Wednesday, 29 June 2011

2011 Tour de France Race Preview

Tomorrow afternoon, 198 riders from 22 teams will step out onto the podium at Puy du Fou historic theme park in the heart of the Vendée region of Western France. Second only to Disneyland Paris, the park attracts 1.45 million visitors each year.

Against the renaisance backdrop of the a medieval castle where a young shepherdess must defend alone her donjon from the English knights, helped by a lance with supernatural powers, these superhuman men will step out, each team in turn, to present themselves to their own modern day court of press men and women, organisers, sponsors and fans. Steeling themselves for a moment in the spotlight before they wage their own wars on the cobbles and tarmac, carving their way majestically towards their final show down on the streets of Paris.

Vendée has a long history with the Tour, and this 98th edition will celebrate that passionate history with a Grand Départ on the Passage du Gois, where in 1999 its slippery surface lead to a crash that proved to be decisive on just the second day of that years Tour. Creating a six minute split in the peoloton, the hopes of many GC favourites such as Alex Zülle, where crushed as they struggled to regain time. Zülle himself ended the Tour in second place overall, a massive seven minutes down on winner Lance Armstrong.

The race will continue to pay tribute to the links between the region and the Tour with a 23km Team Time Trial, starting and finishing in Les Essarts, before heading out of the region and onto Brittany, crossing the Loire via the Saint-Nazaire bridge, which is the high point of this stage, before heading onto the rolling route of the longest stage of the Tour as they head across Normandy. GC boys will want to keep an eye on the ever changing winds as they head towards the Pyrenees leaving the sprinters to spar on the flatest route that is Stage 7.

With the Aubisque featuring about halfway through this years Tour, here is where we will see the breakaway specialists shine through, shaking up the GC as they go. From here its on to the Alps, a centenary celebration of the Galibier coming on stages 18 and 19 as the race heads into its final week. The summit finish of stage 18 on the Galibier will see the peloton clime to an altitude of 2, 645; the highest finish in the Tour’s history.

As ever, the race will then head out of the Alps and on towards Paris where the survivors will be welcomed once more into the roaring atmosphere that awaits them. The personification of excellence, their endurance seemingly godlike, their tifosi will embrace them.

So let the gauntlet come down, let the battle commence. Vive Le Tour!