It’s been a long time since I was a serious cyclist, but I’m still a sucker for the Tour de France. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, getting to watch some of the best athletes in the world push themselves to the breaking point from the comfort of my leather recliner. Maybe it’s the drama of racing, since top level cycling has all the strategy, planning and crashes of Formula One racing. Maybe it’s just sheer wonder at watching guys complete the equivalent of a marathon, day after day, for nearly a month.
The 2011 Tour de France runs from Saturday, July 2 to Sunday, July 24. The race starts in Vendée, on the Atlantic coast in western France and finishes with the traditional ride down the Champs-Élysées on the final day. In between are 21 stages of hell, including flat stages (as easy as the Tour de France gets), mixed stages, mountain stages (four with summit finishes) a team time trial, an individual time trial. The race crosses into Italy on July 20, as the riders tackle some of the most difficult climbs in the Alps, before returning to France on July 21. Unlike previous Tours, Italy is the only foreign country visited in 2011.
Yet to be determined is the cast of characters. Lance Armstrong has already said he won’t be back, but he’s said that before. A lot of fans, myself included, think that this may be Andy Schleck’s year, especially with the support of his brother, Frank. Alberto Contador, last year’s winner, finds himself surrounded by the same kind of doping scandal that seems to haunt all world class cyclists; whether or not he’ll even compete depends upon the outcome of the current investigation. There’s still plenty of drama to play out before the race starts, but this much is certain: I’ll have my DVR set up to tape Versus’ live coverage of the race, starting on July 2.