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So the greatest show on earth is once again beginning to hit the headlines (and thankfully for all the right reasons). 3 weeks, 21 stages and 3471km see the riders cross from the east coast, down to the south coast and back up to Paris via the Alps – doesn’t sound bad eh?!

With chaingate and Contador’s dominance still fresh in our minds from 2010 we really can’t wait for Tour fever to hit and for the 2011 Tour to begin, this year starting in the Vendee.

The gossip so far:

It’s mainly been centred around AC and the will he or won’t he ride in this years Tour. Despite ongoing doping accusations which will be settled only by a final verdict by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in August, AC is being supported by many who no doubt have banked on there being another mountain showdown with the Schlecks et al.

“He’s convinced that he’s innocent, so why should he not start?,” said Johan Bruyneel.

Andy Schleck’s take on the situation: “Contador has won the Tour a number of times so he’ll be favourite but I was closer to him last year and I’ve got to say that I just know that I’m going to be in top condition at the Tour. I’m not nervous; I know I’m doing all the right things. I’m totally focused on the Tour and I want to be 100 per cent ready.” – We for one would love to see another battle in the mountains between these two!

 

Standout Stages: Stage 3 – 1 for Cavendish

I’ll hold off from mentioning the mountain stages just now and have a look at the early sprinter’s stages where Mr Mark Cavendish will hopefully be firing on all cylinders. Stages 1 & 3 are billed as sprinter stages and 3 is most definitely for Cav.

Pan flat but with crosswinds to watch out for! At approx half way is the mighty Saint-Nazaire bridge which will no doubt see some attacks and plenty of photograph opportunities (more than 2 miles long!) Will HTC have it all their own way though? Garmin Cervelo and Sky will be keen for some podium action with Eddy Boasson Hagen seemingly contesting first on stages of all profiles! Definitely a man to watch!

 

Stage 9 – for the ‘puncheurs’

A saw edge profile sees the riders going through the Massif Central and this is surely a day for a French breakaway.

This is a long stage with a very up-and-down profile particularly as it features the Pas de Peyrol and the first-ever ascent of the Col de Perthus. Except for the opening 50km, it’s just climbs and descents all of the way. It’s a real leg-breaker, and if the action really takes off then there certainly won’t be 100 riders coming in together to contest the finish. It’s the kind of stage that should suit Sylvain Chavanel. Last year he won the stage at Les Rousses in the Jura when there were numerous attacks.

 

Stage 18 – the highest ever stage finish

To put it simply – 3 climbs in one day with a 2645m altitude finish with a low point of 335m earlier in the day!
Featuring the Col Agnel, d’Izoard and finally climbing up to Serre-Chevalier it’s certainly a day full of epic climbs. Also the Galibier’s centenary at the Tour, with it first appearing back in 1911.

In 1911, the Tour’s peloton had hardly recovered from the shock of discovering the Pyrenean mountain passes, the year before. The cyclists were only slightly familiar with the Alps, even though the Col Bayard had already been crossed several times since 1905. The ascent to the Col du Galibier, which was being climbed for the first time, was via the north slope and took the race to another level. In those days it reached its highest point at an altitude of 2,556m.

Is there anyone other than Alberto Contador who you’d put your money on today?

 

The Riders.

While I could spend all day writing about a rider from each team there’s only realistically time to talk about the big 3. The ones you’d bet on and the ones who’re sure to be on the podium at some point / if not in Paris.
In no particular order they are AC, A Schleck and Cadel Evans!

Cadel Evans:

At 34 Cadel surely has to win the Tour soon! Last year’s World Champion and ready to fight for the line he’s got a great team and so far in 2011 has won Tirreno-Adriatico plus is currently on a podium spot in the Dauphine Libere.

His strength is relentless, seeing him climb after Basso at last years Giro (albeit with an odd MTB style) he will give 100% in the mountains and his TT’ing isn’t too shabby either. The Grenoble TT is the stage before Paris and could provide Cadel with a great lever if he rides well and has a closeable gap to aim for.

Team wise the BMC boys should have no problems. Old hands such as George Hincapie will provide useful experience on the tough, fast stages leaving Cadel to go wild on the climbs! Their team kit is also one of our favourites for 2011!

Sticking our necks out we’ll give Cadel “Cuddles” Evans an 8 PBK stars out of 10! What do you reckon?

 

Andy Schleck:

To have this guys Grand Tour experience at 26 says a lot! Last year he climbed with AC and while he couldn’t attack him, AC didn’t seem too keen on trying to leave him behind either.

If I had to enter a race with a team behind me Leopard Trek would be very high on the list. Cancellara, Jens “shut up legs” Voigt and Stuart O’Grady are names which hopefully appear on all of your dream-team lists.

Chain catcher jokes aside will his youth still hinder him? Will he perform well and hold his weight in the TT? Who knows! We’ll go with 8.5 stars out of 10 for Schleck.

 

Alberto Contador:

We’ve still to see whether he does actually race the Tour but let’s assume he is doing!

Results have been plentiful already in 2011, a Giro d’Italia crown and winner of Volta a Catalunya show he’s got his legs back after his ‘break’ while meat gate was fresh in the media.

Back to his Giro performance – his team got him through the flat stages and in the mountains he was a class above nearly everybody! I really can’t see anyone consistently challenging him when the road heads upwards which means he receives 9 stars out of 10 from me (it would be 10 but you never ever know what’s going to happen in cycling!).

If he rides – who realistically can challenge him?


To help kickstart the Tour fever here are the rules (compulsory reading): TdF 2011 viewing rules and regulations, especially if your other half isn’t a cyclist!
Also we have a lot of Official Tour de France memorabilia and items just arrived at PBK. Everything from a keyring with each of the winners jerseys on to a mug and also lots of great clothing – great for you or a cycling obsessed friend.

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