By now, you’ve probably seen the route of the 2011 Tour de France. It is, if nothing else, a substantial departure from the last 10 or so Tours. It would be easy to fault this edition for a lack of time trialing kilometers. After all, there’s no prologue, only one individual time trial and the team time trial is so short a rider could crash on the start ramp, ride alone for the entirety of the course and still finish inside the time limit. To do so, would be to misunderstand the race.
The lack of time trial kilometers really just underscores the central feature of the 2011 race: This is a race for the climbers, pure and simple. The course can’t ensure it’s winner, but it does much to select the most fit athlete.
So what makes this a climber’s tour? With six mountain stages, the 2011 Tour is in keeping with the last 10 Tours. What is different, however is that this edition has four mountain-top finishes. You have to go back to 2002 to find an edition that had more than three mountain finishes. In that year, won as you may recall by Lance Armstrong, five out of six mountain stages finished at the top of a significant (Cat. 1 or hors categorie) climb.
The Pyrenees come first in 2011. The three stages begin with a 209km assault on Luz Ardiden, the first mountain finish of the race. The stage from Pau to Lourdes really only has one challenge, ascending the Col d’Aubisque followed by the bump of the Col du Soulor. It’s okay, though. The next day makes up for it.
The 168km stage from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille seems short, but takes in five climbs culminating in the climb that is likely to reflect the Tour’s final victor. History holds that the wearer of the yellow jersey atop Plateau de Beille wins in Paris.
The difficulties don’t end there. The five stages leading to the final stage into Paris leave the sprinters no scraps. Following the second rest day on July 18, the riders face a medium mountain stage, a high mountain stage, then the stage from Pinerolo to Serre-Chevalier—the Col du Galibier. To get there they have to climb the 2744-meter-high Col Agnel, which is very steep in its final kilometers, followed by the the 2306-meter Col d’Izoard and finishing with the first-ever finish atop the 2645-meter Col du Galibier. This 189km stage could see some talented riders fold.
And even if all the favorites come through the mountain-top finish atop the Galibier, the next-day’s stage will present a challenge of a different sort. The final mountain stage of the 2011 Tour isn’t the typical stage where that begins with a big climb before heading into flatter country. No, riders tackle the north side of the Galibier, climbing the Col du Telegraphe and then ascending Galibier before descending to the town of le Bourg d’Oisans and scaling l’Alpe d’Huez.
The typical Alpine stage runs from 150-200kms (roughly 90 to 125 miles). However, this stage is only 109km long; that’s less than 70 miles. Racing will hopefully prove to be furious.
The very next day is the Tour’s final time trial. At 41km, it’s short, reinforcing just how important the climbing is to the race, but for racers tired from four consecutive days in the mountains, this could be another chance for fatigue to crush someone’s aspirations (and season).
After the uninteresting course in 2009 and a nearly as uninspired 2010 race where the most interesting mountain stage didn’t end at the top of the mountain, 2011 holds the promise of a truly epic race.
The stages: (mountain stages in bold, * mountain-top finish)
July 2, stage 1: Passage du Gois-Mont des Alouettes, 191km
July 3, stage 2: Les Essarts-Les Essarts, TTT, 23km
July 4, stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer-Redon, 198km
July 5, stage 4: Lorient-Mûr-de-Bretagne, 172km
July 6, stage 5: Carhaix-Cap Fréhel, 158km
July 7, stage 6: Dinan-Lisieux, 226km
July 8, stage 7: Le Mans-Châteauroux, 215km
July 9, stage 8: Aigurande-Super Besse Sancy, 190km
July 10, stage 9: Issoire-St-Flour, 208km
July 11, rest day
July 12, stage 10: Aurillac-Carmaux, 161km
July 13, stage 11: Blaye-les-Mines-Lavaur, 168km
July 14, stage 12: Cugnaux-Luz Ardiden, 209km*
July 15, stage 13: Pau-Lourdes, 156km
July 16, stage 14: Saint-Gaudens-Plateau de Beille, 168km*
July 17, stage 15: Limous-Montpellier, 187km
July 18, rest day
July 19, stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux-Gap, 163km
July 20, stage 17: Gap-Pinerolo, 179km
July 21, stage 18: Pinerolo-Galibier/Serre-Chevalier, 189km*
July 22, stage 19: Modane-Alpe d’Huez, 109km*
July 23, stage 20: Grenoble-Grenoble, ITT, 41km
July 24, stage 21: Créteil-Paris/Champs-Elysées, 160km