A Tour de Force

Four strategic stages will determine where this year's Tour de France will be won
July 04, 2010

The 97th Tour de France begins on Saturday in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and though riders will travel nearly 2,263 miles over three weeks, the race can be won—or lost—on four critical stages. That's why the yellow-jersey favorites have spent significant time scouting the course to seek ways to gain an advantage or, perhaps more important, to avoid a disastrous crash.

Defending champ Alberto Contador (Astana) rode with a former winner of the Paris-Roubaix to better learn how to navigate the treacherous cobblestone sections of stage 3. He then trained in the Pyrenees. With six mountain stages and three summit finishes, the course sets up well for the Spaniard to take a third overall victory, but challengers such as former teammate Lance Armstrong (now with Radio Shack), last year's runner-up Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) will provide stiff competition.

STAGE 3

JULY 6 | BIG STONES

More than 8.2 miles of bone-jarring cobblestones near the end of this stage could spell danger for the Tour favorites. In 2004 Iban Mayo (above) never recovered from a cobble crash that cost him precious time and probably an overall victory.

STAGE 6

JULY 9 | BREAKING AWAY

The longest stage of this year's Tour ends in Gueugnon, a first-time stage town. The up-and-down roads of the Loire Valley make conditions ideal for a breakaway; Thomas Voeckler (above, right) of France will be looking for a win.

STAGE 12

JULY 16 | AIRING IT OUT

Two-time-champion Contador (above), the odds-on favorite to win this year's Tour, can make a decisive move here. The final climb is short at just 1.9 miles but averages more than a 10% grade. In other words, it's treacherous.

STAGE 17

JULY 22 | FINAL CLIMB

Riders will attack the sadistically steep Col du Tourmalet, the Tour's highest point (6,939 feet), for the second time in three days. Armstrong (above, left) used this pass to cement several of his Tour wins.

[The following text appears within a map. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual map.]

STAGE 3

July 6 132.4 miles

STAGE 6

July 9 141.4 miles

STAGE 12

July 16 130.8 miles

STAGE 17

July 22 108.1 miles

MAPGEOATLAS/©2009 GRAPHI-OGRE/©A.S.O. (MAP)MAP QUEST The stages have been set for a repeat champion at the 97th Tour. PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (MAYO) PHOTOPATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (VOECKLER) PHOTOBERNARD PAPON/AP (CONTADOR) PHOTOJOEL SAGET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (ARMSTRONG)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)