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 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.