Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Tour de France - Bring It On!

The Tour de France begins this Saturday 2nd July, and I'm excited. I can tell others are excited too. There has been more people out on their bikes this week riding to work, the bike shops are a bit busier, and the bike blogs are a bit more frantic with talk of the tour. Truth is, I look forward to it every year, partly because of the obvious reasons, the intrigue of who will win and the enjoyment of cheering on the Aussies that have made the team selection. But also because it brightens up my winter! It may be sunny and perfect riding conditions in France and other northern hemisphere countries, but here in Melbourne it's cold in July and watching the Tour transports me to the roads of France where its sunny, there's beautiful scenery and delicious food. Watching the Tour in our winter gives me that little bit of extra motivation to get up and ride my bike in the chill of Melbourne's winter mornings.

Despite this, I do wish I was going... being there in France in July, riding the L'Etape and then following the race around is a dream that will be accomplished one day, but not this year. So watching the SBS (Australian Tour broadcaster) coverage it will have to be, and lucky for us they are showing every stage live again and will have update shows every morning and evening. Check out the coverage schedule here. The SBS Cycling Central team do a superb job every year of bringing Aussies the Tour and if I can't be in France - this is definitley the next best thing!

Here's some videos to get you in the mood

My picks for the top five

1. Alberto Contador

Trust me, I want to put Cadel in this spot but I just can't. Contador is too strong. I think he is in the form of his life and the recent Giro win wont hold him back in the slightest. To win the Tour you need to be able to attack in the mountains and no one can attack like Contador. His explosive speed on the mountains is currently matched by no one and he has the ability to obliterate the field with this weapon. In 2009 we saw this in Verbier where he attacked and took the yellow jersey from Nocentini (and Armstrong) on stage 15, we saw it on Mt Etna on stage 9 of this years Giro and we will see it again at this years Tour de France.

2. Cadel Evans

I really hope I'm wrong and Cadel does pull off the win, if I'm right this will be a heartbreaking third 2nd place in the tour General Classification (GC) for Cadel. But all the stars are aligning for him. He has had the perfect season so far, with two GC wins in smaller stage races and a second place in the Criterium du Dauphine. His team, BMC racing, is completely set up for him to get the GC win. He's got the strength and experience of George Hincapie and some really good climbers to help him in the mountains. Go Cadel!

3. Bradley Wiggins

Wiggins is looking really good to me. I think he has been threatening to take some really big wins and it seems his time has come. Like Cadel, Wiggins has had an excellent lead up to the Tour, opting to stay out of the Giro and do some altitude training instead. His win at the Dauphine shows he has got what it takes and his time trialling abilitiy concretes him as a serious Tour contender. The long time trial stage at the end of the Tour is somewhere he could take some serious time off the other Tour hopefulls.

4. Andy Schleck

Other cycling people (and people who actually know what they are talking about!) have got Andy higher up on the top five list but I just can't see him doing any better than fourth or maybe third this year. His season hasn't been the best so far, there have been no lead-up wins, like you would expect from a serious Tour contender. I know he has ability in the mountains but perhaps he lacks the strategic maturity one needs to succeed in a three week stage race. I guess I think he's a little overrated, am I wrong? Maybe.

5. Jurgen Van den Broeck

Van den Broeck is my smokey, my dark horse. I first noticed him when he was a domestique for Cadel when he rode for Silence Lotto. Jurgen showed signs back then that he was developing into a GC rider, he even rode away from Cadel at one point - putting his own desire over the teams ambitions. Love him or hate him, he is a classy rider with bucketloads of ability. He will be a force this year and for a few years yet.

So have I got it right? Comment below and let me know your top five.

Stages to watch for

Stage 2, the Team Time Trial, is going to determine the yellow jersey holder for the following few days, and the TTTs are always nail biting to watch. Expect some blistering speeds and some terrible crashes.

Stages 3-7, relatively flat stages that will be perfect for the sprint specialists, Cavendish will pick up a few wins here for sure.

Stage 12, Cugnaux - Luz-Ardiden, is the first high mountain stage, we'll
see some attacks here are the yellow jersey will possibly change hands. Will be an interesting stage for strategy - some teams may not want to take control of the yellow jersey this early - so there's a chance a mountain specialist who's no GC threat will come and take the win and the maillot jaune.

Stage 19, Modane Valfrejus - Alpe-d'Huez,
will surely be the most exciting stage of the three weeks, if you stay up to watch any stage - make it this one! The Alpe-d'Huez is famous for its role in the history of the Tour de France and for good reason - it will break some riders and there will be attacks galore.

Stage 20, Genoble Individual Time Trial, is a very long time trial, and so gives the TT specialists an opportunity to shine. If Contador doesn't have enough of a lead by this stage he could lose the yellow jersey to Evans or Wiggans - both being superior time trialists.

Let the race begin!

The Tour de France is called the 'beautiful' race for good reason. The pageantry, the passion, the sufferring, and the incredible human achievement... it makes for fantastic TV! I have been reading Bill Stricklands novel on the comeback of Lance Armstrong and he sums up the attraction of the race really well. He explains that it is such a hard race that even the last place getter is celebrated. Not for coming in last but simply for hanging in and making it to the end. He is the Lanterne Rouge, the Red Lantern, and he should be proud. Bill writes:

In the Tour de France, you can't coast into last place; you have to tear yourself apart for the honour
That's what the Tour de France is about, human endurance matched by no other sport. I can't wait.

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