LEEDS, England -- 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 three-week race, which starts on Saturday in Leeds, features only 54 kilometers (33.5 miles) 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.
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"Given the structure of the Tour this year and the diversity of all the different challenges -- we've got the cobbles, we've got these tricky stages up here north, and we've got 5 summit finishes, we've got a 54-kilometer time trial -- it's not possible to say that this guy is going to win," Froome said on Thursday.
Here's a look at five stages where the Team Sky leader and other contenders could win, or lose, the race:
STAGE 5: Wednesday, July 9, Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France: At 155.5 kilometers (97 miles), 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 kilometers (10 miles) of cobblestones this week. "Sensations over the cobbles have been very good," Contador said.
STAGE 10: Monday, July 14, Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles: The first major test in the mountains. The 161.5-kilometer (100-mile) 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.
STAGE 14: Saturday, July 19, Grenoble to Risoul: The Queen stage of the Tour. This 177-kilometer (110-mile) 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 kilometers (19 miles) 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 124.5-kilometer (77-mile) ride through the Pyrenees that will offer no rest to the peloton. After 50 relatively flat kilometers, 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 kilometers (33.5 miles), 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.