The 2011 Tour de France begins today!

One of the biggest sporting events in the world begins today when the 2011 Tour de France gets underway in the Vendée region of western France. Over the course of the next three weeks, the best cyclists in the world will pedal through beautiful towns and villages, past sun flower-filled fields, and most importantly up the Pyrenees and the Alps, to determine who will eventually ride into Paris wearing the champion’s Yellow Jersey.

The pre-race favorites are without a doubt defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, who has finished second to Contador the past two years. Other contenders include Australian Cadel Evans, who led the race last year until he crashed, fracturing an elbow in the process. Samuel Sanchez, also from Spain, finished fourth in 2010 and has been boldly predicting a higher place finish this year, while Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck has proven he can ride with the likes of Contador and Schleck as well.

The physical challenges of the race are quite staggering. The riders face a route that is more than 2130 miles in length, spread out over 21 stages. Of those, ten are flat and designed for the sprinters to strut their stuff, while the climbers will have their turn on three medium mountain and six high mountain stages, four of which have a summit finish. There will also be an individual time trial and a team time trial thrown in for good measure, along with two rest days.

As usual, the 2011 Tour will most likely be won or lost in the mountains, and this year’s course features the famed Alpe-d’Huez, which has been missing from the route the past two years. That all important summit finish comes in Stage 19, two days before the ride into Paris, and will probably determine who stands atop the podium on the Champs Élysées.

On an annual basis, the Tour is one of the most watched events in the world. There will be more than 2000 journalists on hand to cover the race and it is broadcast in 188 countries across the globe. Additionally, an estimated 12-15 million fans will line the stages of the race, cheering their favorite riders on to the finish line.