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Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Tour de France viewer's guide: stage breakdowns, favorites to win

By Andrew Hood
Special to ESPN.com

Only the gainfully unemployed or the truest of bike geeks can dedicate an entire month of couch surfing to watch every attack and spill during the three-week rolling circus that is the Tour de France.

The 2007 Tour promises to deliver a palpitating race with the Alps coming early (Stage 7) and the Pyrénées hanging around late (Stage 16), meaning there will be a lot of stages where there will be a battle within the fight for final victory for riders looking for their own piece of Tour glory.

Starting in London against the backdrop of Big Ben and the River Thames, the Tour also has short forays into Belgium and Spain, but this is a French race at its core. And this year's route serves up a tantalizing puzzle that should keep the final podium undecided until the final podium.

This year's Tour could be the best ever (but don't they say that every year?). What's sure is that during the course of three weeks, there will be plenty of time to tune out the Tour and actually go ride your own bike.

We break down each stage, pick a favorite to win and tell you which stages are not to be missed.

Here's ESPN.com's viewer's guide to the 2007 Tour:

*** = Must-see TV. Epic stuff and vital for the overall fight, put on your Lycra and nestle up close with a chilled carafe of rosé -- you don't want to miss these stages
** = Worth checking out for the potential action or the spectacular scenery, which is half the allure of the Tour anyway
* = Wake me up for the final 20km

Once Lance Armstrong's shadow, George Hincapie could emerge as a winner for Discovery Channel.
>> 2007 Tour de France
July 7-29
Prologue plus 20 stages
3553.9km (2203.4 miles)

Twelve undulating transition stages; three time trials, six mountain stages.

>> Prologue, July 7, London (ITT), 7.9km: The French invasion to London should be a hoot for the Fleet Street tabloids. Just imagine the headlines when nearly 200 Lycra-clad bikers take over downtown London for what's sure to be a dramatic backdrop for the grand départ to the 2007 Tour. Wide roads and a pancake flat course that rolls past such iconic landmarks as Big Ben, the House of Parliament and Hyde Park should favor the prologue specialists. Pick: George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) upsets local fave Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis). ***

>> Stage 1, July 8, London to Canterbury, 203km: The Tour loves history and the undulating stage pushes close to the pilgrim's route of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but it will be the sprinters who have the last laugh. Pick: Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) in for first Tour win since 2003. **

>> Stage 2, July 9, Dunkirk to Ghent, Belgium, 168.5km: A relatively short stage after zipping under the English Channel via the Chunnel, the route pushes across Belgian's Flanders cycling heartland. Pick: When the Tour comes to Belgium, a safe bet is favorite son Tom Boonen (QuickStep-Innergetic). **

>> Stage 3, July 10, Waregem to Compiègne, 236.5km: The Tour's longest stage ends near where Paris-Roubaix starts each spring, but there won't be any cobblestone sections. Pick: Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) will not be denied in another sprinter's paradise. *

>> Stage 4, July 11, Villers-Cotterêts to Joigny, 193km: More moderate hills as the Tour pushes into Burgundy country. Journalists will be hoping for a routine stage so they can get straight into the bottles of local Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Pick: A breakaway will find legs, but the sprinters reign again, this time with wily three-time world champ Oscar Freire (Rabobank) sneaking in for the win. *

>> Stage 5, July 12, Chablis to Autun, 182.5km: The peloton's breakaway artists will be champing at the bit for this hilly, eight-climb run across Burgundy. A punchy Cat. 3 climb eight kilometers from the finish should dislodge the sprinters to let a breakaway stay clear. Pick: Lord of the head-bangers Jens Voigt (CSC) on pure guts. **

>> Stage 6, July 13, Semur-en-Auxois to Bourg-en-Bresse, 197.5km: With the Alps looming, the sprinters want one more before they start abandoning like flies in this rolling stage. Pick: Petacchi again as his train hits all cylinders on the flat run into the finish. *

>> Stage 7, July 14, Bourg-en-Bresse to Le Grand Bornand, 197.5km: The mountains come early this year and the Cat. 1 Col de la Colombière with 14km to go should provide a springboard for a daring late-stage attack. Pick: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), it's Bastille Day, so a Frenchman has to win. **

>> Stage 8, July 15 Le Grand Bornand to Tignes, 165km: Six rated climbs across the heart of the Alps will make for an epic stage. With 50 of the last 80km are uphill, the lumpy stage will tell us more of who won't win the Tour than who will. Pick: The uphill run to Tignes is very similar to Courchavel, where Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) won two years ago. ***

>> July 16 -- rest day

>> Stage 9, July 17, Val d'Isere to Briançon, 159.5km: The route passes over the Tour's high point at the 2,770m Col de l'Iseran in the opening 15km, it's the monstrous Col du Galibier -- via the Cat. Col du Télégraphe for 35km of uphill suffering -- that will separate the wheat from the chafe. It's a long 40km downhill run into Briançon, so a fairly large group should come in together. Pick: This the type of stage Alexandre Vinokourov used to win, but Astana teammate Andrey Kashechkin will take advantage while the other faves keep Vino on a short leash. **

>> Stage 10, July 18, Tallard to Marseille, 229.5km: This lumpy stage leaves the Alps to roll across the sun-baked Provence region into bustling Marseille. Breakaways tend to succeed coming out of the big climbing stages. Pick: Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) to make up for losing ground in Alps. **

>> Stage 11, July 19, Marseille to Montpellier, 182.5km: Winds blowing down the Rhone Valley could be a major factor, but the sprinters will come back to life in the mostly flat run. Pick: Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), who gets stronger as the race unfolds. *

>> Stage 12, July 20, Montpellier to Castres, 178.5km: With the first of two time trials on tap the next day, the favorites won't want to let any dangerous breakaways get too much rope. With a gradual downhill run into Castres over the final 60km, the sprinters could grab another shot. Pick: The cagey McEwen is due for another win. *

>> Stage 13, July 21, Albi-Albi (ITT), 54km: The first of two time trials on a varied course that favors the true specialists, with rolling roads, some narrow descents and a short climb for the power rollers. Pick: Dave Zabriskie (CSC) will prove he's the real deal. **

>> Stage 14, July 22, Mazamet to Plateau-de-Beille, 197km: The first of three epic climbing stages across the Pyrénées, two brutal climbs in the final 50km will deliver the likely podium contenders. The nasty hors-catégorie Port de Pailhères at 146km will spit out would-be pretenders, leaving just the crème de la crème for the final 16-kilometer slugfest up Plateau-de-Beille. Pick: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) makes a run for his third consecutive best climber's jersey. ***

>> Stage 15, July 23, Foix to Loudenville-le-Louron, 196km: Day 2 of the Pyrénéan purge, this five-climb stage with a fast luge run to the finish could see non-threatening riders make a run for glory. Pick: Oscar Periero (Caisse d'Epargne), escape artist extraordinario. ***

>> July 24 -- rest day

>> Stage 16, July 25, Orthez to Gourette-Col d'Aubisque, 218.5km: If this doesn't revive the Tour, nothing will. Five epic climbs across the heart of the rugged Pyrénées with a short detour into Spain, the summit finish up the legendary Aubisque should crown the eventual overall winner with just four days to Paris. Pick: Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval) delivers redeeming stage victory for crazed Basque fans pouring over the border. ***

>> Stage 17, July 26, Pau to Castelsarrasin, 188.5km: Whoa, one of those stages that is overlooked. Lumpy with six relatively easy climbs, but they won't be after nearly three weeks of racing in the legs. Ideal for stage-hunters looking for glory. Pick: Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), the hero from the 2005 Tour. *

>> Stage 18, July 27, Cahors to Anglouleme, 211km: Another long undulating stage that won't change the GC, but will put the hurt on any riders who are already dreaming of cold beers in Paris. Pick: Stuart O'Grady (CSC), the Paris-Roubaix puncheur still has one in him. *

>> Stage 19, July 28, Cognac to Angouleme, 55.5km (ITT): Final battleground to decide the podium spots on a rolling course that will burden any pure climbers within shot of the top-three. Pick: Andreas Klöden (Astana) has used the final TT to move up one podium spot in the 2004 and 2006 Tours. Maybe he can win the stage and the Tour in one day this year. **

>> Stage 20, July 29, Marcoussis to Paris-Champs-Elysées, 130km: Despite the presence of some steep hills early in the stage, this finale is a slow moving victory parade until the peloton hits the final 12 laps on France's most famous boulevard. Champagne dreams for the hardy survivors are about to come true in one of sport's most spectacular finales. Pick: Petacchi to win the prestigious sprint and the green jersey. **

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.