Cycling is unique in that the climax of its season comes not at the end of the season but dead center in the heart of the calendar. It isn’t the Tour Down Under in January or the Giro di Lombardia in October that the top riders of the road dream about. No, it is the sunflowers dotting French countryside in July that captivates the imagination, the high Alpine and Pyrenean passes that separate the contenders from the pretenders.
It is a rite that has survived since 1903. Over the years the route has changed, as the organizers have slowly reached out across all corners of La France Profonde and into lands beyond the Gallic borders.
Part of the anticipation is looking over the route as it is released in the wintertime. As the race nears, each meter of road is scrutinized by fans around the globe. Some sections are legendary, some are new to riders and spectators alike, and each stage adds up to form a cohesive storyboard on which that year’s edition of the race will play out.
Like snowflakes, no two years look quite the same. So let’s take a look at what 2011′s route will have to offer. Which riders will be the favorites on each of the 21 courses? Who will benefit most in each competition from the route layout? Where might the biggest battles ensue? Let’s dive in to the profiles and the maps and break things down stage by stage before Saturday’s start to the 98th edition of Le Tour!
|Medium Mountain Stages||3|
|# of Categorized Climbs (Cat 2, 1 and HC)||23|
|Individual Time Trialing||41k|
|Team Time Trial||23k|
STAGE 1/02 July 2011
Passage du Gois → Mont des Alouettes – 191.5km
The legendary Passage du Gois makes its third appearance in the past dozen years. Back in 1999, the slippery causeway between the Île de Noirmoutier and the mainland of the Vendée region of France was the early catalyst that yielded the first of Lance Armstrong’s seven consecutive Tour titles, as eventual runner-up lost six minutes in a crash on the passage. In 2005, the opening time trial saw Dave Zabriskie wear the yellow jersey after his first-ever Tour stage, beating Armstrong on the road back to Noirmoutier. This time the Passage du Gois will be a neutralized section, with real racing waiting until the peloton is on dry land. Everyone should be together at the end of the stage, making the 4th-category Mont des Alouettes an uphill sprint battleground. Look for a rider like Philippe Gilbert, who swept the Ardennes classics in April on similar finishes, to take advantage of the 4% average grade over the final three kilometers and snag the first yellow jersey of 2011.
STAGE 2/03 July 2011
Les Essarts (TTT) – 23.0km
The team time trial is the purest discipline to demonstrate how cycling is more than merely an individual sport masquerading as a team endeavor. Teams who take the event seriously are rewarded for their efforts, with their leaders gaining more time on their rivals in the opening week than would normally occur over the flatlands ahead of the mountains. Last year the Tour omitted the discipline altogether; revisionist history can only guess whether the differential between Contador and Schleck would’ve looked differently had Saxo Bank and Astana been forced to test their full nine against one another in a race against the clock. Look for the Saxo Bank and Leopard-Trek teams to battle for supremacy, with HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervelo looking to play the spoilers with squads full of strong time-trial specialists.
STAGE 3/04 July 2011
Olonne-sur-Mer → Redon – 198.0km
The sprinters will be licking their chops for the first real opportunity to unleash their finishing kicks into Redon for what should be the first true bunch finish of the 2011 Tour. A half-dozen sprinters will be loving their chances of success on the final two kilometers through the Breton town of just under ten-thousand inhabitants, most of whom will be lining those last ribbons of road before the finish line to watch their cycling heroes live. Look for this to be the first installment of another classic duel between Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar, with last year’s green jersey Alessandro Petacchi also in the hunt to take his seventh career Tour stage victory.
STAGE 4/05 July 2011
Lorient → Mûr-de-Bretagne – 172.5km
The ride north and then east into the heart of northwestern France’s Brittany region contains rolling terrain that should allow the peloton to stay together… at least until the final few kilometers, when the roads ramp up to the stage’s terminus at the top of the Mûr-de-Bretagne. Another punchy two-kilometer climb similar to the Mont des Alouettes, Gilbert will definitely be in the hunt at the end of the stage. This could also be a place where Alexander Vinokourov or Damiano Cunego show they still have some punch left in the tank; both are former winners of Ardennes classics.
STAGE 5/06 July 2011
Carhaix → Cap Fréhel – 165.0km
This is an undulating stage where the weather report could determine the outcome. If the breezes off the Atlantic are swift, we could easily see echelons form which break up the field into many smaller chase groups. In such a case, the team which is most disciplined and keeps its leaders up front will benefit the most from the efforts. Predicting which team that might be, on the other hand, is another story altogether. Contador and Schleck will certainly be vigilant… and a team like Garmin-Cervelo or Radio Shack could also turn the race on its head by launching attacks in the weather for their GC candidates Ryder Hesjedal (for Garmin) or Chris Horner or Janez Brajkovic (for the Shack).
STAGE 6/07 July 2011
Dinan → Lisieux – 226.5km
Unlike the finishes in Stage 1 or Stage 4, the three categorized climbs en route and the short incline at the finish line shouldn’t be enough to keep the sprinters from staying together and contesting the last kilometers in a traditional battle royale on the streets of Lisieux. With the majority of the route sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic winds, the longest stage of the 2011 Tour should allow for a breakaway to get away early and play the rabbit for the sprinters’ teams. The final uphill sprint should favor a younger rider like Cavendish or Farrar, or potentially even Tom Boonen in a redemptive return to the form that saw him take the 2007 green jersey.
STAGE 7/08 July 2011
Le Mans → Châteauroux – 218.0km
Another flat stage will take the riders into the heart of central France. After transferring from Lisieux to Le Mans, the city of 150,000 in the Loire that has hosted the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1923, the peloton will head southeast through the Loire Valley toward the finish line in Châteauroux. Another flat course, this route is tailor-made for a sprint finish… unless some animator can sneak away in a breakaway and fend off the pack. Don’t expect that to happen. Instead, watch out for Mark Cavendish – he won on this same finishing straight back in 2008, earning the first of his fifteen Tour stage victories to date when the race last visited Châteauroux.
STAGE 8/09 July 2011
Aigurande → Super-Besse Sancy – 189.0km
The route steadily gains elevation as the peloton heads into the Massif Central near the Puy-de-Dóme. The 2nd-category Col de la Croix Saint-Robert comes 25 kilometers from the finish, probably too far to blow up the race and create large gaps. Taking a different route than Stage 6 of the 2008 Tour de France, which had identical start and finish lines, the finish at the Super-Besse ski resort shouldn’t wreak too much havoc on the general classification. The GC favorites will be marking one another’s moves as they pick their way up the final climbs; this could very well open the door for a rider like last year’s King of the Mountains Anthony Charteau to sneak in and steal the stage victory.
STAGE 9/10 July 2011
Issoire → Saint-Flour – 208.0km
With an absurd eight categorized climbs, this long stage through the Massif Central will leave the riders thankful that the first rest day comes on the 11th. No one of the eight climbs will prove anyone’s undoing by themselves; instead, the combination of ascents will take their collective toll as the road is constantly either ramped upward or pitched downward. This might be the perfect stage for an aggressive rider or group of riders to sneak off the front and battle as a breakaway for the awards. Thomas Voeckler or Sylvain Chavanel would be the sentimental domestic favorites to succeed should such an audacious move succeed and the peloton concedes the spoils to a group down on the GC standings.
STAGE 10/12 July 2011
Aurillac → Carmaux – 158.0km
As the cyclists remaining in the race head southward, closer to the Pyrenees and the first real high mountains of the 2011 Tour, the rolling terrain between Aurillac and Carmaux will present the opportunity for whoever benefited most from the eight climbs the day before to consolidate a grip on the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains. But ultimately, with the mountains looming, the sprinters’ teams will do everything in their power to keep things together for the finish into Carmaux. The slight downhill grade in the final three kilometers could hand the advantage to a veteran like Alessandro Petacchi in the final bunch sprint.
STAGE 11/13 July 2011
Blaye-les-Mines → Lavaur – 167.5km
A similar layout to the previous day’s ride into Carmaux, this stage has fewer categorized climbs but rolls just as much on its S-shaped route toward the Pyrenees. The undulations once again shouldn’t deter the sprinters from taking their chances in another bunch sprint. Garmin, HTC and Lampre will all be working to keep their guys toward the front and together over the final climb over the Côte de Puylaurens. From there it will be a matter of which team can best control the pace in the final kilometers. Look for Julian Dean and Thor Hushovd to give Tyler Farrar a textbook leadout to the finish line for the American’s first Tour de France stage victory of his young career.
STAGE 12/14 July 2011
Cugnaux → Luz-Ardiden - 211.0km
After tasting nothing but shorter climbs over the first half of the race, the organizers introduce the 2011 peloton to the Pyrenees in brutal fashion with the layout of Stage 12. While the local fans will dream about a French rider’s victory on Bastille Day, the only legitimate candidate with even an outside shot of claiming the summit at Luz-Ardiden would have to be Charteau or John Gadret. More likely, though, we’ll see the first serious installment of the Contador-Schleck battle on the twin towers of the Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden. Last utilized in a Tour stage in 2003, only three active cyclists remain from the Top 10 on that year’s Stage 15: Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov and Sylvain Chavanel. If anybody is going to upset the tandem expected to ignite the race, it would likely be one from this trio.
STAGE 13/15 July 2011
Pau → Lourdes – 152.5km
One of the classic locations of Tour lore, this will be the 64th Tour stage in the race’s history to start or finish in Pau. The riders will have to deal with just one Pyrenean monster on this stage, with the summit of the Col d’Aubisque coming 42.5 kilometers from the finish in Lourdes. This is a stage where, after the fireworks the previous day during the Tourmalet/Luz-Ardiden double, the GC contenders will probably be content to mark one another up the pitches of the Aubisque. If they do, an aggressive rider like Chavanel or Christophe Riblon could find the room to break away and stay clear for a well-deserved stage victory.
STAGE 14/16 July 2011
Saint-Gaudens → Plateau de Beille – 168.5km
The last Pyrenean test of the 2011 Tour will feature six categorized climb. None are the Tourmalet or Aubisque, but grouped together and presented as a full half-dozen together, this will likely serve as the final pre-Alpine shakeup of the general classification. Which one of the favorites will be in the best position at this point? If Contador is leading, look for the Schleck brothers to tag-team the Spaniard in hopes of getting him to crack before the finish line. In such a scenario, look for Frank Schleck to be gifted the victory by his time-seeking brother. If Schleck is leading, though, Contador will look to Richie Porte and especially Chris Anker Sørensen to serve as his lieutenants on the attack. A multifaceted team like Radio Shack or Garmin could also play its cards in a stage like this in hopes of upsetting the natural selection.
STAGE 15/17 July 2011
Limoux → Montpellier – 193.0km
The sprinters get another day in the sun as the peloton transitions away from the Pyrenees and toward the final week in the Alps. Heading east-northeast toward the city of Montpellier, just one categorized climb dots the largely flat route. Once again the usual suspects will come to the front, as Cavendish and Petacchi and Farrar and the rest of the sprinters try to gather up more points toward the green jersey race. Not the kind of finish that favors his teammate Philippe Gilbert, we could see Andre Greipel spoil this rare opportunity for the favorites and finally emerge from the shadows of former teammate Cavendish to add a Tour stage to his two from the Giro and four from the Vuelta.
STAGE 16/19 July 2011
Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux → Gap – 162.5km
A steadily rising course greets the riders as they near the Alps coming out of their second rest day. Leaving Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, the riders rise on a steady pitch eastward into the Hautes-Alps. After reaching Gap, the riders will finish with a circuit including the 2nd-category Col de Manse before descending back into Gap and the finish line. The descent back to Gap from the Manse could have three wildly disparate effects. The GC contenders will likely save energy for the higher climbs ahead… so either the peloton will allow a breakaway to stay free to the finish, or it will sit up enough to provide a last sprint before the Parisian finale, or they will see a select group of the secondary tier of GC riders force the favorites’ hands on the ride. Here’s hoping for the latter, outcome, with somebody like Chris Horner driving the train to the finish line and carving his way to a top-five position.
STAGE 17/20 July 2011
Gap → Pinerolo/ITA – 179.0km
The first proper day in the Alps takes the peloton across the border into Italy to tackle several climbs more infamous for their role in the Giro d’Italia. The ride takes things fairly simply up to the border, with two 3rd-category climbs leading up to the 2nd-category Col de Montgenèvre. On the descent, France becomes Italy and the riders will head directly to the top of the Sestrières ski resort that featured prominently in Armstrong’s last victory in 2005. Of course, this time, the summit comes more than sixty kilometers from the finish in Pinerolo. After the descent from Sestrières the riders will tackle the 2nd-category Côte de Pramartino. It is that shorter climb that will form the final selection, with the run into Pinerolo providing room for a support rider like Fabian Cancellara or a wildcard like Christian Vande Velde to sneak clear.
STAGE 18/21 July 2011
Pinerolo/ITA → Galibier Serre-Chevalier – 200.5km
The peloton begins its two hardest days of the entire race with a return to French soil after spending the night in Pinerolo. Returning over the Col Agnel, where the summit serves as the international boundary, the riders will descend back into France to the feed zone — before immediately heading right back uphill toward the summit of the Col d’Izoard. After descending into Briançon, the roads ramp up once more to the finish line. Attacking the Galibier from the southeast, the riders will ascend the backside of the Galibier. The Col du Lautaret will provide the majority of their struggles before the final ascent to Galibier proper. The race could very well blow up here… but the more likely story, with the second part 0f this hellish tandem still on tap, is that a rider like John Gadret is given enough rope to win the stage but not enough to seriously threaten the GC order.
STAGE 19/22 July 2011
Modane → Alpe-d’Huez – 109.5km
There are few climbs that live in the legend of cyclists worldwide like the Alpe-d’Huez. The 21 switchbacks, covering the fifteen kilometers from Bourg d’Oisans, have played a major role in the race’s history. Three years ago Carlos Sastre used it as his launching point to an unexpected Tour victory; could somebody else pull off the feat here? The eight-percent grades have been known to break the legs of even the most gifted riders, and we do have one previous winner of this prestigious stage in Frank Schleck, who won at the summit in 2007. Who could be this year’s Schleck? Somebody like Samuel Sanchez could spring the surprise… but given the magnitude of the stage and its proximity to the end of the race, it is likelier that this will be the final mountain showdown between Contador and Andy Schleck as they duel to see which gets final slot in the Saturday time trial.
STAGE 20/23 July 2011
Grenoble (TT) – 42.5km
The only individual time trial in this year’s Tour de France comes in the penultimate stage before the promenade into Paris. A rolling 42.5-kilometer loop set around the Alpine capital of Grenoble. Home to the 1968 Winter Olympics, the city has hosted 38 previous Tour stages in the race’s history. This time it could either host a coronation or a battle like we haven’t seen since 1989, when the time trial on the final day saw Laurent Fignon bested by Greg LeMond. This time around it all depends on Alberto Contador. If he is far enough ahead in the GC by this point, we could see him ease off the pace a bit and allow the victory to a time-trial specialist like Fabian Cancellara. If not, the Spaniard will turn up the gas to try to take over the maillot jaune.
STAGE 21/24 July 2011
Créteil → Champs-Elysées - 95.0km
It has become a tradition that this final stage onto the Champs-Elysées in Paris is a ceremonial stage designated for the sprinters… or anybody who can stay clear in a breakaway to thwart their ambitions. The general classification will be set prior to the long transfer from Grenoble to the Parisian suburbs. A short stage at less than a hundred kilometers, the man in yellow will spend his final stage sipping Champagne and soaking in the accolades of his comrades of the wheel. But there is still that final, prestigious stage victory to be contested. A staple of the map, this famous boulevard has capped the three weeks of racing every year since 1975. Mark Cavendish, whether or not he is in the green jersey, will be looking to win his third consecutive Champs-Elysées stage after successes in 2009 and 2010. If he does, he will hold the new record for the most victories in the final stage of the Tour, surpassing Bernard Hinault, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov and Robbie McEwen with whom he is currently tied at two Champs-Elysées stage wins apiece.