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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
July 6 132.4 miles
July 9 141.4 miles
July 16 130.8 miles
July 22 108.1 miles
GEOATLAS/¬©2009 GRAPHI-OGRE/¬©A.S.O. (MAP)
MAP QUEST The stages have been set for a repeat champion at the 97th Tour.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (MAYO)
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (VOECKLER)
BERNARD PAPON/AP (CONTADOR)
JOEL SAGET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (ARMSTRONG)