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2011 Tour de France stage descriptions, analysis and maps

Analyzing and rating all 21 stages

Last year’s Tour de France was headlined by a mountaintop finish on the Col du the Tourmalet (won by Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck over Spain’s Alberto Contador) to mark the centennial of the Tour’s first crossing of the Pyrénées. This year’s race, starting on Saturday, celebrates 100 years of racing through the High Alps, culminating with a stage to the top of the Col du Galibier — which, at 8,678 feet (2,645 meters) elevation, will be the highest stage finish in Tour history.

The Galibier

That stage comes three days from the finish of the 98th Tour, which covers 3,443km (2,108 miles) over 23 days in July. The three stages in the Alps, along with the penultimate day’s individual time trial at Grenoble, will decide who wins this year’s Tour, but in a race that is often won by mere seconds the race can be lost on any of the 21 daily stages.

So here’s a detailed look at all the stages with the scoop on what to look for each day and my rating of each day’s importance to the overall, or general classification (GC) contenders. A one-star rating indicates the least influence on the race for the leader’s yellow jersey, while five stars is given to stages that have the very highest importance.

This Tour’s Grand Départ (the “Great Start”) is in the rural Vendée region of western France. As when the race started here in 1993 and 1999, the teams will be presented to the public on Thursday evening (June 30) prior to a spectacular nighttime sound-and-light show at the lakeside medieval castle of Le Puy du Fou. But the true fireworks begin two days later when the opening stage gets underway besides the gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The 198 riders (22 teams of nine riders each) mount their bikes at the fishing port of Fromentine before heading off on a processional ride of 13.5km across the island of Noirmoutier and the Passage du Gois (pronounced “gwah”), the infamous 4.5km-long paved causeway that’s flooded at high tide. They will stop at the causeway’s eastern exit where, at the lowest point in the Vendée, the Tour’s starting ceremonies will be held. A band will play the Marseillaise and a VIP will cut the tricolor ribbon stretched in front of the peloton before they roll away behind the race director’s red Skoda sedan. Then, 2km later, he’ll wave the official starting flag to get the 2011 Tour de France underway, almost an hour after leaving Fromentine.

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