The prologue is a relatively new type of stage that has been introduced to get the race off to a fast start and determine a first stage leader for the Tour de France. This stage is much shorter than other stage types, usually clocking in at under 8 kilometers! This means that the fastest riders can usually complete the prologue in around 7 minutes. However, even with the short stage time, the prologue is a nice appetizer for the stages to come, and provides race fans with a quick look at the years competitors. Winning the prologue is not exactly essential for winning the entire race, and its more a formality than anything. Not every years edition of the Tour de France even contains a prologue.
Sprint stages are often very flat, and allow each teams sprint specialists to zoom down the road at top speed towards the finish line. Sprint stages often have a large peloten (or pack) of riders, as there is no real climb or descent to divide them or separate them. As such, sprint stages often seem like the less demanding stage type, but are often quite the opposite. After all, when racing in a thick pack at high speeds, the slightest slip up can lead to a huge crash that can end ones bid at the Tour de Frances yellow jersey.
The climbing, or mountain, stages of the Tour de France give the race much of its unique flavor. Climbing stages are often extremely demanding, as riders struggle to push the pace, or simply keep up with it, while enduring long inclines that are categorized by their steepness and length. Of course, the ascent of such mountain roads also lead to spectacular descents at high speeds which can lead to some of the most dangerous and exciting moments of the entire race. Many champions of the Tour de France have been excellent climbers, such as the great Lance Armstrong, or former champion Lucien van Impe. Its important to be a good all-around cyclist, but being a tenacious climber can allow you to put valuable distance between yourself and the pack in the Tour de France.
Individual time trials can be the difference between rousing success and disappointing failure at the Tour de France. During an individual time trial, riders compete by themselves against the clock to achieve the fastest time possible, usually in a distance of around fifty kilometers. With the shorter stage distance, the competition to shave every millisecond possible is pretty heated, and the emphasis is on proper race strategy, pacing, and technique. Unlike other stages, where a riders team can assist them, there is no one to help cut down wind resistance, push the pace, or provide other help in an individual time trial. The distance of a time trial is too far for a cyclist to start out at their highest possible pace, but not far enough that they cant push themselves throughout. Therefore, the strategy of a rider is one of the major factors that determines where they finish in an individual time trial.
These are the main stage types of the Tour de France. As you can see, riders must be ready for everything, and work hard to overcome any weaknesses when they race in the Tour de France. The variety of stage types works to demand that each years winner be a versatile cyclist who can persevere against all kinds of challenges. After all, thats what makes the Tour de France so great.