The first weekend of July not only marks the time when Wal-Mart and Old Navy sell out of American flag shirts to mark our nation's independence. It's also when two British men (and their American mascot named Bobke) take a US network hostage to show the French countryside nonstop for three weeks.
That's right, beginning Saturday it's Tour-Day-France time. Versus and NBC will offer continual coverage, from the race's live airing in the wee-morning hours to the multiple rebroadcast late into the evening, until the final day of racing in Paris on July 24.
Two-hundred cyclists will cover 3,450 kilometers (that's 2070 miles to you and me) more than 21 different races, or stages, in a semi-counterclockwise route around France. And we're help break down how to interpret some of the goings-on, who to watch for, and what stages really matter.
The Tour, also known as Le Grande Boucle, will be announced primarily by the aforementioned Brits Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin with their own unique lexicon. Also joining them is former US cyclist Bob Roll (a.k.a. Bobke, he's the one who brutally Americanizes Tour-Day-France) and general talking head Craig Hummer. Most live broadcasts pick up the stage a little after the midway point to the finish, typically around 5:30 a.m.
Each stage varies with some flat, some mountainous, and a couple of time trials thrown in to allow the truly fastest to prove themselves on the open road. The flat stages, commonly referred to as sprint stages because after six hours of riding the entire day comes down to a mad dash over the final several hundred meters, tend to be less than invigorating viewing (except for those final kilometers - crashes galore!). The mountain stages are the great ones to watch because of the suffering and strategy of when to attach on the slopes with all of the Euro-crazies and hooligans lining the roads.
Riders vie for four different categories which are signified by different jerseys: yellow for best overall, green for best sprinter, red polka-dots for king of the mountains, and white for best young rider. Really the yellow one, the maillot jaune, is the only one that truly matters. The green jersey plays a role over the first week to keep things interesting, but that's about it. Expect England's brash Mark Cavendish to be sprinting and crying his way to green until the mountains show up.
Three-time winner Alberto Contador (Team Saxo Bank) is the hands-down favorite to finish in yellow. He has consistently blown away all other riders and most who follow cycling think it's a race for second. The man who has taken that spot the past few years is Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), and he has not looked very strong this year. His older brother and teammate Frank should also be considered a contender.
Several Americans will be mixing it up for stage wins and a shot at a top placing this year as well. Look for strong rides from Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer (Team Radioshack); Tom Danielson, Christian VandeVelde and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo); and Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad). Other names to keep an eye on include Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Dutch rider Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Spaniard Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi), Ireland's Nic Roche (AG2R La Mondial), and France's Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar).
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This year's tour highlights eight key stages that demand to be viewed:
• Stage 1 (July 2) - Instead of the usual prologue (a very short time trial), the Tour kicks off with a full stage that resembles a brutal spring classic. It starts across the Passage du Gois, a roadway that links an island to the French mainland that is underwater the majority of the day. The last time the Tour went across this road, a mighty crash split the peloton apart and really carried Lance Armstrong to his first Tour victory. Put your money on Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara or Belgium's Phillipe Gilbert.
• Stage 2 (July 3) - This stage marks the return of the Team Time Trial to the Tour. The TTT has each team race together to post the best time possible. This is one of the most obvious exhibitions of how a team works in cycling and it is beautiful to watch. Look for the US's Team Radioshack to take a win here.
• Stage 9 (July 10) - The road profile for this stage looks like a saw blade with a crazy series of climbs coming one after another. This day fall right before the first of two rest days, so look for one of Contador's challengers not named Schleck to attack.
• Stage 12 (July 14) - The big mountains hit hard on Bastille Day, a day French riders usually kill themselves trying to win. John Gadret or Jean-Christophe Peraud from AG2R could make a go at a win, but any real money should be on Contador to make a big statement on the mountaintop finish that is synonymous with Lance.
• Stage 14 (July 16) - This mountain stage ends atop the Plateau De Beille, where the last three winners of this stage have gone on to win the yellow jersey in Paris. Expect the same here, so expect Contador.
• Stage 18 (July 21) - Three brutally long, monstrously huge mountains loom on this day as the Tour dips into Italy. Keep an eye on American Chris Horner and his ever-present smirk to take top prizes here.
• Stage 19 (July 22) - The famous switchback-filled climb up the Alpe-D'Huez closes the door on the mountains this year. Samuel Sanchez could sneak a win on this legendary ascent, getting his name on a signpost, unless Contador is still challenged for the yellow jersey.
• Stage 20 (July 23) - A final time trial will settle all spots and decide who gets to stand on the final podium steps on the Champs Ellysees. Contador is a great time trialist, but TT specialists like world champion Cancellara, US champion Dave Zabriskie or Germany's Tony Martin could sneak a win on this penultimate stage of the Tour.
Enjoy the beauty of watching the peloton meander across the fields of grapes and sunflowers, over the peaks and through the glacier carved valleys. And keep an eye out for that Clean Bottle mascot. It always cracks old Phil Liggett up but we here at the Ranch really hope some team car runs him over.