- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Tour organizers always try to throw a few twists into the predictable template of the 106-year-old race, but they've outdone themselves this time.
The clockwise route starts on the Mediterranean coast, meaning the peloton will hit the road in hot, windy weather, a real contrast from the cool, wet conditions that often characterize the initial week when the race begins in the northern part of the country.
In a controversial experiment, race radio communication between team managers and riders will be banned during two midrace stages. Some cycling purists believe that audio technology has made tactics overly robotic, especially during flatter stages where breakaways are almost inevitably caught by teams looking to position sprinters for the finish.
The 2,149-mile course favors climbers over time-trial specialists, a point emphasized by the decision to scrap the customary last-weekend time trial in favor of a potentially hair-raising uphill finish on Mont Ventoux.
Get set for an interesting ride.
July 4: Stage 1, Monaco (individual time trial), 9.63 miles
A hilly, technical race against the clock long enough to be called a stage rather than a prologue. Overall contenders such as Tour of Italy winner Denis Menchov of Rabobank and Astana's Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer could make statements here, along with specialists such as Team Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara and Garmin-Slipstream's Brad Wiggins.
July 5: Stage 2, Monaco to Brignoles, France, 116.2 miles
A course with rolling terrain that should end in a bunch sprint.
July 6: Stage 3, Marseille to La Grande Motte, 121.8 miles
Forecast: flat and hot. Another day for the sprinters.
July 7: Stage 4, Montpellier (team time trial), 24.2 miles
No secret who will be in the mix on this loop course: Astana, Columbia and Garmin, which engaged in spirited verbal and athletic sparring in this event at the Tour of Italy, should be the teams jousting for a win that could put one of their riders in the yellow jersey for a few days.
July 8: Stage 5, Le Cap d'Agde to Perpignan, 122.1 miles
A breakaway group will enjoy spectacular coastal scenery before being caught at the finish.
July 9: Stage 6, Girona, Spain, to Barcelona, 112.8 miles
This day's journey will start sentimentally for many riders, including Leipheimer and nearly the entire Garmin team, who call this beautiful Catalan city home. Some hills punctuate the middle of the course, but teams with speedsters are likely to try for one last field sprint finish.
July 10: Stage 7, Barcelona to Arcalis, Andorra, 139.2 miles
Will the overall contenders lower the hammer on the first mountaintop finish? The longest stage of the Tour distancewise could be particularly crucial for the internal dynamics at Astana, where the "strongest man" duel between Contador and Armstrong could start to play out.
July 11: Stage 8, Andorre-la-Vieille, Andorra to Saint-Girons, France, 109.7 miles
Front-loaded with two Category 1 climbs before a downhill finish, this stage is tailored for a breakaway winner.
July 12: Stage 9, Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes, 99.7 miles
Another tasty stage for a breakaway specialist, although top contenders will be mindful that a successful escape over the twin peaks of the Col d'Aspin and the legendary Tourmalet -- with a rest day looming -- could go a long way toward an eventual race win. Given last year's somewhat tentative racing on critical climbs, a risk-taker could be rewarded today.
Rest day, Limoges
July 14: Stage 10: Limoges to Issoudun, 120.8 miles
A transitional stage over unchallenging terrain on the French national holiday of Bastille Day that might be unremarkable except it will mark the first half of a notable experiment. Tour organizers have banned the use of car-to-rider race radios in this stage and Stage 13, leaving everyone to figure out time gaps and tactics as they did during the old days.
July 15: Stage 11: Vatan to Saint-Fargeau, 119.3 miles
Another transitional slog that should finish with a sprint.
July 16: Stage 12, Tonnerre to Vittel, 131.4 miles
This is officially listed as a "flat" stage but is relentlessly undulating.
July 17: Stage 13, Vittel to Colmar, 124.3 miles
The second of two stages that will be conducted in radio silence. (See Stage 10.) A tricky middling-mountains ride where the overall contenders will mark each other closely but likely will be content to maintain the status quo in the standings. The peloton will be substantially whittled down by three categorized climbs, and a breakaway group should vie for victory on the downhill finish.
July 18: Stage 14, Colmar to Besancon, 123.6 miles
Last chance for the sprinters to shine until the Champs-Elysees.
July 19: Stage 15, Pontarlier to Verbier (Switzerland), 128.6 miles
The race moves into its final week with a big question -- will top riders go for it on any of these Alpine stages, or save themselves for Thursday's time trial and Saturday's Mont Ventoux climb? This is the only uphill finish in the Alps, but it's not stratospherically difficult, and this stage doesn't shape up as decisive.
Rest day, Verbier (Switzerland)
July 21: Stage 16, Martigny (Switzerland) to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (France), 99.4 miles
No one will win the Tour today, but it could be lost with even a brief lapse. A stage with similar topography cost Garmin's Christian Vande Velde his podium hopes last year. The peloton will begin by scaling the "beyond classification" 8,110-foot Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard pass. As soon as that descent ends, the climb up the Category 1 "Petit" Saint-Bernard begins. Another descent wraps up this survival-of-the-fittest stage.
July 22: Stage 17, Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand, 105 miles
The stage profile looks like the seismograph of an earthquake, with five categorized climbs and a downhill finish. The climbing could be greater than the sum of its parts, especially if it's hot -- a pitfall day for the overall contenders.
July 23: Stage 18, Annecy (individual time trial), 24.8 miles
In a departure from recent tradition, this test, usually scheduled for the penultimate day, recedes somewhat in importance because of its placement, but still could be a critical setup for the grand finale if time gaps among the leaders are close. The course circumnavigates a picturesque lake and includes one modest hill.
July 24: Stage 19, Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas, 110.6 miles
The least exhausted breakaway specialists will contest this stage while the overall leaders conserve energy.
July 25: Stage 20, Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, 103.8 miles
All the marbles will be at stake on the windswept, barren moonscape of this geologic anomaly, where so many riders have found glory and grief. It's hard to overstate how dramatic this finish could be, as even substantial margins could evaporate.
July 26: Stage 21, Montereau-Fault-Yonne to Paris, 101.9 miles
Almost always entertaining, the parade stage could have a bearing on what is expected to be a fierce battle for the green, or top sprinter's, jersey. That honor is acutely coveted by young Columbia sensation Mark Cavendish, who will be trying to fend off rivals, including Cervelo Test Team's Thor Hushovd and Oscar Freire of Rabobank.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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