21 segments, 23 days and roughly 3,500 kilometres of gruelling navigation through mountains, cities and scores of competitors – it's a proposition which faces each of the 176 riders of this year's Tour de France, as cycling teams gear up to race through the country for the 105th instalment of the sport's most iconic race.
And whether it's through the extra hours on the indoor trainer or forming the basis for a rigidly tight race plan, technology is at the forefront of each team's quest to find a winning edge.
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But with so much data available to today's cyclists, through the likes of sports watches, power meters and a host of other cycling wearables, just how much is used in the build-up to the Tour, and just how integral is it in establishing the margins between a yellow jersey and the back of the field?
The route to Tour success
Frederik Veuchelen racing in the Four Days of Dunkirk event, May 2017
As the team trainer for Wanty-Groupe Gobert – one of the 22 teams taking part in this year's race – Frederik Veuchelen, a former professional rider himself, knows all about the challenge of the Tour. He's one of the many aiming to help strike the balance between technology and data, and the race's unpredictability and mental requirements.
"A big part of preparation is taking a close look at the road book and the recon of crucial stages, such as the team time trial, cobblestones and mountain stages. Google Street View, videos and pictures of the profile of climbs are useful in planning the strategy," Veuchelen tells us.
"From there, you can build a team and figure out individual strategies for different riders. Guillaume Martin, for example, has a very simple strategy: save as much energy as possible in the first nine stages. That's why he has some teammates who are experienced in flat, nervous positioning and windy conditions. But there are also teammates who will have more responsibility to protect him as much as possible in the second part of the Tour – the mountain stages are where they will have to try to save as much energy as possible in the first part of the Tour.
"But planning a race on data alone is impossible; a bike race is so unpredictable that a rider needs a lot of physical and mental flexibility. Imagine the first stages with windy conditions, the cobblestones where you have to close a gap after some technical problems, or a mountain stage where you have to go full on the first climb from the start. Then where is the plan to save energy?"
The best of both worlds
Wanty-Groupe Gobert's Guillaume Martin in the Tour de France 2017
As Veuchelen points out, the very nature of racing requires more than just data in the hands of the right people. However, without it, maximising the efficiency of each rider would be markedly more difficult. Power meters are perhaps the most obvious way for a rider to help race more intelligently in real-time, but each team is also using a broad range of wearables and bike computers to help with this equation around the clock.
"As a continental cycling team, we primarily use both power meters and heart rate sensors. And we get a lot of data through these – obviously heart data, but also information on watts, cadence, distance, speed, time and laps, a Training Stress Score, an Intensity Factor – everything you could really need," he says.
"Every rider is also supplied with a Polar V800 multi-sport watch for leisure time. And while it's a top watch, the practical use is a bit limited for cyclists, so it's used more as an alternative method for training. It's why each rider also has the M460 cycling computer and the V650, which lets us import routes – that's a real key for training."
The very nature of racing requires more than just data in the hands of the right people
And, naturally, some metrics and platforms are more helpful than others. As Veuchelen described, the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team's every training session and race is uploaded to Polar Flow in order to give everybody a closer look at the workout. Then, to help with analysis and to gain a more in-depth breakdown, Veuchelen syncs the data over to TrainingPeaks, a popular training platform for triathletes and elite-level runners and cyclers – and home to many specialised metrics prioritised by the team.
"The most important things we keep an eye on are power, normalised power, intensity factor, heart rate, cadence, calorie burning, training stress scores, variability index, cadence, and for sure how long the riders spend in different intensity zones," he adds.
"The same data is important, whether it's a mountain stage or a sprint stage, but you can see big differences between riders depending on their task during the race. So, a rider trying to go in the breakaway on a sprint stage, versus the riders doing the lead out, versus the sprinter, versus the general classification rider – they all have different analytical requirements."
It's not just the on-bike data that's taken into account, either. Veuchelen highlights the importance of factoring in data from the watch, such as heart rate variability, alongside information around hydration, blood pressure, sleep quality, weight and stress levels.
But not everything can be quantified and calculated, and so finding the right emphasis on the sport's scientific side and also the human element, Veuchelen suggests, is still his most important task.
"Cycling, in many ways, is still an old school sport. Feeling, experience, intuition, having both the athlete himself and the coach understand each body – it's for these reasons I don't like the extreme scientific or the old-school approach on their own. Rather, a combination of both, where a good coach can be the guide of the athlete," he says.
We'll know just how well Wanty-Groupe Gobert is able to navigate the challenge when the Tour de France begins on 7 July.
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