As expected the Vendée on the west coast of France was today announced as the starting point for the 2011 Tour de France and the 98th edition of the race should get off to a cracking start. There's no prologue this year instead the racing starts from the get go with a reasonably flat 180Km stage starting at the Passage du Gols finishing with a sharpish climb up to the summit of the Mont des Alouettes at 232m - a pimple compared to what's to come but a nasty first day kicker none the less.
And the race organisers will continue to shake things up the next day with a 23Km team time trial starting and finishing at Les Essarts.
The opening ceremony takes place in Fromentine on the coast followed by a parade by the riders around the Ille de Normoutier followed by a crossing of the Passage de Gols (one of the iconic images from the 1999 Tour) and then off across the roads of the Vendee with 3471Km ahead of them to the finish in Paris.
Before the race reaches Paris the riders will have climbed the Galibier twice in 24 hours one of which on Stage 18 will be a stage finish, at 2645m the highest in the Tour's history that comes after after 189Km in the mountains. There will be three other mountain top finishes as well on next year's race including the small matter of Alpe D'Huez on stage 19, oh and that's followed up by a 41Km individual time trial on stage 20. Nice.
If all goes to plan those should be the three most crucial stages in the race for yellow, Andy Schleck though was refusing to be drawn talking to road.cc's Simon MacMichael at the presentation. Schleck reckons this Tour looks winnable, and the ways things look to be going for last year's winner, Alberto Contador, young Andy will be the nailed on favourite to win come next July. However, when asked to identify the cruicial days his response was "every day is crucial at the Tour" how true, even rest days.
Ivan Basso was talking up his chances to road.cc too "It's definitely a lovely course this Tour de France, one that's suited to my characteristics, lots of time trialling and some climbing so I'm really pleased." Basso wouldn't be drawn though on who he saw as his main rivals "the Tour is always a battle between the strongest in the world"… there're no flies on Ivan are there? He was though more forthcoming when it came to how Liquigas who this year won the Giro and the Vuelta would prioritise the race: "It's definitely a goal for the squad, we won the Giro and the Vuelta so the Tour de France is definitly important for us."
Meanwhile Bradley Wiggins was focussing on the team time trial telling Sky News:
"That stage is definitely the main source of excitement for us given our track background and experience we've built up in those types of events this season.
“It's going to be a really important day for us in terms of our team selection and preparation.
"There's obviously more chance of losing time on that opening stage than there would be in a prologue, but if all goes well there then stage two represents a great chance for us to win the stage and get someone in the yellow jersey."
Cynics will no doubt argue that while winning the team time trial is undoubtedly a good thing it's hardly a springboard to a podium finish in Paris and perhaps betrays a paucity of ambition on the British team's part. We're not the cynical types though so don't look at us.
Mountains and the race for the general classification aside there's also the small matter of the green jersey competition and the 10 flat stages that will go most of the way to deciding it. Speaking to road.cc at the presentation Mark Cavendish said he's already targeted six of those as winnable, no surprise either to know that he also has his eyes on the green jersey and the world championship for next year too.
We're guessing that he's discounted that first stage what with the uphill kick on the first stage, although it would also be no surprise to see a bunch finish on that one - one for Thor Hushovd maybe? Certainly the big man is aiming to take a stage in the first week as he told Simon earlier, the whole dynamic of how the Garmin Cervelo sprint train will work should be fascinating with Hushovd there for the green jersey but Tyler Farrar the teams pure sprinter, conceivably it could work well for both of them.
Certainly the competition for the green jersey is going to be even tighter than the last two edition of the race - that would seem to be the idea of the changes to the points competition for next year's race. Each stage will only have one intermediate sprint and points on that will be awarded to the first 15 riders, the idea being "to systematically involve the sprinters in the pack, even after the passage of a breakaway" says the Tour. That should be good news for the likes of Mark Cavendish because it means that breaks won't mop up all the points on the road - thus wiping out most of the points on offer to the sprinters on the stage and making the minor placings on a stage worth fighting for in the sprint.
Similar changes have also taken place in the way points are awarded in the mountain classification too, from next year double points will only be awarded for those mountain top finishes on Hors, first and second category climbs - the idea again being to keep the competition closer but also, we presume, to make it a truer reflection of all out climbing ability.
2011 Tour de France route facts
• 10 flat stages,
• 6 mountain stages and 4 summit finishes,
• 1 individual time-trial stage (41 km).
• 1 team time-trial stage (23 km).
• 2 rest days,
• le Galibier climbed twice,
• 23 level 2, 1 or highest level mountain passes or summit finishes,
• no bonuses will be awarded during the intermediate sprints and stage finishes.
Where the race for yellow will be won (and lost) - stages 18–20
Normally you can look at the Tour route and immediately see where the race is likely to be decided, and this year the organisers have helpfully lumped all those key stages into a hellish triple-header in the final week, which will sort out the podium from the also-rans. Here's how it'll pan out...
Stage 18 - Pinerolo to Galibier, 189km
Starting in Italy, the riders get a brief flat introduction before kicking into the ascent to the highest point on the 2011 tour. From an altitude of 426m they ascend 2.3 vertical kilometres in 60km to top out at 2,744m on the Col D'Agnel, which is also the border with France. A sharp descent is followed by the Col D'Izoard (980m in 18.5km, 5.3%) and after coming off the second huge climb of the day it's time to hit the final ascent up to a mountain-top finish on the Galibier, at 2,645m. That's three enormous hills to tackle and no chance of clawing any time back on a final descent.
Stage 19 - Modane to L'Alpe D'Huez, 109km
Such a short stage but such an important one: from Modane the peloton has to tackle the Galibier again, this time from the other side via the Col du Telegraphe. There's a huge descent into Bourg D'Oisans before the ascent of the Alpe D'Huez, 24km of pain and the second mountain-top stage finish in as many days. Who's going to have the legs to be up in the mix for two stages in a row?
Stage 20 - Grenoble to Grenoble, ITT, 41km
There's no let-up in the last-week pain as the Saturday brings an individual time trial around the alpine city of Grenoble. And it won't be flat, either: there's two climbs on the loop, up to Eybens and the bottom of the climb to the ski station at Chamrousse. The route hasn't officially been unveiled but there's really only one sensible loop that takes in those two spots, and it features 500m of climbing which means it's more of an all-rounder's course than one for a true TTer.
Keep checking back for updates...
1 - Passage du Gois La Barre-de-Monts > Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers
2 - Les Essarts > Les Essarts
3 - Olonne-sur-Mer > Redon
4 - Lorient > Mûr-de-Bretagne
5 - Carhaix > Cap Fréhel
6 - Dinan > Lisieux
7 - Le Mans > Châteauroux
8 - Aigurande > Super-Besse Sancy
9 - Issoire > Saint-Flour
10 - Aurillac > Carmaux
11 - Blaye-les-Mines > Lavaur
12 - Cugnaux > Luz-Ardiden
13 - Pau > Lourdes
14 - Saint-Gaudens > Plateau de Beille
15 - Limoux > Montpellier
16 - Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux > Gap
17 - Gap > Pinerolo
18 - Pinerolo > Galibier Serre-Chevalier
19 - Modane > Alpe-d’Huez
20 - Grenoble > Grenoble
21 - Créteil > Paris Champs-Élysées
Dave is a founding father of road.cc, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.