Rider-type, stage-type, finish-type, hill-type, rain-type, wind-type, information over-hype... It all adds to the complex mix of picking a stage winner in the Tour de France, writes Jack Houghton. Or you could just check back here for our daily previews...
"It's often unhelpful to pin your betting hopes on one rider performing well or not in the conditions. More helpful is to recognise that any uncalm weather increases the chances of surprise results, with more high-profile riders less willing to take the risks that lead to stage victories when conditions are unpredictable..."
On Saturday, 7th July, 176 riders will take part in the Tour de France's Grand Depart, setting off from a small island in the Atlantic and processing south-east to the first stage finish, 201km later in Fontenay Le-Comte.
We've already explored the best races to ride in preparation for the Tour de France, but without an inside line to the team buses, though - where tactics for each of those 176 riders are discussed and decided - how can the once-a-year cycling punter hope to choose a likely winner for a stage like this year's opener?
It's difficult, but with a bit of work, it's possible to turn what looks like a lottery into something more predictable.
It's crucial to know which riders suit which stages
The first step is to know what kind of stage it is, and which riders are likely to excel. Stage 1 in this year's Tour is flat, with barely a lump or bump for the peloton to contend with. That means it will favour the sprinters, a group of riders who target stage wins on flat finishes. These men will spend most of a stage hidden in the peloton, doing as little work as possible, only emerging to contest the intermediate sprint (only if they have an interest in the Points Competition) and the stage finish itself.
The most high-profile sprinters have teams built around them, with the other members' sole purpose being to provide a lead-out train, setting a high pace at the front of the peloton in the final stages, allowing their superstar colleague to largely freewheel in their slipstream, before being left to explode to the line in the last few metres.
That's the theory at least. In reality, competing lead-out trains, as well as other teams who are aiming to keep their contenders for the overall classification in the relative safety of the front of the peloton, mean that the picture is usually more chaotic, and that the most successful sprinters are those that are able to rely on their teammates, whilst also remaining opportunistic, following the wheels of other riders that may position them best for a final effort.
Other riders to watch out for are grimpeurs, specialist climbers who excel in the mountainous stages with uphill finishes, like the climb to Alpe D'Huez that greets riders at the end of this year's Stage 12; and puncheurs, powerful riders who can deal with short, uphill finishes, like that offered on this year's Stage 6, which culminates with a dash up the 140m of the Mûr-de-Bretagne.
Occasionally, rouleurs - all-rounders - will pick up a stage win as part of a breakaway, a group of riders who form on nearly every stage and are allowed by the main peloton to build up an advantage, before (usually) being caught with a few kilometres to go. A breakaway allows less high-profile riders (and their team sponsors) a chance in front of the television cameras. It is also encouraged by the main contenders for stage victory who ride with the peloton, as it prevents attempts by more-talented rivals to spring surprise attacks which may be more difficult to control.
This strategy demands that the peloton always keeps the breakaway within catching distance, reeling them in as late as possible. This is usually how a stage unfolds. On occasion, however, "the catch" never comes, and rouleurs can claim an unlikely stage win.
Some stages are team time trials (Stage 3 in 2018) or individual time trials (this year's likely pivotal Stage 20) - more specialist disciplines that provide a narrow range of possible winners.
Lastly, the Tour stages across the brutal, cobbled roads of Northern France, are something of a curiosity. They are a feature of a few of the one-day classics, such as Paris-Roubaix in April, which this year's Stage 9 covers part of the same route as. These stages demand a rare mix of abilities from riders - abilities not necessarily in abundance among the main contenders for Tour victory - which can see them create havoc in the overall standings.
But you must really understand the stage
The official website of the Tour de France, and multiple other media outlets, offer course summaries of each stage. They usually show the route map, as well as the overall elevation profile. On some days, they will also provide a more detailed breakdown of the contours of significant climbs, showing where the road gets steepest and where it levels off.
This can be important, as not all climbers are created equal. For example, Chris Froome, whilst excellent on long Alpine climbs, can be at a disadvantage on especially steep climbs, where out-and-out grimpeurs, 10kg lighter in frame, have taken time from him in the past, such as on the finish to Peyragudes in the Pyrenees in 2017.
Of interest in 2018 is Stage 17. Only 65km long, it features three significant climbs, including Peyragudes again, and begins climbing from the very start. Usually, stages involve a rolling, "neutralised" start, which allows the peloton to escape the start venue in safety, before the race director waves his flag from a car to let riders know the race proper has begun. Uniquely, though, Stage 17 will see the top 20 riders in the General Classification line up F1-style in a grid, with the action expected to explode from the very start. Quite how the teams will deal with this oddity is up for debate.
This information provided by organisers is crucial, but not exhaustive, and it's worth putting in extra effort to fully understand the demands of the day's racing. This information can come from a variety of sources and provides invaluable insights when deciding on the value bets for any stage.
For example, what might look like a straight run-in to a city centre on a small-scale map can, on Google Maps, be revealed to be a menagerie of roundabouts, road furniture, and twists and turns. More technical finishes of this nature can make it more difficult for the big sprint teams to control the action with a fast lead-out train, giving opportunities for swashbuckling late attacks. These are not days to take short odds on an in-form sprinter. The increased chaos blunts even the most pre-eminent rider's chances.
A similar story can be told about the course profile. With 220km to be squashed into a graphic only a few centimetres long, a small detail, such as a slight incline in the final few hundred metres, can be lost. For example, in 2016, the last 500m of Stage 4 kicked-up, although this was only visible on Strava. Those who lumped on Marcel Kittel had nervous moments when he only just caught Bryan Coquard after a long-analysed photo-finish. Kittel said he had misjudged the distance to the finish when he started his sprint; it is more likely the slight incline blunted his top-speed.
The weather matters
Some commentators overplay the significance of the weather, filling endless minutes of "analysis" with discussion as to whether some rider or other is an effective descender in the wet.
Much of this discussion misses the point: it's often unhelpful to pin your betting hopes on one rider performing well or not in the conditions. More helpful is to recognise that any uncalm weather increases the chances of surprise results, with more high-profile riders less willing to take the risks that lead to stage victories when conditions are unpredictable.
Crosswinds are especially capable of creating chaos. The peloton, unable to use its collective aerodynamics to efficiently cut through the air, can instead be split asunder. Stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France provided a great example of this: a buccaneering Peter Sagan, with the assistance of a teammate and Sky's Geraint Williams and Chris Froome, were able to break away from the peloton, delivering Sagan to an easy stage win and allowing Froome to gain time on his Yellow Jersey rivals.
Study the route map of all stages for long sections travelling in one direction and combine with forecasts for wind strength and direction. Coast roads are especially prone to crosswinds and again increase the uncertainties about who will win a stage - punting caution is advised.
Make sure you have all the information at your disposal, but don't overthink it
There is a plethora of other information that can be gleaned by anyone willing to invest the time.
Often, riders want to be in breakaways on their birthdays, or when a stage passes through their home-town. Some teams, too, are more open about their intentions and tactics on a given day, posting content on social media about their plans. Mitchelton-Scott, for example, have recently allowed a television crew into their morning bus briefing. Hours can be spent on social media gleaning all kinds of useful contextual information that can help punters get a view of how any stage is likely to unfold.
Having said that, it's wrong to obsess about this type of data. Much of it is unquantifiable, and not every birthday or home-town boy has the talent or team permission to seek a spot in the breakaway.
That's why it is usually better to stick to the fundamentals outlined above: who suits the stage, and are they in form?
It is worth a sense-check of any planned bet, though, and taking a wider view of the action is often the best way to avoid poor decisions.
Ask yourself where the priorities of a team are on any given day. A sprinter on a team who also has a live contender for the overall classification is unlikely to be given the full use of his colleagues in a lead-out train - they will be expected to fly solo. In other examples, a team who has gone most of the Tour without a stage victory will be more likely to send riders into a breakaway, and a one-time General Classification contender who is now out of the running may be more likely to risk all on a mountain stage to try and salvage something from the Tour.
Don't tie yourself in knots, but at least try and assess how the strengths and priorities of teams are likely to influence their tactics on a stage.