There's just four days to go till the 98th edition of the Tour de France gets under way in the Vendée and as ever there will be twists and turns in the three weeks ahead before the winner climbs on to the podium in Paris… Indeed such is the power of the drama and scandal that has habitually surrounded the world's greatest cycle race that who will be judged to have won the last edition is still the subject of controversy, with defending champion Alberto Contador racing despite his positve test for clenbuterol during last year's race, with an appeal against the decision of the Spanish federation to clear him not being heard until August.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of sub-plots that will keep us enthralled during July. Can Mark Cavendish finally win the green jersey and what will be the impact of the changes to the way points are awarded? Can Bradley Wiggins become the first British rider to step onto the podium? Can Ben Swift be the man to break Team Sky's Grand Tour stage win duck? Can Andy Schleck finally make it onto the top step of the podium? Can Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans win the sport's biggest prize before their powers begin to wane?
We don't promise to provide the answers to those questions, but with our Fantasy Cycling Tour game heading into its own second edition, we've hopefully given you some food for thought in making your team selections. We've added expert stage-by-stage analysis from Team Sky's Geraint Thomas, who enjoyed a great Tour last year including a stint in the best young rider's white jersey, for the first five stages and the rest will follow very soon.
Saturday 2 July
Passage du Gois-Mont des Alouettes
Unusually, the 98th edition gets under way not with a Prologue but a road stage starting on the Passage du Gois, the causeway where Alex Zulle’s yellow jersey hopes suffered a mortal blow on Stage 2 in 1999 when he lost six minutes to Lance Armstrong. This time, howver, the race will still be neutralised as the riders cross to the mainland. An uphill finish means this year’s first yellow jersey is likely to go to someone strong enough to tackle that climb while keeping enough in their legs for the sprint.
Thought for the Day: The Europcar team is based in the Vendée and Thomas Voeckler, winner of the Prix de la Combativité in last year’s Tour will know these roads better than most, having made his home here.
Geraint Thomas's view: With that climb at the end, depending how hard it is, someone like Edvald Boasson Hagen or Rigoberto Uran could do well, one of them should be up there for sure. Philippe Gilbert’s going well, and then you have riders like Alecander Vinokourov or Tony Martin. It will be interesting, fast and furious and could be quite a dangerous stage. With the yellow jersey on the line, it will be pretty intense. It’s a bit disappointing there isn’t a prologue but there’s still opportunities for us in this stage and the team time trial tomorrow.
Sunday 3 July
Les Essarts – Les Essarts
Team Time Trial
An Astana team featuring Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong bossed the last tour de France team time trial in 2009, but in last year’s Vuelta and May’s Giro d’Italia, it was HTC-Highroad that took the honours. There’s added incentive to do well today – depending on what happened on Stage 1, the strongest team here could well put a man in yellow.
Thought for the Day: this will be the sixth Grand Tour team time trial Mark Cavendish has ridden with HTC-Highroad in its various guises – and they’ve won three of the previous five.
Geraint Thomas's view: We’ve got a strong team, it’s obviously one of our big targets for the Tour. It’s a big test for all the teams, you’d expect the likes of HTC, Rabobank and Leopard Trek to go well but we’re definitely in there with a shout.
Monday 4 July
Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon
This stage skirts the Atlantic coast and with his compatriots on the opposite side of the ocean celebrating Independence Day, Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar will be one of those looking to contest what is almost certain to be a bunch sprint. We say ‘almost’ because if the wind is blowing, it could cause chaos with echelons forming and gaps in the peloton.
Thought for the Day: Remember Mark Cavendish’s win at La Grande Motte two years ago? Expect anyone wanting to fight for the stage win to try and keep near the front and out of trouble and look for the chance to take advantage of changes in wind direction.
Geraint Thomas's view: Everyone will be aware of the danger of the wind, but it looks like being a bunch sprint if nothing dramatic happens during the stage. There’s a lot of sprinters here, and they’ll all be motivated. Cav’s obviously going well and I think he’ll be the one to beat.
Tuesday 5 July
Lorient – Mûr de Bretagne
Today promises to provide one of the real spectacles of the 2011 Tour, both in visual and racing terms with a long, straight drag up the climb nicknamed the Alpe d’Huez of Brittany. What it lacks in length and hairpins, it makes up for with a punishing 2km climb to the line. It’s the first time a stage has finished here, but it has featured previously, including in 1947 when that year’s champion Jean Robic rode up it on his way to victory in a 139km time trial.
Thought for the Day: World Number 1 Philippe Gilbert took his first national champion’s jersey win at the weekend, and the brutal finish could have been gift-wrapped for the Classics specialist – appropriately enough, given it’s his birthday today.
Geraint Thomas's view: It’s similar to the first stage, so again you’re looking at people like Vinokourov or Gilbert, or even Damiano Cunego. Similar to last year with the Liege and pave stages, they’ve made the opening week a bit different to how it usually is to mix it up and make for some more exciting racing. And from a racer’s point of view it’s something more to think about.
Wednesday 6 July
Carhaix – Cap Frehel
In theory, today should result in a bunch finish, but there are traps for the unwary including a bumpy profile that could sap some legs ahead of the finish, plus the fact that the final 70km are ridden along the rugged Breton coast, meaning that once again the contenders will need to be vigilant about the peloton splitting if the wind gets up.
Thought for the Day: Brittany is one of French cycling’s heartlands in Bernard Hinault produced one of the country’s all-time greats. France may still be waiting for a successor to the Badger, but riders such as Europcar’s Perrig Quemeneur may get licence to go on the attack as Le Tour heads through their home region.
Geraint Thomas's view: The closer the crosswinds are to the finish, the more dangerous it is if the wind is up, so there could be an opportunity for a team that wants to get stuck in and give it a go to split the peloton up. But otherwise it should be a bunch sprint.
Thursday 7 July
Dinan – Lisieux
Today the race heads from Brittany into Normandy, passing the Mont St-Michel on the way. That’s not the only religious tie-in with today’s parcours – the stage, the longest of this year’s race, finishes near the basilica in Lisieux, home to St Teresa’s relics, after Lourdes the second most visited pilgrimage site in France. A kick up towards the finish 1.5km out may split the peloton ahead of the finish.
Thought for the Day: Three categorised climbs during today’s itinerary could see a fight develop over who gets to sport the polka dot jersey ahead of that competition beginning in earnest next week.
Geraint Thomas’s view: Despite the climb towards the end, I still wouldn’t rule out Cav on a stage like this – there were a few last year where he got over a climb towards the end to contest the sprint, for instance the stage Vinokourov won. He’ll be there or thereabouts, and Edvald Boasson Hagen will be getting stuck in there as well.
Le Mans – Chateauroux
Friday 8 July
With the bumpy terrain of Brittany and Normandy behind them, today’s stage profile is the flattest of the 2011 Tour and even one third into the race the sprinters are beginning to run out of opportunities. As a result, this won’t be a day when a breakaway is allowed to stick.
Thought for the Day: Chateauroux is where Mark Cavendish got his first Tour de France stage win back in 2008. If he hasn’t already opened his account in this year’s race, he’ll be one of the favourites to make it stage win number 16 today.
Geraint Thomas’s view: There’ll be attacks from the start but they won’t be allowed to get away and the sprinters’ teams will want to control things ahead of the bunch finish involving the usual suspects, especially with the race heading towards the mountains.
Aigurande – Super-Besse Sancy
Saturday 9 July
The race heads into the Massif Central for the first mountains of the 2011 Tour, and has the same start and finish towns as the stage on the 2008 Tour won by Riccardo Riccò, though the Italian was stripped of that victory which was awarded instead to the runner-up, Alejandro Valverde. Later in that year’s race, as it detoured into Italy, the Spaniard would give the blood sample that would eventually lead to his being banned.
Thought for the Day: With a cloud still hanging over defending champion Alberto Contador ahead of his appeal hearing, the last thing the Tour needs is another doping scandal. But the 2008 stage provides a pointer to how today may well pan out, with an attacking rider from a select group including the GC favourites taking the win, perhaps one without aspirations to a podium place.
Geraint Thomas’s view: A breakaway could fancy their chances on a day like today so there will be a lot of racing right from the start, one of those days when it could take a good hour or two for one to get away but once it does, it could stick to the end. It does depend who’s in the yellow jersey, but I can’t see the main GC guys being too worried.
Issoire – Saint Flour
Sunday 10 July
While the first of this year’s two Etapes du Tour is taking place today on the route of Stage 19, today shows those with a place on the second mass participation ride, taking place later in the month, what they’re up against. None of the climbs gets above Category 2 – but there are seven in all to be negotiated.
Thought for the Day: The last time Issoire hosted a stage finish in 2004, the winner was Richard Virenque, dropping fellow escapee Axel Merckx and winning by five minutes. The peloton’s serial escapees may likewise fancy a crack today.
Geraint Thomas’s view: This looks like it might well follow the same pattern as the day before with a break getting away and depending who’s in it, the GC guys not being particularly bothered about chasing it down, so it could well stay away.
Monday 11 July
Aurillac – Carmaux
Tuesday 12 July
Today’s stage in the Cevennes could see the race come back together for a bunch sprint after the riders negotiate a Category 4 climb some 15km out, but equally the three categorised climbs that precede that could make it an afternoon when a break manages to stick all the way to the finish.
Thought for the Day: Yesterday’s rest day will have given teams that haven’t shone during the first week and which don’t have aspirations of the GC an opportunity to reassess their priorities and tactics, and some will want to get valuable airtime for their sponsors by putting men into a break today.
Geraint Thomas’s view: Whether the peloton’s together going over the last climb or if there’s a breakaway out in front, I think there will be attacks on the last climb, perhaps if there’s a team who think one of their sprinters can get over it and Cavendish can’t. So Garmin working for Hushovd perhaps, to look to get rid of some of the other sprinters ahead of the finish.
Blaye-les-Mines – Lavaur
Wednesday 13 July
Again, this is a stage where the big sprinters’ teams will keep a close eye on any attacks, with only two more prospects for a bunch finish remaining in the race in Montpellier on Stage 14 and on the final day on the Champs-Elysees. Belgium’s Rik Verbrugghe won the only previous stage to have finished in Lavaur in 2001.
Thought for the Day: It should be a bunch finish but with an up-and-down parcours, as yesterday, strong attackers may go all out for a breakaway win. That includes those French riders ill-equipped to deal with a mountainous Bastille Day stage tomorrow and who may fancy celebrating the Fete Nationale by getting their picture on the front page of L’Equipe.
Geraint Thomas’s view: Again, this could follow the pattern of the last couple of days, and if a strong break gets away it could be hard to pull them back. It will depend how the sprinters are feeling, some of them may be tired, but they’re running out of chances for a stage win so have every incentive to chase the break.
Thursday 14 July
Bastille Day means fireworks from the French riders to go with those in the evening, while the Pyrenees means there will also be plenty of orange-clad Basque fans providing a party atmosphere on the Tourmalet as well as on the way to the summit finish. With the GC battle beginning in earnest today, it’s difficult to see a French rider prevailing, although it certainly won’t be for the lack of trying.
Thought for the Day: Today’s stage passes the site of one of the Tour’s most memorable incidents in recent history when yellow jersey Lance Armstrong wrapped his handlebars around a spectator’s musette in 2003, going on to win the stage, and the overall, after Jan Ullrich decided to wait. Today’s stage won’t decide the 2011 Tour – but any kind of mishap could scupper the hopes of one or more GC contenders.
Geraint Thomas’s view: Obviously with the Basque fans out in force Euskaltel will be up for it and the French too because it’s 14th July. But it’s the first big mountain stage too so the GC guys will be going for it as well, and I can see one of those winning it unless a breakaway climber such as Voeckler or someone from Euskaltel manages to keep away.
Pau – Lourdes
Friday 15 July
There’s only one climb today, but since that’s the Aubisque, it’s not one to be taken lightly. That’s crested some 50km from the stage finish in Lourdes, twice a stage town in the past, and the likelihood is that the GC contenders will mark each other tightly, although Samuel Sanchez may well look to use his descending skills to pick up a bit of time over his rivals.
Thought for the Day: It may be a day late, but today could be the day for a French rider to go all the way to victory, so look for the likes of Thomas Voeckler and Pierrig Fedrigo to look to emulate their successes in last year’s race.
Geraint Thomas’s view: I don’t think the GC guys will go full gas on the way down to the finish, so it could be a pretty straightforward stage for them. It seems like a day when there’s a pretty good chance of a breakaway stage.
Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille
Saturday 16 July
The third day in the Pyrenees, and the toughest of them. The Col de Port d’Aspet comes early on, meaning there will be attacks from the outset, and there’s plenty more opportunities ahead on some of the Pyrenees’ lesser-known climbs followed by a Hors-Categorie summit finish. This could prove to be one of the most gripping days of racing in the 2011 Tour.
Thought for the Day: The three previous occasions that there’s been a stage finish here, the winner – Marco Pantani in 1998, Lance Armstrong in 2002 and Alberto Contador in 2007 – has gone on to clinch the overall title. With the Alps still to come, that may not be the case today, but it’s a stage for the big guns nevertheless.
Geraint Thomas’s view: It’s very up and down and will be a long, hard, hot mountain stage. The GC guys will be going for it on that final climb and it will be a big fight all the way to the top. The stages before will have given a good indicator of who’s going well but there will be a few time gaps by the end of today.
Limoux – Montpellier
Sunday 17 July
Blanquette de Limoux is a sparkling wine that pre-dates Champagne, but this town on the banks of the River Aude hosts the Tour de France for the very first time as the riders put the Pyrenees behind them. After today, there is only one more chance for a bunch finish, on the final day in Paris, so it looks almost certain to come down to the sprinters in Montpellier.
Thought for the Day: While a bunch finish is pretty much a given, the heat could well play a part today, particularly for those teams that have a man capable of delivering a win in a bunch finish but who also have a rider high up the GC – they may well be disinclined to put in energy chasing down a break, which could in turn give rise to a slim chance of one staying away.
Geraint Thomas’s view: There will be a breakaway but this is the last chance of a sprint finish before Paris so I’m sure Cav will be geeing up his troops for today and we’ll see the sprinters fight it out.
Monday 18 July
Saint Paul Trois Chateaux – Gap
Tuesday 19 July
Into the final week of the race, and the 2011 Tour heads into the Alps. It’s more or less steady climbing all the way through to the day’s only categorised climb, the Col de Manse, before the race sweeps down into Gap, 20 times a stage host town.
Thought for the Day: Today’s climb isn’t the biggest in the Alps, and with the GC having taken shape in the Pyrenees, the overall contenders are likely to keep a watchful eye on one another today, making it a stage where an attack is likely to get away and stay away.
Geraint Thomas’s view: It’s after a rest day, which affects people in different ways. You can clog up a little bit, get back on the bike the next day and feel a bit lethargic, take a bit more water than usual. So I think a few guys will be suffering there, it will probably be a tough start with a breakaway likely, a day for an opportunist.
Gap – Pinerolo
Wednesday 20 July
The Tour de France heads into Italy today as it helps its transalpine neighbour celebrate its 150th birthday, and there’s an added significance in the fact that Gap and Pinerolo are twinned with one another. In terms of the GC, any moves are likely to come on the final, short climb of the Cote de Pramartino ahead of the descent into Pinerolo, although with two tough Alpine stages ahead it could be a day for a breakaway.
Thought for the Day: With the Tour making a diversion into Italy, it’s a chance for that country’s riders to get themselves into the spotlight and if the likes of Ivan Basso or Damiano Cunego aren’t seen as a threat in the overall standings, they could well be allowed to go.
Geraint Thomas’s view: We rode this stage on our training camp and I think it will be a good day for Edvald, that type of rider, or Thor Hushovd if he’s within reach of the green jersey and perhaps needs to gain a few points on Cav if he’s up there. The last climb’s not too hard, but the descent’s the tricky bit, it’s quite technical, narrow and pretty twisty. So for a breakaway, the winning move could be on the descent, but if it comes back together after Sestriere, someone like Edvald or Hushovd, that type of rider, could be in with a shout. A lot could happen today.
Pinerolo – Galibier Saint Chevalier
Thursday 21 July
Last year’s race was all about celebrating the centenary of the Tour first tackling the Pyrenees, and this time it’s the turn of the Alps to be commemorated and in particular the Galibier, which features twice in the 2011 Tour. Today’s summit finish is the highest ever in the Tour, and before that there are two other Hors-Categorie climbs to be tackled, the Col Agnel and the Izoard.
Thought for the Day: Even if nothing much has happened in GC terms in the past two days, that will change this afternoon on a tough stage for tough men. If any escapees made it to the bottom of the final climb, they’re likely to be swept up by the GC group, which moreover will almost certainly be missing a name or two from the morning’s top ten.
Geraint Thomas’s view: We rode this one too and the Izoard is obviously a tough climb. The GC guys will be okay, but if there’s a team that’s strong they could potentially do some damage up there and isolate a few people if they need to. The Galibier too is such a tough climb with the altitude too, some people cope with it better than others. It will definitely test everyone.
Modane Valfrejus – Alpe d’Huez
Friday 22 July
The shortest road stage of this year’s Tour, but any stage that finishes on the Alpe d’Huez is going to provide something special, with the Telegraphe also featuring early on ahead of the second ascent of the Galibier this year. The Alpe d’Huez seldom disappoints, and of course the winner has the added bonus of achieving immortality by seeing their name given to one of the fabled climb’s hairpin bends. The short parcours could see some of those in the autobus struggle to make the time limit.
Thought for the Day: With an individual time trial looming tomorrow, the identity of the GC riders who look to attack today to gain time, or who are content to defend their positions, may well depend on their confidence in their abilities in that discipline.
Geraint Thomas’s view: The fans will be looking forward to this stage, but not all the riders will especially with the time limit, it will be a tough day, particularly with it being so short. But at the front, it will all come down to the Alpe d’Huez, and it’s quite a long descent from the Galibier down to the bottom of it. It’s like the cup final, especially with it being the last Friday before the finish, it’s the last chance for the pure climbers to get any advantage, or for the better time triallers like Cadel Evans or Alexander Vinokourov to get something ahead of tomorrow. I’m sure it will be fireworks up there.
Grenoble – Grenoble (Individual Time Trial)
Saturday 23 July
The last-chance saloon for anyone looking to pick up seconds over their rivals in the GC, but for time trial specialists not targeting a GC place, this will be the date they circled in red when the route was first announced last autumn. The course suits strong riders and includes a tricky descent down into Grenoble plus plenty of street furniture to keep the contenders on their toes.
Thought for the Day: This year’s Criterium du Dauphine provides an up-to-date form guide to the stage, having been raced over exactly the same course. Some big GC names and against-the-clock specialists were missing, but it’s worth looking back at the results to see who went well.
Geraint Thomas’s view: We rode this course in the Dauphine and while it’s definitely good to know it, it’s even better to race over it, much more so than training over it. It will give Bradley Wiggins a bit of an advantage over the rest, it’s quite technical as well so he’ll know how to ride it and could get time over people like the Schlecks. It depends how your legs are on the day, it’s a tough circuit. It should be an interesting one, but I can’t see many people beating Cancellara, unlike the GC guys he’ll have been able to take it fairly easy the last couple of days.
Creteil – Paris Champs-Elysees
Sunday 24 July
The Champs-Elysees has hosted the finish of the Tour de France every year since 1975, and only in 1975 and 1976 has it been shorter than today’s 95km parcours. You know the drill – Champagne, photo ops and high jinks for the jersey wearers ahead of the peloton sweeping past the golden statue of Joan of Arc onto the Rue de Rivoli for nine fast and furious laps ahead of what will almost certainly be a bunch sprint.
Thought for the Day: Last year, Mark Cavendish became the first man to win the Champs-Elysees stage two years running, and this time round he can become the most successful rider ever at pro cycling’s most famous stage finish - Djamolidine Abdoujaparov is the only other rider to have won twice here.
Geraint Thomas’s view: For all the fun today, it’s still a race and you give it one last big hit, for instance last year Edvald Boasson Hagen was up for it. It’s a challenging circuit as well, that drag up to the U-bend after the finish, the wind can be difficult and the cobbles can take their toll especially after three weeks of racing. What you don’t want is rain, with the cobbles, oil in the middle of the road and all the manhole covers. Obviously it’s a day for the sprinters and Cav has shown what he can do here the past couple of years.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.