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Tour de France: Four key stages

STAGE 1, today: Individual time trial: 8.6 miles in Utrecht, Netherlands.

A Tour de France contender does not want to be in the position of regretting a few lost seconds on July 26.

The individual time trial gives contenders the chance to gain precious time on their rivals, pull on the yellow jersey and send out a strong statement of intent. It also gives his team the chance to take early control.

While not a favorite for the stage win itself, former Tour champion Chris Froome will be favored to gain some precious time on his main rivals, Alberto Contador, and defending champ Vincenzo Nibali.

STAGE 4, Tuesday: Hilly 139-mile trek from Seraing to Cambrai in France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

It is the longest of the Tour and promises to be a tricky one. Riders have to tackle seven sectors of cobblestones over a combined distance of 8 miles, and Froome may be having nightmares about it.

As the defending champ last year, the British rider crashed on the cobbles in the fifth stage and went out of the race.

While Froome struggled badly, Nibali thrilled fans with his fantastic bike handling on the treacherous stones.

STAGE 12, July 16: 121 miles from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille.

After two days of climbing in the Pyrenees, some riders will be dreading this slog.

One of the main contenders could strike a serious blow with an audacious attack on the final climb up Plateau de Beille, a reputed Tour climb.

But before that, there are two extremely tough Category 1 climbs – the second-most difficult category in the race.

The first comes approaching the halfway point on the Col de la Core, a 9-mile ascent with a 5.7 percent gradient. The next is tougher: 8 miles with a 6 per- cent gradient up Port de Lers.

Then, it’s time for Plateau de Beille, known as an Hors Categorie – or HC – climb because it is beyond classification. A desperately tough ascent of 10 miles with a 7.9 percent gradient.

STAGE 20, July 25: 68.5 miles from Modane Valfrejus to the Alpe d’Huez, arguably the most famed of all the Tour’s reputed climbs.

After three days of climbing in the Alps, many riders will already be on the verge of breaking point when they reach the penultimate stage.

What awaits them could either tip them over the edge, or closer to victory.

In 2013, hundreds of thousands of frenzied fans – many of them swilling beer, or dressed in wacky fancy dress outfits – packed the 9 miles of the climb, giving the impression of large armies camped on each of the 21 tortuous bends.

This is the last real day of action before the race ends with its largely ceremonial final stage on the Champs-Elysees.

If the race is close, which organizers must dearly hope it will be, it will be settled on this famed climb: A perfect ending.

Jerome Pugmire, AP

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