glandular fever, Mark Cavendish returned to cycling this year, propelled by his desire to steal the record for individual stage wins. With a promising start, the Manx Missile looked in with a shout to beat Eddy Merckx’s record, won in a spell of dominance between the 1960s and 1970s. After a high-speed crash in the fourth stage though, Cavendish has bowed out with a broken collarbone, and that means the Belgian virtuoso’s score of 34 wins remains unbeaten for another year.
Known for attacking his opponents more or less continually, Merckx was christened ‘The Cannibal’ because of his insatiable appetite for victory. There’s a huge bronze monument dedicated to him at the top of the Côte de Stockeu which lists (some) of his triumphs. It ends with the word ‘etc.’ and that’s because there isn’t even space to mention them all. Incredible.
As for Cavendish, he’ll be 33 by the time the next Tour de France comes around. Can he maintain his blistering pace and attempt to break Merckx’s record in 2018?
The Route: a Backbreaker Beginning
You probably already know that the Tour de France is a mind-boggling logistical operation. Thousands of spectators move from one town to the next pretty much every day of the race. There are 21 stages in total, covering the length and breadth of some of Europe’s challenging terrain. After the Grand Depart in Düsseldorf – the first time the race has begun in Germany since 1987 – the race heads northwest for two days in Belgium. At 203.5km, Stage 2 was always planned as a bunch sprint, ending in Liege. The group then take on their third country at Stage 4 as the race moves to Luxembourg, before reaching France on Stage 5 for the first mountain summit finish at the top of La Planche Des Belles Filles in the Vosges Mountains (where Chris Froome won his first Tour stage back in 2012). With such a hard climb so early in the competition, the riders will have to be at their best from the onset. Two relieving flat stages follow before the Tour moves into the Jura mountains northwest of the Alps.
Starting in Nantua, the riders tackle four testing climbs ascending a total of 4600 metres of elevation. From the top of Mont du Chat, there’s then a speedy decline into Chambery before the riders hop on a plane and transfer across the country for the first rest day in Dordogne. We’re sure they’ll need it by then! Two transitional stages edge the Tour towards its great challenge: the Pyrénées.
The Last Leg to the Champs Élysées
Stage 12 sees the peloton head to the mountain range in Pau and end on the second summit finish in Peyragudes. At just 100km long, Stage 13 – taking place on Bastilles Day on July 14th – looks set to be one of the most sensational of the year. It’s by far the shortest road stage in the Tour’s recent history but packing in three killer mountains into three hours of racing should see the contenders fighting from the go. If you can make it to the southwest French town of Foix to see the riders cross the finish line, you’ll be in for one of the most memorable highlights of the Tour.
The route leaves the Pyrénées heading west, when the sprinters will have their eyes on Stage 16, approaching the Alps the next day. On Stage 17 – the penultimate day in the mountains – the Tour goes back to what it knows best. Covering classics like the Col de la Croix de Fer and the mighty Télégraphe, the riders will have just two more days to gain precious time because the descent to finish in Serre Chevalier is where the battle for the yellow jersey reaches its climax. The slog to the summit in Izoard on Stage 18 will be tough. By this point, race director Christian Prudhomme expects ‘spirits and legs’ to be on fire.
At 220km, Stage 19 is the longest of the race rolling through the scenic Provence region. The peloton will edge towards Marseilles where the results will finally be decided. A 23-km time trial around the coastal city starting and finishing in the Stad Velodrome football stadium will shake up proceedings for one last time before the winner is crowned. The riders will hop on another plane north for the final stage of the 2017 Tour de France, with its traditional finish and celebration on the Champs Elysees in the City of Lights. If you wish to witness the festival atmosphere live in the flesh, Paris is just a three-hour drive from the port of Calais.
Inspired to see for yourself? Read our guide to some of the best places to see the Tour de France.
Feature image by youkeys