One of the greatest annual sporting events in the world gets underway on Saturday, when the 2011 Tour de France begins. As usual, this year's Tour will no doubt bring plenty of excitement and drama, with the top cyclists in the world sparring with one another across 3430.5km (2131.6 miles) of French road. Over the course of 21 days, they'll face 10 flat stages, 6 mountain stages (with 4 summit finishes!), 3 medium mountain stages, 1 individual time trial, and 1 team trial. There will also be 2 rest days thrown in for good measure.
The 2011 Tour begins with a 191km (118.6 mile) ride from Passage du Gois La Barre-de-Monts to Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers in the Province of Liège. This is a bit of a departure from recent Tours, in which the riders start the race in an individual time trial as part of a short Prologue. This year, they'll be out on the road instead, and the stage even finishes with a brief climb, which should provide some much welcome fireworks for the first day. Don't look for the General Classification contenders to do much more than pace one another and stay close to the pack, but the sprinters should be jousting early on before giving way to one of the more well rounded riders later in the day.
After that, it'll be a sprinter's paradise until Stage 8 or so, when the first mountains will come into play. As usual, the Le Tour will be decided in the Alps and they Pyrenees, with the best climbers dueling it out on the slopes to see who will eventually ride into Paris in Yellow. This year, they'll even get to battle on the most famous Tour mountain of them all, Alpe-d’Huez, which comes late in the race at the 19th stage.
The field of contenders is deep, with a number of great riders hoping to claim victory. But the odds on favorite remains Alberto Contador, who is coming off a big win at the Giro d'Italia and is the defending champ of the Tour as well. He'll be pressed by Andy Schleck, who is riding with a new team this year, and has to be thinking that it is now or never. He has finished behind Contador the past two years, but now has a lot more experience and a better team to protect him. With a cloud of controversy hanging over Contador, this could finally be the year for Andy to break through and win the race.
These two aren't the only contenders of course. Andy's older brother Frank has the possibility of pulling off the win as well, although he is more likely to ride in support of his kid brother. Spanish rider Samuel Sanchez finished fourth last year, and has designs on standing on the podium in 2011, as does Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck, the fifth place finisher in 2010. Australian Cadel Evans is always a popular pick, and he has displayed the talent to win, although he does seem cursed in France. Last year, he was a minute and a half in front of Contador when he crashed and fractured his elbow. Other potential threats to Contador's crown include Levi Leipheimer, Bradley Wiggins, and Ivan Basso.
For me, the month of July is one of the best times of the year, and I can't wait for the race to get underway. As usual, I'll post regular updates on the results, standings, and strategies. I know a lot of readers are also big fans of the Tour, and I'll try to keep that in mind when I send out tweets so as to not spoil the events for those that watch the coverage in the evening. It should be a great race once again this year, and I'm eager for it to begin.
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