Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
It’s the 102nd edition of the Tour de France and this year ‘Big Four’- Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali – line up in what promises to be a cracker of a Tour.
Big Four also reminds me of a chain of caravan parks, which would be handy to park a luxury motorhome for the night after a long day of riding, except the UCI has banished them from stage races – much to the disgust of Chris Froome.
The 2013 Tour champion will just have to slum it like the rest of the peloton in dodgy hotels and put up with the even dodgier habits of roommates.
So much for Sky’s ‘marginal gains’ strategy of ‘a home away from home’. At least the UCI have yet to ban riders from bringing their own pillow.
But I digress, so much can happen in 21 days and 3,360km of racing. Some stages can play a critical part in determining the shape of the race and the fortunes of the GC riders.
Race leaders are often separated by just seconds and the smallest of moves, like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly, can have a huge impact on the race.
I bring you my selection of that other ‘Big Four’: the four stages that could play a defining role in determining who stands on the podium, in yellow, in Paris.
Stage 2 -Utrecht to Zélande
The 166km route from Utrecht to Zélande is pancake flat but by no means promises an easy day in the saddle. The route is exposed to coastal winds that sweep across the polder.
This is the first full day of racing for the peloton and strong winds could wreak havoc causing big splits and big time gaps.
One way to combat the crosswinds wind is to try and break the wind with an ‘echelon’ formation. Don’t ask me to explain how it works. It’s like trying to explain the offside rule in sports that have an offside rule and no one’s ever good at that.
If the sprinters can hold it together it could be a good day for the ‘Manx Missile’ Mark Cavendish but look out for ‘The Gorilla’ Andre Greipel and Michal Kwiatkowski.
Stage 4 -Seraing to Cambrai
At 223.5 km this is the longest stage of the Tour. It’s another day on the flat but includes seven bone-jarring cobbled sectors of so called road borrowed from the famous one day Paris-Roubaix.
Thirteen kilometres on the rough will test the skill and nerves of the riders.
Crashes are all too common- and that’s in the dry let alone the wet. At last year’s Tour Chris Froome crashed out in stage five, his hopes dashed on the cobbles. Vincenzo Nibali handled the pavé like it wasn’t even there and as we know rode on to victory.
Froome’s back and reflecting on the horror of that day recently tweeted he’s looking for a little revenge.
Lars Boom won that stage last year. John Degenkolb won this year’s Paris–Roubaix and cobbles maestro Fabian Cancellara will be lurking in the pack.
Stage 17 – Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup
The battle for the GC continues in the Alps and the mountain men will be looking to close any gaps over the 161-km route. Just like in that old Tom Jones hit, in the mountains what goes up must come down, and there are opportunities to grab or increase the lead in a stupidly fast butt-cheek clenching, white-knuckle descent.
This happens to be a carbon copy of Stage 5 at the recent Tour curtain raiser Criterium du Dauphine. On that day young Frenchman Romain Bardet won the stage after a daring descent of Col d’Allos before the uphill finish at Pra Loup. Look out for Vincenzo Nibali. He’s superb on a big descent and could pick up some valuable seconds.
Stage 20: Modane Valfréjus to Alpe d’Huez
Although relatively short at 110.5km, the penultimate stage promises a tough day in the saddle with three brutal climbs including the legendary 13.8-km Alpe d’Huez with its crazy 21 hairpin bends and even crazier fans at the roadside. If times are close this will be the last roll of the dice for the GC men to determine who will be on the podium in Paris the following day.
Watch the Big Four light up on the Alpe d’Huez and after the race is done they’ll all deserve a well earned rest – maybe even in a luxury motorhome.