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101st Tour de France a gruelling test of mind and body

Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The Tour de France, the world's largest annual sporting event, begins Saturday in Leeds, England with what's known as the Grand Départ. The race lasts 3 weeks and covers approximately 3,500 kms through England and France. The start of the race is regularly held outside of France, but the bulk of the riding will follow a route through northern, eastern and southern France before the customary finish in Paris.

British rider Chris Froome returns to defend his 2013 title. Riding for Team Sky, Froome is Britain’s second Tour champion after Bradley Wiggins won it in 2012. He has been battling various ailments, and last month was at the centre of controversy when cycling’s governing body was accused of giving him preferential treatment to use a steroid-based drug to treat a chest infection.

The opening stage on Saturday, a 190.5km ride across the hills and valleys Yorkshire folk like to call God’s Country, is expected to draw thousands of fans on to the streets as Britain hosts the opening stage for the first time since 2007.

Fellow Briton Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who will be one of the favourites to pull on the famous yellow jersey after a likely sprint finish in Harrogate on Saturday, expects the atmosphere to be “phenomenal”.

Froome is the favourite, although with Spain’s former winner Alberto Contador back in form and other riders such as American Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali expected to challenge, he said, winning it again would be “no walk in the park.”

A worldwide television audience of about 3.5 billion people is expected to watch the Tour in more than 188 countries. The Tour attracts 12 million spectators along the route in a typical year.

With more mountain stages, only one time trial, and cobblestones on the menu, there’s an exciting smorgasbord of routes in store on the Tour de France.

The race features only 54 kilometres of time-trialing, all on the Tour’s penultimate stage between Bergerac and Perigueux. This could disadvantage defending champion Chris Froome of Britain, who beat his main rival, Alberto Contador, in both of last year’s individual time trials.

A look at five vital stages

Recent winners

2013 - Chris Froome

2012 – Bradley Wiggins

2011 – Cadel Evans

2010 – Andy Schleck

2009 – Alberto Contador

2008 – Carlos Sastre

STAGE 5: Wednesday, July 9, Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France

At 155 kilometres, this stage is not particularly long. But it features nine patches of cobblestones, many of them familiar in the joint-jarring Paris-Roubaix one-day race. The key for the big guns will be to stay at the front of the pack to avoid crashes on a treacherous and dusty terrain usually tackled at a frenetic pace. Punctures are also frequent on cobblestones, and can end a rider’s hopes of winning the race. Both Froome and Contador have carefully reconnoitered the stage, with the Spaniard having a final workout on the 15 kilometres of cobblestones this week.

STAGE 10: Monday, July 14, Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles

The first major test in the mountains. The 161-kilometre stage finishes in the ski resort where Froome got his first Tour stage win two years ago. It features seven tough climbs and a hilltop finish with a patch of super-steep, 20-degree gradient.

A great portion of the Tour routes through mountainous regions

STAGE 14: Saturday, July 19, Grenoble to Risoul

The Queen stage of the Tour. This 177-kilometre ride features two classic mountain passes, the Col du Lautaret and the Col d’Izoard, and ends with a summit finish in the Alps. The ascent to the ski resort is not the most difficult of the race, but riders will have been worn out by 31 kilometres on the slopes of the two mythical mountains beforehand.

STAGE 17: Wednesday, July 23, Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary (Pla d’Adet)

The penultimate day in the mountains is a short 124 kilometre ride through the Pyrenees that will offer no rest to the peloton. After 50 relatively flat kilometres, the riders won’t stop climbing and descending over three category 1 ascents — the Col du Portillon, Col de Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Aze — before the last climb to Pla d’Adet, which is so hard that it is defying cycling’s ranking system for climbs. The race’s final top three are likely to be known at the finish line.

STAGE 20: Saturday, July 26, Bergerac to Perigueux

At 54 kilometres, it is one of the longest time trials in recent Tour history. On the eve of the mostly ceremonial finale on Paris’ Champs-Elysees, the race-against-the-clock will be decisive if the mountains haven’t been already. The distance and the rolling terrain make the stage difficult. After three weeks of racing, expect the TT specialists like Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland and Tony Martin of Germany to be challenged. Fatigue could also take its toll on the main contenders.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step team riders including Mark Cavendish of Britain cycle during a training session for the Tour de France cycling race near Leeds, July 4, 2014. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

Who will vie for the yellow jersey?

Explosive sprinters, svelte climbers, powerful time trialists: The Tour de France is not just about the handful of allrounders who will vie for the coveted yellow jersey when the race begins on Saturday in Leeds, England.

Team Sky’s Chris Froome is favoured to repeat as champion, but he’ll be tested by the 2,277-mile (3,364-kilomater) route, which was laid out with the aim of encouraging riders to take chances, with more short-but-treacherous mountain stages like those in the relatively little-used Vosges region.

Should Froome dominate the race as he did in 2013, however, there will be other storylines to keep fans interested:

Will Mark Cavendish fight off the new generation of German and French sprinters aiming to claim the crown of Tour Sprint King? Who among the young American riders will emerge as the next great hope of U.S. cycling? What’s happened to Luxembourg’s once-formidable Schleck brothers? And does aging veteran Jens Voigt still have one more thrilling breakaway victory left in him?

Chris Froome

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The defending champion is the odds-on favourite to produce a second victory. Froome turned 29 in May and has struggled somewhat with illness and injury – but seems to be in solid shape, having won two smaller tours this year, just as he did a year ago before his triumph in France. Team Sky teammate Luke Rowe, writing in Wales Online, declared: “My gut instinct is, if he’s at 100 per cent, he will win the race again.”

The African-born rider looked relaxed and confident during a news conference in Leeds on Thursday, two days before race starts with the first of three eagerly awaited stages in Britain. “I’ve had adversity, lower back and chest problems this year and the crash in the (Criterium du) Dauphine set me back a little bit,” Froome, flanked by his team mates, told a crowded news conference.

Andrew Talansky

Lionel Cironneau/AP

The 25-year-old from the United States has vaulted himself into the elite group of riders people speculate over when they consider who can win this year’s tour. Talansky first announced himself in 2012, when he placed seventh in the Vuelta a Espana and followed it up with a 10th-place finish in last year’s Tour de France, his first shot at the grandest of grand tours. His biggest ride came a month ago at the Criterium du Dauphine, an eight-stage race in the mountainous region in southeastern France. The race had been led by Tour de France winners Chris Froome and then Alberto Contador before Talansky seized the win with a strong ride in the final stage.

Nairo Quintana

Team Movistar

It is odd to name a rider who will not ride the tour as one to watch but Quintana’s name will be prominent throughout the race even in his absence. The 24-year-old, as planned, is skipping this year’s tour, after having claimed victory at the Giro d’Italia and with similar plans in place for the Vuelta a Espana. Quintana was second last year in France, and ranked as the top climber, a strength that propelled him to victory in Italy this year. With Quintana absent, it is the likes of 31-year-old Alberto Contador – in the midst of a strong year – who will push Froome and seek to capitalize on a French tour that features particularly challenging climbs this year.

Riders must consume thousands of calories

Three years ago, Esquire magazine reported on the daily tour diet of Thor Hushovd – 2011 was the Norwegian’s 10th consecutive year completing the race and it was his best-ever finish, 68th. Breakfast: oatmeal, toast and ham, two-egg omelet, cereal, rice; during the race: five Clif bars, two packs of Clif shot bloks, three Clif energy gels, seven bottles of “team race drink,” rice cake, small Panini sandwich; post-race: rice, curry chicken, two bottles of “team recovery protein drink; dinner: stuffed tomatoes and zucchini with curry rice, beet salad, avocados, spaghetti, stewed turkey with prunes.

  • 6000 – Calories burned during a stage of the tour
  • 250 – Caloric intake, per hour, while racing – the max a body can absorb during exercise
  • 1.5 – Litres, per hour, of liquid intake
  • 2600 – Daily caloric intake of moderately active middle-age male

The most-cherished colour is yellow. Beyond that dictate, each rider's outfit in the Tour de France looks simple enough: jersey, shorts, shoes. But given the terrain and varied weather, much more is packed along for the ride. Here’s a peek inside the wardrobe locker of Team Sky’s support vehicle:

  • jerseys
  • gilets (sleeveless jacket)
  • rain capes
  • thermal jerseys
  • base layers
  • bib shorts (various lengths)
  • leg warmers
  • arm warmers
  • racing shoes
  • caps
  • cold/wet weather caps
  • mitts
  • overshoes

Graphics by Trish McAlaster and Murat Yukselir / The Globe and Mail
With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and Graphic News

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