So it’s that time of the year again. Time for all things French – champagne, sunflowers, crazy costumes, and above all time to stand in awe of couple hundred brave cyclists. Its time then for Le Tour de France. I did a stage by stage coverage last year, read it in case you are want to refresh on what happened in the 2010 episode of this legendary event. Plan is to do the same this year, opening with this preview for 2011.
Starting then with the defending champion, Alberto Contador of Spain. He has switched to the Danish team Saxo bank (ironically his main rivals last year), but that is not the talk of the town. Tour lovers are in conundrum over Contador’s alleged use of clenbuterol, for which he tested positive in October last year, albeit in arguable circumstances. As is the case with legal battles, the final verdict in this case is scheduled to come in August, which would make his standing in this year’s Tour highly debatable.
Almost everyone who follows international cycling has an opinion, and the general consensus is that UCI should have made a final decision before the Tour. This ambivalence is doing no one any good, not the Tour, not the sport, not UCI itself and certainly not the cyclist under scanner. Contador for his bit is focussed as ever and according to some reports is shunning meat altogether (as a contaminated piece of meat is supposedly to blame for the positive test).
His main competitor though has no such worries. Andy Schleck of Luxembourg left Paris last year with the words, “I have a meeting on the Champs-Elysées next year with the yellow jersey. I’ll be back to win it.” As his rival, he too has changed teams, leaving Saxo Bank for his native Leopard Trek, but crucially with most of the same crew. And if his brother can stay out of injury for the entire three weeks this time, then Contador has real reason to worry.
Their battle last year was legendary, exploding with the chaingate controversy at Port de Balés. However for me, the defining moment of 2010 was the final 10kms to the summit of Col du Tourmalet. A climb steeped in legend and the two best riders battling treacherous weather to spar all the way till the top, you can’t ask for better than that. It was spine tingling stuff by the end of which I felt more spent mentally than the riders themselves. Precisely the kind of duel which gives Le Tour its revered status in the hallowed gallery of international sport.
Behind the lead duo too, there are enough interesting battles to keep one engrossed. Mark Cavndish missed out on the maillot vert narrowly and would go all out to finish in green this year. Team Sky, the high-profile British outfit tailor-made by Dave Brailsford will return armed with experience and have much to prove to everyone. Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins, the two home riders for Sky seem keen to punch above their weight and this is definitely a team to watch for.
For me personally there would be a big hole in the absence of Lance Armstrong. The burly Texan retired for good after last year’s Tour and he is not one who can ever be replaced. Champions come and go, legends leave their ghosts behind forever. Lance’s foundation “Livestrong” would definitely be associated and I hope it can use the Tour’s image to further its noble cause.
As to the route, this edition does away with the dangerous cobblestone stages of previous year. We start pedalling across a beautiful tidal causeway and leave France briefly for a day (end of stage 17) in Italy. The Team Time Trial returns after 2009, making for the second stage, and I for one am keenly looking forward to it. As last year, the Individual Time Trial makes up the penultimate stage (final for all practical purposes) and hopefully will provide the same nail-biting finish.
However the really interesting part, one which gives the 2011 Tour de France its unique essence, comes when the riders leave Italy on stage 18. This snorter of a stage records the highest summit finish the Tour has ever seen. Culminating on one of its most fearsome mountains, the Col du Galibier (standing tall at 2645m) after the peloton would already have scaled two Hors Catégorie climbs in the day, it will prove to be a test of nerves and stamina.
As if this wasn’t a stern enough test of the resolve and ability of the riders, race directors make them do it again the next day – this time from the Col’s harder side. And then we finish stage 19 on top of another legendary climb, the Alpe d’Huez, which at 1850m sounds almost a relief. Undoubtedly then, the rider emerging ahead after these two gruelling tests shall be best placed to wear the maillot jaune at Champs-Elysees, and definitely would be the most deserving.
All in all we have very enticing three weeks ahead of us. Le Tour has seldom disappointed its true fans, and they can be assured of more grit, bravery, scintillating scenery and glory. I can’t wait for evening to come soon enough and forgetting all the politics, enjoy just the road, the fans and some great moments. And till then you all can feast yourself on this teaser
ps: you can also follow this coverage and a lot more at www.isport.in