The potential heirs to defending yellow jersey champion Alberto Contador were given sufficient warning on Tuesday: the 2011 Tour de France will be won almost exclusively in the high mountains.
In an hour-long presentation detailing the 21 stages of the 98th edition, Contador, currently provisionally suspended after a sample taken during the 2010 Tour tested positive for trace amounts of the banned substance clenbuterol, was conspicuous by his absence.
But his rivals won’t be basing their preparations for the July epic on whether he takes part or not.
If Contador is absent in 2011, Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, a two-time runner-up who was second by only 39secs in 2010, will start as the main favorite, with Italian Ivan Basso close behind in the betting stakes. Basso returned from a two-year ban last year and, claiming he is racing 100 percent clean, went on to win this year’s Giro d’Italia crown for a second time.
Like Schleck, Basso was delighted by the profusion of climbs — six stages including four summit finishes — and just a smattering of time trials. The 2011 edition will have no prologue, a team time trial of only 23km on stage 2 and a relatively short time trial of 41km on the penultimate stage.
“It’s a very, very nice course for me, especially with so many climbs and not so many time trials. I’m really happy,” Basso told AFP.
“It’s a great course,” added Andy Schleck, who will have older brother Frank on hand and extra-motivated after a crash on the cobbles of northern France ended his campaign early this July.
After a first week in which an eclectic mix of sprint and breakaway stages will bring the race to life, the peloton heads directly south towards the volcano-rich region of the Massif Central.
The undulating terrain is perfect for bike racing, and a potential hazard for anyone looking not to lose too much time to key rivals.
“Obviously the organizers want to shake the race up a bit. These first 10 days will be cagey, and I think it’s the right approach to take,” said Francaise des Jeux manager Marc Madiot.
“The yellow jersey will be swapping owners several times.”
The Pyrenees are up next, and the scenic mountain range bordering France and Spain has, despite coming before the Alps this year, been given a starring role on stages 12-14.
Stage 12 heads over the Hourquette d’Anzican climb, then the Col du Tourmalet before finishing on the summit of Luz-Ardiden, the scene of a famous Lance Armstrong victory in 2003 after the American crashed and brought down Spaniard Iban Mayo following a tangle with a spectator’s bag.
The next day the peloton rides over the Col d’Aubisque, then the Col du Soulor, before a welcome descent towards sanctuary at Lourdes.
A total of five climbs feature on stage 14, where potential winners will be looking for a strong finish: it has been the finish line four times in the race, and each time the stage winner has gone on to triumph.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, in 1861, the Italian town of Pinerolo will host the finish of stage 17 from Gap, with the climb over Sestrieres the day’s main difficulty.
The best, however, has been kept till last. Stages 18 and 19 both finish on a summit, and the legendary Galibier climb — first raced in 1911 — will take center stage.
The 18th stage starts in Pinerolo and first takes in the difficult Col d’Agnel (23.7km) and the Col d’Izoard (14.7km) before the 23km climb to the Galibier at Serre-Chevalier.
The following day, the peloton will climb the Col du Telegraphe (11.9km), and negotiate the 16.7km ascension from the other side of the Galibier before riding to the foot of Alpe d’Huez’s 14km and 21 hairpin bends.
Even before the 41km time trial that could, like 2010, decide the yellow jersey, Contador’s heirs-in-waiting have been warned that a little bit of altitude training might not go amiss.
“You can’t forget the high altitude, that will make it interesting,” said Garmin-Transitions manager Jonathan Vaughters.
“Some guys, when you get them over 2000 meters … you can be a good climber but not everyone reacts the same (at altitude).”