Mont Ventoux looms large over the 96th Tour de France, with everything tailored to ensure a dramatic finish on what the organisers hope will be a ?Super Saturday? in Provence.
There are only 55 kilometres of individual time trialling and only two summit finishes before Mont Ventoux. The Pyrenees and Alps lack the wow-factor, but there could be some hidden gems. This year?s stage to Prato Nevoso showed you don?t have to climb the most famous mountains in order to have a great race.
Aptly for a race that starts in the glamorous casino city of Monte Carlo, Christian Prudhomme has put all his chips on red, gambling that the race for the yellow jersey will go all the way to Provence. It is a risk, though, because a close race does not necessarily guarantee drama, particularly if the favourites opt to wait until the last minute.
What the Tour organisers want is four or five riders within two minutes of each other overall when they reach the bottom of Mont Ventoux. And the only way to guarantee that is to water down the opportunities to gain time. However, that?s not the same thing as saying it?s an easy course. Far from it.
Here is Cycling Weekly?s week-by-week summary of the 2009 Tour de France, including the stages we think that British sprint powerhouse Mark Cavendish could win.
For a comprehensive guide to all of the stage in the 2009 Tour de France, Cycle Sport Summer issue includes a full guide to the race, including stage maps, team lists and the favourites.
Cycle Sport Summer 2009 issue is on sale from next week, priced £4.10
Tour de France week one
Monaco to Tarbes
For only the second time in the race?s history, the Grand Depart is in the south-east.
The opening time trial in Monaco is far from traditional. At 15 kilometres long, the first half climbs continuously to the high point at Beausoleil before plunging back down to sea level.
Then the race hugs the Mediterranean on its way to Barcelona. The second stage from Monaco to Brignoles is hilly and may slip from the grasp of the sprinters, but the following day?s leg from Marseille to La Grande Motte should end with a bunch gallop.
Garmin-Chipotle will be eagerly anticipating the team time trial at Montpellier. Britain?s David Millar and Bradley Wiggins lead a powerful team for this. for 2009, each team?s time will be taken as the fifth rider crosses the line and the times will count directly towards the GC, unlike in 2004 and 2005 when a bizarre time bonus system was used to limit the weakest teams? losses.
Perpignan offers the second of the two best opportunities for sprinters in the opening week. The sixth stage from Girona to Barcelona packs a sting in the tail, climbing the hill in Montjuic. Barcelona is the most southerly point the race has ever visited. Girona is also the European base for the Garmin team who, with two time trials in the first four days, will hope to take the yellow ?home?.
The opening mountain stage is from Barcelona to Arcalis in Andorra. The 2,240-metre climb at Arcalis has only been visited once before, in 1997 when Jan Ullrich won. The stage is a brute, but will tempt the favourites to wait until the final climb. It?s the race?s longest.
The other two Pyrenean stages seem to be designed to minimise their impact. The biggest difficulty of stage eight from Andorra to Saint Girons, the 2,408-metre Port d?Envalira, is at the start and the Col de Port and Col d?Agnès are not severe enough to do much. Gains will be wiped out by a 44-kilometre descent and run-in.
While the Col d?Aspin and Col du Tourmalet are legendary, they come in the middle of stage 10 to Tarbes.
Tour de France week two
Limoges to Colmar
After a transfer and rest day, the race resumes in Limoges. On paper the middle week looks desperately uninspiring, particularly after a varied first nine days.
The saving grace for British fans is that there could be plenty of opportunities for Mark Cavendish to win stages and build a lead in the green jersey competition. Issoudun, Saint Fargeau (the smallest host town with a population of 1,800) and Vittel are all transitional stages in the traditional sense and will see the usual pursuit between the bunch and the breakaways during the closing kilometres.
Stage 13 from Vittel to Colmar takes the peloton into the Vosges. Although the Col de la Schlucht, Col du Platzerwasel and Col du Firstplan are not severe climbs, this is an awkward stage that could catch out the inattentive, as the region almost did Discovery Channel in 2005.
Although stage 14 to Besançon is relatively flat, it will be questionable whether the sprinters? teams have the stomach for the chase after three flat stages and a tricky run through the Vosges.
A first visit to Verbier ushers in the Alps. The Swiss climb is only 8.8 kilometres long, so even though it is one of only three summit finishes in the race, it is not exactly grandstand stuff. It?s not even as hard as this year?s Prato Nevoso.
Tour de France week three
Martigny to Paris
The 30-kilometre Col du Grand Saint Bernard rises to 2,473 metres and comes right at the start of stage 17, a day which starts in Switzerland, heads into Italy and eventually finishes in Bourg Saint Maurice. However, it?s another stage where the final col, the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, is a long way from the finish, potentially limiting the impact it can have on the overall picture. The descent is 26 kilometres long, shallow and on a main road.
The hardest stage of an already hard Tour ? which features 20 climbs ranked either hors-categorie, first-category or second-category ? is stage 17 from Bourg Saint Maurice to Le Grand Bornand. A vicious start takes the riders over the Cormet de Roselend, before the Col de Saisies, two smaller mountains and then the Col de la Colombiere. Although it?s another downhill finish, it?s a shorter, more technical descent, making the climb more strategically important.
After neutralising the mountain stages, at least the finale is potentially thrilling. The Annécy time trial will be aesthetically pleasing and, at 40 kilometres, won?t allow anyone to win by two minutes.
After that it?s all about Mont Ventoux. Let?s hope it?s worth the wait.
Tour de France route
CW picture exclusive: Mark Cavendish in London
|TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 LINKS|
Brits in the 2009 Tour de France
Tour de France 2009: Week-by-week guide
9 reasons why Mont Ventoux is a symbolic climb
Analysis: Mont Ventoux to decide the Tour
Inside the Tour: 2009 race by numbers
Etape du Tour 2009: It’s the Ventoux