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.

“B-cycles” comes to Boulder: grassroots bike share program ideal way for visitors to explore

As a former resident of Boulder, Colorado (If you regularly read my posts, you may have the impression that I’ve lived everywhere. You are correct.), I can attest to this lovely college town’s biking obsession. Boulder has more than 300 miles of dedicated bikeways, and there are almost as many bikes as cars.

One of the reasons Boulder is so bike-friendly–besides its firm stance on reducing carbon emissions–is that the terrain is ideal for every kind of wheeled pursuit. There are tree-lined urban paths; flat; hard-core mountain trails, and lots of rural roadway.

But Boulder isn’t just for hobby cyclists; this year it’s even home for one of the Tour de France teams. Competitive road cycling and mountain biking are much like oxygen in Boulder: essential for existence. Unless you’re me. I’ve always been a cruiser bike kind of gal, and I always will be. And downtown Boulder is just right for that type of low-key peddling.

This is why I was so delighted when, in town on business this past week, I discovered B-cycles. Launched on May 20, this non-profit community bike share program (a growing movement nationwide), is an inexpensive, fun, and active way to get around town if you’re a visitor. There are a number of conveniently located B-stations downtown, so you can just grab-and-go. When you’re done, re-dock at the nearest station and walk away.

Users must buy an initial five dollar membership fee online or at any B-station (kiosks accept debit or credit cards). Then you’re free to peddle off into the sun…shine. There are three types of memberships–24-hour, 7-day, and unlimited. The 24-hour rentals are just five bucks. It’s a lot cheaper and more practical than a bike rental for the casual rider.

%Gallery-126471%These are some sweet bikes, too. Spanking new crimson cruisers, equipped with metal baskets (big enough to fit a 12-pack; Boulder is also home to some of the nation’s top craft breweries).

If you’re a casual rider like me, I highly recommend my personal favorite, the Boulder Creek Bike Path. Its a five-mile meander along gorgeous Boulder Creek (the water levels are raging right now, so you can watch kayakers running the rapids. There are also calmer spots prime for tubing. Don’t forget to pack a picnic (those baskets hold more than just beer, you know); there are loads of creekside tables and rocks just right for a bike break.

P.S. If more serious biking is your thing, Valmont Bike Park–the largest free urban bike park in America–opened June 11 in Boulder. It’s a 40-acre off-road bike park with competition-grade cyclo-cross racing trails, big dirt jumps, dual slalom tracks, pump tracks, and slope-style trails.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Discover France offers Tour de France cycling tours

Cycling fans who have ever wanted to experience the challenge and glory of riding in the Tour de France are in for a real treat this year. Discover France Adventures, a company that specializes in cycling and hiking tours, has announced a host of

itineraries that will put you on the same route as the professional riders, and in some instances, just hours behind those competing in the race itself.

The tours offer two levels of difficult, moderate and challenging. These options allow cyclists of all skill level to enjoy the ride at their own pace. Competitive riders will want to go for the higher level of challenge, while those out to take in the French countryside, while still getting the TdF experience, will want to take on the moderate difficulty level.

Discover France has nine unique Tour de France itineraries available, including the Alpes VIP Tour which puts cyclists on a route between Montpellier and Grenoble that features climbs up Mont Ventoux, Croix de Fer, and the legendary Alpe d’Huez. This tour is scheduled to take place from July 16-23, and will end in time to have the riders in Paris to watch the Tour winner roll down the Champs Elysees in the Yellow Jersey. Details on the moderate version of this tour can be found by clicking here and the challenging version can be found by clicking here.

Similarly , the Pyrenees VIP Tour offers more alpine climbing in a completely different mountain range. This ride also runs from July 16-23 and

features a route that wanders from Clermont Ferrand and ends in Toulouse. One of the highlights of this offering is a ride into Luz Ardiden on Bastille Day and also puts riders in Paris in time for the finish. Sign up for the moderate version of the Pyrenees Tour here and the challenging edition here.

Check out the Discover France website for a number of other Tour de France options, including some for the non-cyclists who simply wish to experience one of the premiere sporting events in the world. There are also plenty of other tours for the adventurous traveler as well, and for those who have already visited France in the past, there are some unique and non-traditional ways to experience the country in a whole new way.

As a cyclist and avid fan of the Tour de France myself, these tours are a dream come true. The thought of making the challenging climb up Alp d’Huez, perhaps the most well known mountain in the history of the race, is an amazing opportunity. Viva le Tour!

Alberto Contador wins 2010 Tour de France

Spanish rider Alberto Contador has claimed his third Tour de France win after securing the victory yesterday in a 32.3 mile long individual time trial that ran across the French countryside from Bordeaux to Pauillac. Despite being pushed to the limit by his rival, Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, Contador extended his lead in the race, winning by 39 seconds. Today, he’ll finish off the 2010 Tour by taking the ceremonial ride into Paris wearing the leader’s Yellow Jersey, while the top sprinters vie for one last stage win on the Champs Elysees.

For the past three weeks, the world’s best cyclists have dueled one another across France, fighting it out most spectacularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees. This year’s route threw some of the toughest climbs ever at the riders, and it was Contador and Schleck who were clearly the two best cyclists in the Peloton. Schleck actually led the race heading into Monday, when the two riders were on the final climb the day. Misfortune hit on the slopes of the Port de Balès, when Schleck dropped a chain and had to stop to make a quick repair. Sensing an opportunity, Contador attacked, gaining more than 30 seconds, and taking the lead in the race for the first time. He never looked back and Schleck was never able to recover.

Today marks the final stage of the race, a 63.6 mile ride from Longjumeau to Paris. Traditionally, the riders don’t attack the Yellow Jersey on the final day, allowing the leader to ride to the finish line in a glorified victory lap. Once there, Contador will take the top of the podium in Yellow, while Schleck will win the White Jersey, which is awarded each year to the Tour’s best young rider under the age of 25. France’s Anthony Charteau has won the Polka Dot Jersey, which goes to the King of the Mountain, the Tour’s best climber, each year. The final jersey to be awarded will be the Green Jersey, which goes to the best sprinter in the race. Sprint points will still be up for grabs on today’s final stage, with three riders in a position to win the title.

In his final ride in the Tour de France, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong finishes in 23rd place, nearly 40 minutes behind Contador.

[Photo credit: Reuters]

Take a cycling tour with Trek Travel

If you’ve been watching the Tour de France this week, you’ve no doubt seen Lance Armstrong and the rest of Team Radioshack riding their beautiful Trek bikes as they’ve rolled across the Netherlands, Belgium, and of course France. Perhaps it has even motivated you to dust off the Huffy and hit the road yourself. But did you know that Trek offers cycling tours to exotic places around the globe? Tours that would put you on one of their amazing bikes, while exploring a country like you never have before.

Trek Travel offers adventurous and active cyclists a host of options to pedal their way across Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These trips have a little something to fit everyone’s needs, including private tours, group excursions, and custom made itineraries. Additionally, the tours can be geared for families, as well as riders of a wide variety of skill levels ranging from beginner up to avid cyclists. Accommodations can be at the luxury level or a simple, no frills option to fit a variety of budgets too.

One of their most popular offerings is the Lance in France Tour which are actually going to be taking place during the Tour, as fans of the sport follow Armstrong and the other riders on two different legs, one in the Alps, and the other a ride from the Pyrenees to Paris. The highlights of those two tours include not only getting to watch the Tour de France, but ride some of the popular stages in the mountains as well.

Of course, it is too late to sign up for either one of those rides, but other cycling tours include the Tuscany Explorer which sends riders on an amazing trip through Italian wine country, and the Yellowstone and Tetons Multisport, which combines cycling and kayaking in one of the most iconic national parks in the U.S. My personal favorite would be the mountain biking tour through South Africa and Zambia.

One of the best parts of these tours is that you can be as active or inactive as you want. You decide how much you want to ride on any given day, and if you’re feeling a little tired (or hung over!) from the night before, you can take it easy on the team bus or at your next lodge, while your companions spend the day in the saddle. You’ll also get to ride some of the best Trek bikes in their catalog. The road tours will put you on a Madone, not unlike what Lance himself rides, while mountain bikers will be treated to a similar level of off road machines.

If you’re looking for a unique and active way to take a trip, perhaps a cycling tour is just what you need. It truly is a perfect way to see the sights while cruising through some of the world’s best landscapes. Check out the Trek Travel catalog for some excellent travel opportunities.

[Photo credit: Trek Tours]