Australian Cadel Evans wins 2011 Tour de France

The 2011 Tour de France came to an end yesterday on the Champs Elyesees in Paris, where Australian Cadel Evans rode to victory in the race’s famed Yellow Jersey. After more than three weeks of racing, Evans emerged from the pack as best rider in this year’s event, and became the first man from Australia to win cycling’s premiere event.

With a course designed to challenge the riders in unique ways on every single day, fans of the Tour expected this year’s race to be an exciting and wide open one. They got everything they wanted and more, as the 2011 Tour de France featured all kinds of dramatics, particularly when the race entered the high mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps. During the three weeks of racing, there were daring breakaways, brilliant individual performances, and cringe-inducing crashes, including a nasty incident with a media car that sent Dutch rider Johnny Hoogerland flying into a barbed wire fence.

Before the race started back on July 2nd, the pre-race favorites included not only Evans, but also defending champ Alberto Contador of Spain and the brothers from Luxembourg, Frank and Andy Schleck. Contador was bogged down with crashes early in the race, injuring a knee in the process. Those mishaps cost him precious time, and despite a spirited attempt in the final days of the Tour, he never quite got into the rhythm that has won him the Yellow Jerseys on three separate occasions in the past.
Heading into Saturday however, Andy and Frank Schleck sat at first and second in the standings respectively. Working together, the two men had managed to claim a small lead over Evans coming out of the final mountain stages. Saturday’s stage was an individual time trial however, which is not a strong point for those two riders, and is a particular strength of Evans. The Aussie rode one of the best rides of the day, and left the two Schlecks in the dust, claiming the victory. The two brothers slid to second and third in the final standings.

As is traditional in the Tour de France, Sunday is mostly a ceremonial ride into Paris. While the Peloton will joust for the final stage win, and the sprint specialists duel for the last available points of the race, no one attacks the Yellow Jersey. As a result, Evans’ ride to the finish line in Paris was essentially a 60 mile long victory lap, one that he particularly enjoyed after two second place finishes in previous Tours.

Cadel’s big win is expected to open the door for more Australian cyclists to leave their mark on the sport, much the way that Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong inspired young American cyclists. Australia already has a proud cycling tradition, but this win will give the sport yet another boost in the country.

Congrats to Evans on the amazing win.

[Photo courtesy of AFP]

The Tour de France begins today!

The world’s greatest cycling event, the Tour de France, gets underway today when the best riders on the planet descend on Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a short 8.9km (5.5 mile) prologue that will help set the early tone to this year’s event. Ahead of the teams sits 20 more grueling stages, spread out over three weeks, that includes six mountain stages, with three summit finishes, one of which ends on the dreaded Tourmalet, a brutal peak in the Pyrenees that will likely decide this year’s winner.

The race properly gets underway tomorrow with a mostly flat first stage over 223.5km (138.8 miles) between Rotterdam and Brussels. This stage is dedicated to the sports greatest rider, Eddy Merckx, who is celebrating his 65th birthday, and he’ll likely be on hand to welcome the cyclists across the finish line. But the peloton shouldn’t take this stage lightly, as the Belgian crosswinds can shred the field and leave the unaware chasing the leaders on the first day.

Typically, the early stages of the Tour belong to the sprinters, who rack up points on the flat routes as they compete for the coveted Green Jersey. But this year, the riders will be put to the test early on, as Stage 2 is a 201km (124.8 miles) affair that goes from Brussels to Spa, with a few minor hills thrown into the mix. While the Tour’s top climbers and over all contenders will barely notice these bumps in the road, the sprinters are likely to drop from contention very early this year.

Stage 3 on Tuesday is no walk in the park either. The 213km (132.3 miles) route will be flat and fast, just as the sprinters like it. But there are nearly 9 miles worth of cobblestones for the riders to maneuver, and the riders hate cobblestones. Lance Armstrong himself has even predicted “carnage” on this stage following a scouting ride a few days back. The rough, and uneven, cobblestones are known for causing crashes, and ending the race early for some of the riders.

This year’s top contenders are pretty much the same as last year’s top finishers. 38-year old Lance Armstrong remains among the best riders in the field, although his time trial form is not what it once was. Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg are both legitimate contenders, with Frank recently winning the Tour de Suisse, a great tune-up race for Le Tour. Australian Cadel Evans has been a perennial contender who has just missed out on winning on several occasions, and he is riding with his strongest team ever. But the man to beat is obviously last year’s champ, Alberto Contador, the best all around rider in the world. But Contador won’t have the powerful team around him that he had in his previous two Tour victories, and it remains to be seen if he can win without them.

The Tour de France is a sporting event like no other, and over the next few weeks, a dramatic spectacle will play out across France, culminating with cycling’s next great champion arriving in Paris, and gliding down the Champs-Elysees in yellow.

Viva Le Tour!