|Stage 1 — Saturday, July 2: Passage du Gois - Mont des Alouettes: 191.5km – 119 miles. Organizers change things up this year by opening the race with a road stage. Riders will cross a narrow tidal causeway that's submerged twice a day. It's a dangerous section that could cause a crash. Our prediction: Ending with a Category 4 climb will make for an exciting last mile. It may be too steep for sprinters like Mark Cavendish, so look for Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, or Thomas Voeckler to attack and win solo just ahead of a charging bunch.
|Stage 2 — Sunday, July 3: Les Essarts - Les Essarts: 23km – 14.3 miles. A short team time trial this early in the race could mean time gaps that may even impact the overall standings at the end of the Tour. Our prediction: Giro d'Italia TTT winners HTC-Highroad will be favorites. Garmin-Cervélo has a roster full of strong time trialists and should be up there as well.
|Stage 4 — Tuesday, July 5: Lorient - Mur-de-Bretange: 172.5km – 107.2 miles. Ending with a 1.3-mile climb, a crafty rider could steal the win here and even grab the Yellow Jersey. His team may then try to hold onto the jersey as long as possible. This will help a contender's team conserve energy. Our prediction: There are plenty of riders that can win today, but look for someone that is good in the classics like the Russian Alexandr Kolobnev, or Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel.|
|Stage 12 — Thursday, July 14: Cugnaux - Luz-Ardiden: 211km – 131.1 miles. Finishing with an above-category ascent after 131 miles will create time gaps. This stage should narrow the contenders down to a mere handful. Our prediction: Strong, rail-thin climbers like Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck will be there. Watch out for RadioShack's 127-pound mountain man Janez Brajkovic too.
|Stage 14 — Saturday, July 16: Saint-Gaudens - Plateau de Beille: 168.5km – 104.7 miles. With six categorized ascents, file this stage under pain. An interesting fact: every rider that has won on Plateau de Beille has gone on to win the overall. Will the streak continue this year? Our prediction: Contador will try to drop Andy Schleck, and vice versa. Will Andy's big brother Frank be there to help?
|Stage 18 — Thursday, July 21: Galibier - Serre Chevalier: 200.5km – 124.6 miles. Three above-category climbs mean a tough day. The top-placed GC riders will be marking each other, possibly allowing other riders to escape and move up the standings. Our prediction: Ryder Hesjedal finished 4th on a similar stage last year. He knows he can climb, and that confidence could propel him to the win.
|Stage 19 — Friday, July 22: Modane Valfréjus - Alpe-d'Huez: 109.5km – 68 miles. Le Tour finishes atop L' Alpe-d'Huez for the first time in three years. It's short in length so the pace will be high from the start. Our prediction: It's the last chance to gain time in the mountains, so expect attacks. Can Jurgen Van Den Broeck or Samuel Sanchez get away from the Yellow Jersey group for a stage win?
|Stage 20 — Saturday, July 23: Grenoble - Grenoble: 42.5km – 26.4 miles. There is nowhere to hide in the Tour's only individual time trial after 19 days of hard racing. The first two places should be set, but the rest of the top five will be sorted out today. Our prediction: Since a time-trial specialist can take it easy over the previous week's climbs, HTC-Highroad's Tony Martin should have decent enough legs to beat the Maillot Jaune by a narrow margin. Of course, Fabian Cancellara will be up there as well.|
|Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard): Il Pistolero has two Tours, two Giros and a Vuelta to his credit. He's undefeated in his last six grand tour starts after running away with the Giro this year. To say he's a prodigy would be an understatement; he can win time trials, climbing stages, you name it. He enters this year's Tour as the number-one favorite. Contador's only weakness is his nervousness. His inability to sit back and let attacks go could be his undoing should his competition have the strength and willpower to exploit it.
|Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek): Andy's first-year team, Leopard-Trek, is built to win the Tour de France. The younger Schleck was a close 2nd last year, and now he's looking to make the upgrade to yellow. He's not as strong against the clock as Contador, but with only one individual time trial this year he should be able to limit his losses. Once again, he's starting the Tour with Fränk by his side and the two are quite the force to be reckoned with. Look for them to be at the front whenever the race hits their preferred terrain: the mountains.
|Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek): Take one look at the thin Luxembourger and you know he's a climbing wünderkind. He first put his name in the Tour's history books with a stunning solo victory atop Alpe d'Huez in 2006, which he then backed up with a stint in the Yellow Jersey at the 2008 Tour and another mountain stage win in 2009. 2010 ended in disaster as he crashed out on Stage 3 with a broken collarbone. So far this year, he's won Criterium International and placed 2nd at Liége-Bastonge-Liége. Will he sacrifice his own chances in the mountains to work for Andy?
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing): Cadel could be the first Aussie to win the Tour. He has twice finished 2nd, and his less-intense spring race program this year suggests that he is 100% focused on having a great July. Evans secured overall wins at the Tour de Romandie and Tirreno-Adriatico this year thanks in part to his strong time-trialing skills. The 2009 World Champion is experienced, but hasn't yet had the big breakthrough Tour win everyone is waiting for. If he wins this year at 34 years of age, Cadel would be the oldest winner of the race since 1923.
|Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): The reigning Olympic champion is basing his 2011 season around the Tour de France, which means we should all keep an eye on the speedy Spaniard. His superb ascending skills are matched by his ability to rocket down the twistiest roads in Europe. His palmarès are quite impressive as well: two podium finishes and five stage wins at the Vuelta, the 2008 Olympic road race, four stages of the Tour of the Basque Country, and even more victories at smaller races. Look out for Sammy come July.
|Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack): Will 2011 be the year when Levi puts it together and launches an all-out assault on the Tour de France? Team RadioShack doesn't have a clear leader, so Levi will have to claim that role with good rides early on. He has shepherded cycling's greatest to victory while occasionally taking the big prize himself, such as his enviable streak of three Tours of California in a row. Teammates Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic will be on form for the Tour, and it will be interesting to see what shakes out between the three.
|Ivan Basso (Liquigas): Illness and injury have slightly slowed Basso's Tour buildup. He crashed in May during training, requiring 15 stitches to his face. But, preparing for a Tour victory is nothing new for the Italian. He has finished 3rd and 2nd in 2004 and 2005, and won the Giro d'Italia in 2010. Last season, his strong Liquigas team had rising star Roman Kreuziger as co-leader, but he has since moved to Astana, so Basso will have a team built around him. The crafty veteran knows when to spend and when to conserve energy which is invaluable in a 21-day race.
|Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto): Although his home country of Belgium is flat, Van Den Broeck has the skills to climb the hills. Last year's 5th place finish was achieved without the help of a strong team. For this season, Omega Pharma-Lotto management has signed new domestiques which should help tremendously in the team time trial and mountain stages. This tall, lanky climber's strength is his consistency, as he rarely has an off day.
|Robert Gesink (Rabobank): Eddy Merckx said that Gesink will win the Tour de France one day. Although this year's extra-hilly course suits him, at 25 years-old is he too young? Always a strong climber, the Dutchman has recently improved his time trialing because he's looking to top 2010's 6th place finish. This led to his first career stage race win, the 2011 Tour of Oman in February. Rabobank has also strengthened their roster by adding Spaniards Carlos Barredo and Luis León Sánchez, and they have Laurens ten Dam to help Gesink in the mountains.
|Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo): Canadian Ryder Hesjedal leads Garmin-Cervélo's hopes for the overall. He's had a pretty good spring season, and like last year, will surely be a rider to watch in France. His 7th place finish in last year's contest proves that he can climb and time trial with the best. Like RadioShack, Garmin will bring more than one leader to the race. Will he be overshadowed by teammate Christian Vande Velde?|
|Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad): He has been called fat and arrogant, among other things. Probably the cyclist that makes the most headlines, Cav is not afraid to share his feelings with the press on a variety of topics including other riders. One thing is for sure: Mark is the fastest sprinter in the world. In three Tour de France starts, he has won 15 stages. Numerous stage wins do not equal the Green Jersey though, and that is a prize he'll be aiming for in July.
Other riders to watch: Only a select few of the 198 starters can win the whole Tour. But, if a rider wins a stage or a classification jersey (mountains, best young rider, or points) it will be a career highlight and secure them a nice pay raise. Breakaways and field sprints present opportunities to nab a win and earn points in one of these competitions within the race.
In the sprint competition, challenging Cavendish for Green is 2010 winner Alessandro Petacchi. The Italian won a stage at the Giro in May. Also look out for Thor Hushovd in his world champion stripes.
Last year, French riders took six of the top 10 places in the mountains competition. The top two, Anthony Charteau and Christophe Moreau, will be aiming for this prize once again. This classification is won by getting into breaks on mountainous stages to capture maximum points, TV time, and the attention of a home nation.
Almost every stage has a breakaway. Not many actually make it to the finish, but some do. Which ones go the distance depends on a variety of factors. Those feisty riders that like to attack include Sylvain Chavanel, Thomas Voeckler, Damiano Cunego, and Alexander Vinokourov, among others. These guys have the guts and fitness to survive a long day in front of the peloton. It's possible you'll see them in Yellow for a few days if they gain enough time in the break, as Voeckler did in 2004.
Since the Tour is a long, unpredictable event, there are other rivals eager to grab the Maillot Jaune should any of the mega-favorites falter. Leading the charge is Garmin-Cervélo's Christian Vande Velde. Once a tireless workhorse for Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso, the Chicago native is now a team leader in his own right. He snagged 4th in 2008 and 8th in 2009, but withdrew last year. There's also Lance's RadioShack teammate Chris Horner who dominated the Tour of California in May. We'll see if he emerges as team leader or is forced to play domestique. And, the 3rd rider that's going for RadioShack leadership duties is Janez Brajkovic. The Slovenian has had good results this year but is still looking for that breakout win.
Peloton: The main body or group of riders. Also called the "pack," "field" and "group."
Stage: One of the individual daily races that make up the Tour. This year's event is composed of 21 days of racing (1 prologue and 20 stages).
Individual Time Trial (also called "the race of truth" and "the race against the clock"): A special event where riders cover a set course alone. Every rider's time is recorded and then compared to determine who went the fastest. Time trials often play a major role in determining the overall race winner because the strongest riders go the fastest and gain time on those who don't have the horsepower to maintain top speed without the support of their team.
General Classification (GC): This is the term used in stage racing for the current overall rider standings. Since stage races are comprised of multiple races, there are results for each race and also results for each rider's cumulative time for all stages. The person with the lowest time overall after all the races is first on GC and the winner of the race.
Maillot Jaune: The Yellow Jersey (left) is worn by the current race leader (see: General Classification). It is also a term used to refer to the leader. TV commentators might say, "The Yellow Jersey is flying today." The Yellow Jersey was created by Tour founder Henri Desgranges in 1913 to ensure the lead rider could be easily recognized by spectators. He chose yellow to honor a race sponsor, L'Equipe newspaper, who printed their pages on yellow paper. Interestingly, L'Equipe is still a major Tour sponsor and continues to use yellow paper.
Maillot Verde: The Green Jersey is worn by the leader in the points or sprinter's competition. Each stage has two to four intermediate sprints placed along the day's course. Points are awarded for the first three riders across the line at these sprints, and also for the top finishers at day's end. This jersey is highly sought after among the race's fastmen who battle for top placements during the flat stages. And unlike the other grand tours, the Tour awards more points at the finish of flat stages than hilly ones to prevent an overall contender from overshadowing the sprinters.
Maillot À Pois: The Polka Dot Jersey (right) is worn by the best climber in the King of the Mountains competition. Points are awarded at the top of designated climbs. As the climbs get tougher and correspondingly higher in ranking, more points are awarded.
Maillot Blanc: The White Jersey is worn by the leading rider who is under 25 years old. Sometimes these young talents go on to wear the Maillot Jaune in future editions of the Tour.
Rider Type: The size and shape of a rider often determines his racing specialty. Sprinters tend to be taller with ham-size legs ready to crush the pedals in a frenzy of speed. Climbers can be quite short, and all are rail thin for maximum anti-gravity advantage. All-around riders, the ones capable of winning the Tour, tend to be of average height and weight, and are blessed with the ability to climb, time trial and sprint at a very high level day in and day out.
Drafting: To ride so closely behind one or more fellow racers (left) that you are shielded from the wind, thereby saving considerable energy. The drafting effect increases as the size of a group grows, creating the potential for a number of riders to travel much faster than an individual cyclist (See: Paceline).
Attack: One of the more spectacular scenes in cycling is a lone rider, head down giving it their all to blast off the front of the field. These impressive leg-searing efforts are what makes bike racing so thrilling to watch. Nothing beats a high-speed chess match and sometimes a well-timed attack is exactly what a rider needs to speed to victory or get in the day's big breakaway.
Paceline: A formation of racers riding in a single-file line. Each racer spends some time riding at the front pushing the wind for those behind him. Sharing the workload allows a group to go faster than one rider on his own. (See: Drafting.)
Echelon: When a small group of racers forms a diagonal line across the road while riding into an oncoming side wind to best take advantage of the drafting potential. (See: Drafting.)
Breakaway: To ride away from the peloton in an effort to win a race. Because the peloton can ride much faster than an individual (see: Drafting and Paceline), breaking away is often a futile effort that usually leads to exhaustion with the peloton eventually catching and passing the hapless rider. However, sometimes the brazen attack pays off and the rider captures a dramatic win that can make their career.
Sprint: The final, crazed charge for the finish line at the end of a race. Top sprinters attempting to out accelerate their opponents can reach speeds over 40mph. The finishing chaos and speed often cause spectacular crashes.
Climb categories: Climbs are ranked on a scale of 1 to 4, with Category 1 being the most severe. However, there are climbs in the Tour that are so demanding they exceed this numerical ranking system. These "beyond category" climbs are referred to as Hors Catégorie (HC). Their extreme difficulty makes them some of the biggest factors when considering race strategy, as it's possible for a rider to gain minutes over a weaker rival. The tension and excitement around HC climbs also means the stages that feature them can be the most action packed of the whole Tour.
Descent: The tight, twisty mountain passes of Europe are notorious for rewarding world-class descenders and punishing those with less than superhuman bike-handling skills. It is common for descents to have upwards of 20 switchbacks in addition to other sharp curves that can make the difference between a race-winning effort and being reabsorbed by the pack. Some cyclists like Samuel Sanchez and the recently retired Paolo Salvodelli (nicknamed Il Falco, the Falcon, for his ability to go downhill like a stone) wisely use descents to conserve energy and gain time over their rivals.
Domestique (Gregario): A racer who sacrifices his own chance of victory to help a teammate win. Tasks of these unsung heroes may include: carrying extra bottles and food for fellow riders, chasing breakaway groups, and even giving their bikes to the designated team leader should he have a mechanical problem. Simply put, domestiques do whatever is necessary to help their teammates win.
Equipment: Every rider has at least three bikes to choose from for any day of racing. A super-light rig for mountain stages, a deluxe aerodynamic machine for time trials, and a standard road bike for average racing days. Now, consider that every team uses at least 100 wheels and it's no wonder that a full-size bus is used for team and equipment transportation.
Directeur Sportif (Sport Director): The person responsible for coaching riders and managing almost all logistical concerns of the team. During a race, the Directeur Sportif drives behind the peloton watching live race coverage on a dashboard-mounted TV and informs his team on proper race strategy. He may also pass out drinks and help with medical or mechanical issues.
Auto Bus (Grupetto): This term refers to the large group of riders that band together on difficult mountain stages and simply try to finish the day while conserving as much energy as possible. After all, they are going to need it during the next grueling stage.
Crash: To fall off your bike and go "boom." As soon as a rider hits the deck, he is expected to remount and start racing again. Having a seriously broken bone is one of the very few things that will keep these tough men from continuing.
Time Limit (Time Cut): A way to eliminate the slowest riders in the race. After every stage a time cut is established by taking the winner's time and adding 10 to 20%. Riders who finish in excess of this buffer zone are not allowed to start the next day.
Caravan: A motorized circus composed of officials' vehicles, motorcycle police, team cars, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.
How is the overall race winner determined?
Cumulative times are kept for all 21 stages. After the finish of the last stage, the rider who covered the whole trip around France in the least amount of time wins.
It seems like a lot of the time, racers are rolling along in one big group. How do riders gain and lose time against one another?
During this multi-day race, it's quite difficult for race favorites to gain or lose time against each other while on flat or rolling terrain, as drafting and teamwork cancel out individual rider strength differences. Therefore, the mountainous climbing stages and time trials have a heavy impact on deciding who the final winner will be, as both require a competitor to ride on his own, without the benefit of drafting or help from his team.
How can 198 guys race all day and then be awarded the same time at the finish?
When a large group of riders, possibly the entire field, comes to the finish in one huge group, everyone is awarded the finishing time of the first rider to cross the line. This is done to prevent the final sprint from becoming exceedingly chaotic. Therefore, the sprinting madmen get to battle over the stage win while everyone else rides in safely just behind them, knowing they will not be penalized for their caution.
If one or two guys can ride ahead of the peloton and win a stage, why doesn't this happen every day? And, why does the peloton allow riders to pedal away and gain a few minutes of advantage?
The Tour de France is an incredibly demanding event and conserving energy is an important aspect of team strategy. With conservation in mind, the peloton will allow an individual rider or small group of riders a time advantage, betting the escapees will burn out, slow down, and be reabsorbed by the pack. (The pack will also speed up to catch escaped riders as the finish nears.) Letting riders build up an advantage is a calculated risk made by the teams without riders in the breakaway group. Sometimes, the pack's gamble backfires and the breakaway group stays away until the finish to contest the win among themselves.
How can a racer win the Tour de France, but not win a single Stage?
This scenario is possible but rarely happens. However, because the Tour leader board is organized by total overall time, the most consistent racer wins. For example, always finishing with the first few riders during every crucial stage (but not winning) will result in a very low overall accumulated time. In contrast, using up loads of energy trying to win a stage may result in a one-day victory, but the winning racer will usually pay for his energy output the next day, as exhaustion will more than likely cause him to finish near the back of the pack. Racers have a choice. Ride steadily near the front of the race, never using up too much energy in the hopes of winning the whole Tour. Or go all out attempting to win a stage, knowing full well they'll be exhausted the next day and overall victory will be impossible.
The Tour de France is just an endurance event, right?
Yes, grand tour racing requires an extreme amount of endurance, but it's far more complex than that. The Tour, and pro road racing in general, requires massive amounts of muscular strength to keep up with the many intense accelerations during the race. The most obvious examples are the finishing sprints and attacks at the front of the peloton. These intense bursts regularly require riders to sprint in a big gear, similar to doing weightlifting squats of twice their body weight as fast as they can for 10 seconds to a minute.
When you consider that riders put in these efforts from 10 to 30 times each stage just to stay within the peloton, you begin to understand what a Herculean effort is involved. What's more, these muscular efforts create micro-tears in the muscles, which can only be cured by proper nutrition and rest, two things cyclists can't get enough of at the Tour. So, not only are the world's best cyclists in the top percentile of endurance aces, but they are also muscular athletes gifted with the ability to sprint day-in and day-out up mountains and across the flats. In bike racing, it's rarely the strongest who wins, but rather it's the rider who can make different types of max efforts and still arrive at the finish fresher than the others.
I know what the Green Jersey is, but how do they win it?
Unlike the exciting race for the Maillot Jaune, the points competition is a little bit more complicated than just cumulative time. On any given stage, riders have up to 5 chances to score points that go toward their overall tally. These come in the form of intermediate sprints and the finishing sprint. Points go three places deep in intermediate sprints with riders scoring 6, 4 or 2 points. At the stage finish, points are scored up to 25 deep with a maximum of 35 going to the winner, depending on the stage type. Flat stages are worth the most and hilly, mountain and time trial days are worth less. This makes the Tour's points competition truly a race for the sprinters as it prevents the overall contenders from gobbling up all the points on days the fastmen can't compete.
Another interesting tidbit is how hard the fight for the Maillot Verde truly is. Even on rolling stages, the contenders must be acutely aware of their competitors. Six points lost in an intermediate sprint could be the difference between standing on the final podium in Paris and going home empty-handed. Often the points competition comes down to the final stage and even the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees. Favorites for this year's title include superstar Mark Cavendish as well as former winners Oscar Freire (2008), Robbie McEwen (2006) and Thor Hushovd (2005, 2009). Look for American Tyler Farrar to make a go for Green, as well. He's come on strong the last couple of years and has won stages of both the Vuelta and the Giro. No matter who wins, though, they'll still be many victories back of Erik Zabel's record six Green Jerseys.
There can't be good weather every day of the race. Are there rain delays?
Nope. Riders race in any and all weather conditions. From blistering heat waves to biblical deluges, there are few meteorological events that will get in the peloton's way (rarely stages will be altered in cases of extreme weather). Some of cycling's most legendary escapades occurred in inclement weather. Lance Armstrong won the Tour stage to Sestrière in a downpour, Bernard Hinault took Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a driving snowstorm and Andy Hamsten, the only American ever to win the Giro d'Italia, took control of the race during an epic blizzard in the mountains of Italy.
That guy just gave a teammate his bike! What's up with that?
The Tour is a team event and each team is comprised of nine riders. Within a team, there are one or two riders who hope to achieve a high overall finish. Most teams also have a sprint specialist trying for stage wins during the flat days. The remaining five or six riders are considered domestiques or helpers, and they do just that, as their job description includes carrying extra food and water, and chasing down breakaway groups. Amazingly, a domestique is even expected to give up his bicycle to a team leader should he have a mechanical issue.
Why is that rider talking into his shirt?
All racers carry miniature radios in their back pockets that allow them to talk with their teammates and team director while rolling down the road. The earpieces of these high-tech intercoms look like spy paraphernalia. The microphones stay hidden, clipped to the inside of the rider's collar. Therefore, when you see a rider "speaking into his jersey" he is actually using his microphone to talk with someone on his team. This on-the-fly communication is of great value, as it lets riders who are scattered throughout the pack plan race strategy and ride accordingly.
Don't they get hungry?
Yes, they get very hungry! Nutrition is so important to racing success that some say the Tour is partially won at the dinner table, as riders who successfully fulfill their daily need of 7,000 to 10,000 calories are more assured of optimum results. While actually racing, riders mostly consume liquid sugar in the form of sports gels and drinks (Coke is a favorite). It's also no surprise to see mini ham sandwiches, candy bars, and pastries peeking out of jersey pockets. At dinner, it's a full-on feeding frenzy: pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, bread, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and yogurt is all fair game and consumed with gusto.
When do they go to the bathroom?
Ah, it's a question that someone had to ask. Many times the pack will make a group decision and stop for a quick "natural break" at the side of the road. Riders will also urinate off the bike, usually while coasting on lengthy downhills. If a rider really has to go and there's no downhill near, a teammate may push the bladder-challenged racer along as he relieves himself... hopefully while the TV cameras are not watching!