Tour route delights champion Froome

Defending champion Chris Froome has summed up the 2014 Tour de France, which starts this weekend, as “a very well-balanced route” that will “test all aspects of the eventual winner”.

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The 29-year-old Briton, who will be riding for Team Sky when the race starts in Leeds, England on Saturday, was offering a demonstration in understatement.

The 101st edition of the Grand Boucle has got riders, fans and organisers alike rightly excited, not just for the potential of a thrilling yellow jersey battle between Froome, twice-former winner Alberto Contador and twice Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali, but simply for the route itself.

It has been described as a race of two halves, the first almost entirely flat – there are nine flat stages out of the 21 – before the second covers barely a single metre that doesn’t go up or down.

There are five altitude finishes over six mountain stages, alongside five other hilly routes.

But anyone expecting to simply tune into the second half of the race for the fireworks could already have missed a major and decisive incident.

Flat stages on this route don’t necessarily mean doomed escapes hunted down by a determined peloton before a chaotic sprint finish.

Sure, the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Griepel and even Peter Sagan will have a fair few chances to pick up a stage win, but some of the flat stages will be punctuated by crosswinds and even cobbles.

In fact it is stage five from Ypres in Belgium to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut that will be one of the most-eagerly anticipated.

It covers part of the Paris-Roubaix course, taking in 15.4km of cobbled sections in the final 70km of the 156km stage.

That’s 15km over nine separate sections in which the Tour de France can be won or lost.

While specialists such as multiple Spring Classic winners Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen will be expected to shine, the likes of Froome, Contador and Nibali will merely be hoping to survive.

Crashing, or getting caught up behind a crash on one of those cobbled sections could be fatal to a rider’s overall hopes.

Likewise, the next day from Arras to Reims, in which the Tour will pay tribute to those who died in World War I by riding through some famous battlefields, the potential for splits in the peloton due to crosswinds could all but end a contender’s interest, as happened to Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde last year, when losing more than 10 minutes on the flat stage 13 won by Cavendish.

Should the favourites survive unscathed from the early pitfalls, they will start setting themselves apart from the rest on stages eight and 10, the latter with the hugely exciting finish atop La Planche des Belles Filles.

That made its Tour debut in 2012 when Chris Froome won his maiden Tour stage, outsprinting then title-holder Cadel Evans, while Bradley Wiggins took yellow for the first time.

Following on from that, the serious business begins with back-to-back Alpine summit finishes on stages 13 and 14 before similar back-to-back uphill endings in the Pyrenees on stages 17 and 18, the latter of which culminates atop the Huatacam.

If the Tour hasn’t already been decided by then, the penultimate stage sees the riders tackle a 54km individual time trial.