June 30, 2016

Five stages to watch in the 21-leg Tour de France, which starts on Saturday at Mont-Saint-Michel and ends on July 24 in Paris:

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STAGE 1, July 2, 188 kilometers (117 miles) from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach (Sainte-Marie-du-Mont) in the Normandy region:

The Mont-Saint-Michel, a World Heritage Benedictine abbey perched on a rock off the Normandy coast, will provide a picture-postcard start for the race as the Grand Depart returns to home roads after visits to Britain and the Netherlands in the last two years.

The first stage ends at Utah Beach, where Allied troops landed on D-Day in 1944.

Following the coastline for long stretches, wind could play a big role, with the possibility of splitting the peleton. In the end, though, sprinters are expected to vie for the stage win and the honor of wearing the first yellow jersey.

Germany's Marcel Kittel and Britain's Mark Cavendish are the pick of the bunch.

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STAGE 5, July 6, 216 kilometers (134 miles) from Limoges to Le Lioran in the Massif Central:

After the sprinters have the spotlight in the opening four legs, this should be the stage where the race really starts.

Featuring five climbs in a constant up-and-down finish, including the 1,589-meter (5,213-foot) Pas de Peyrol, it will mark the first time that the Tour has gone above 1,500 meters this early in the race since the leg-breaking start in 1979, when there were three stages in the Pyrenees over the first four days.

Look for overall contenders Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador to spring into action for the first time.

The Tour won't be won here but it could be lost.

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STAGE 8, July 9, 183 kilometers (114 miles) from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees:

The most difficult stage on paper, featuring the legendary Col du Tourmalet plus three more serious climbs in quick succession - the Hourquette d'Ancizan, the Val Louron-Azet and the Col de Peyresourde.

After hours in the saddle, the leaders will be pleased to take on the high-speed descent from the Peyresourde into the finish in Luchon, which is not highly technical.

Whoever holds the yellow jersey after this stage will have taken a major step toward overall victory.

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STAGE 12, July 14, 184 kilometers (114 miles) from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux in the Provence region:

French climbing specialists Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot surely have circled this stage for special attention. Besides containing one of the race's most famous climbs, the stage will be held on Bastille Day.

Defending champion Chris Froome was the stage winner when the Tour last scaled Ventoux's barren, 1,909-meter (6,263-foot) peak in 2013.

Ventoux was also the site of an epic contest between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000, and where British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967 after he used a lethal cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol.

Heat is usually a factor on the grueling climb up Ventoux and there will be the added factor of wanting to keep something in reserve for the race's first - and longest - time trial a day later.

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STAGE 18, July 21, 17-kilometer individual time trial from Sallanches to Megeve in the Rhone-Alps region:

It's the Tour's first mountain time trial since the 2004 race against the clock up l'Alpe d'Huez.

Besides the flat opening four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) and a short descent at the finish, it's entirely uphill.

While there will still be two more stages in the Alps, this leg could be decisive for overall victory.

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