The 100th edition of the Tour de France starts in just under a month, and organizers have finalized route details for the historic race. First envisioned by a journalist with backing from his editor, the 1903 Tour de France was mammoth. One stage measured 471km long, and only 21 riders made it to the finish. Since then, the race often known simply as, "le Tour" has evolved, not just into the greatest cycling race in the world, but sits among the very best sporting events on the planet.
The entire route for the race remains in France for 2013. Those unfamiliar with the race might be surprised to learn that "le Tour" has started or dipped into other nations over its three week schedule, but for the historic 100th edition, every stage remains inside French borders for the first time in a decade. The route itself will run a distance of 3360 kilometres, with just two rest days.
The makeup of the 21 stages includes three time trials – two individual and one team effort – as well as a nearly even mix of flat, hilly and mountain stages.
Starting on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, the race departs Porto-Vecchio for Bastia, and a day later Ajaccio, finishing the third day in Calvi. None of these cities have hosted the race before as the Corsican region is the only part of France never to have hosted the tour in its century-long history.
"We’ve put together a first stage of 212km that runs through magnificent countryside: we will start off by heading to beautiful Bonifacio," said Jean Francois Pescheux, Competition Director for the race.
"There’s little doubt we will also start with a win for a sprinter. This is a golden opportunity for the likes of Cavendish, for example, to claim the yellow jersey."
The day heading into Calvi will provide insight into whom, and more clearly who cannot, win the Tour. At 145km, it is a short stage with "not a single metre of flat," according to Pescheax. Any team or rider not on their game are likely to get left out of the chase, and with the chance of big splits developing, gains or losses formed here could be an early indication of who can win the 100th edition of the Tour de France.
A transfer to the mainland brings the teams to Nice, France, where the first of the time trials will take place. Lasting 25km, the team trial was skipped for the 2012 edition; the stage suits Team Sky, who helped propel Bradley Wiggins to victory last year. This year, Sky – including Wiggins – is riding in support of Christopher Froome, the 2012 runner-up.
From Nice, the route heads west along the southern edge of France and starts into the first mountain range, the Pyrenees. Over the first week of stages, teams will be positioning their lead riders and the general classification might start to take early shape. But it is on stage eight where riders will cement their chances for victory.
The first major test of the race looms large at 2001 metres above sea level, a huge contrast to the 175m high start line and the mostly flat lead up. Race Director Christian Prudhomme has said the Col de Pailhères, which peaks at 165.5km distance from the start, is "one of the most formidable in the Pyrenees." He expects it will be where the big-name general classification riders will make their moves.
Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, who is likely to lead the Garmin-Sharp squad, will be looking to put this stage behind him. In the 2012 edition, Hesjedal was one of the many riders caught in the crash known as the "Metz Massacre," which decimated the Garmin team. A day later, Hesjedal was down 13 minutes and abandoned the race.
One day later, the 2013 edition will punish riders with five categorized climbs over a 165km stage. Though a short stage overall, the mountain passes and 30km descent to the finish should help destabilize the race and complicate strategy for all of the top teams.
Following these tests, teams will get the first rest day of the race and transfer to the northwest of France.
Stage 11, from Avranches to Mont-Saint-Michel, is the first individual time trial. Hesjedal typically rides well in time trial situations, but will have a strong rival in Wiggins.
The Tour will then cut southeast across France, where a second individual time trial from Embrun to Chorges will take riders over a technical 32km route that Pescheux describes as a stage that "could turn out to be one of the turning points of the Tour. It has been conceived with the idea of spicing up the duel between the rouleurs who can climb well such as Froome and Contador."
Both Hesjedal and fellow Canadian Svein Tuft could do well here, but the technical demands of the stage can’t be minimized.
Provided Hesjedal feels strong, the next day could suit him very well, as the route heads up and over the Alpe-d’Huez, a climb where the 2012 Giro d’Italia winner has done well in the past. The route then heads up the famous pass not once, but twice, finishing with a 14km climb to the finish at 168km.
"The double ascent of Alpe-d’Huez will be a sensation! This innovation comes at the end of a short stage that we wanted to be both nervous and dynamic," said Pescheux. "Climbing the Alpe twice for the first time in the 100th Tour will be something special.”
The stage is likely to be the make or break point for any riders still in the hunt for victory. Survive, and you should be in the hunt just a few days later in Paris. Fail, and there’s always next year.
As is tradition, the race will finish on the broad promenade of the Champs-Élysée. The Peloton is likely to stick together with Manxman Mark Cavendish aiming for his fifth consecutive sprint victory at the legendary finish.
The festival atmosphere along the final metres of the Tour de France cannot be underestimated, especially in 2013 where the riders should arrive at about 9:45pm. In darkness, Paris will look incredible, and with a route that starts at the Palace of Versailles, the images of the 100th Tour de France will be etched into memories for decades to come.