This is it. The big one. La Grande Boucle. The race that all professional cyclists dream of winning and maybe, just maybe, this might be the year that a British rider stands on the podium in Paris at the end of July wearing the maillot jaune for the very first time. Bradley Wiggins of the British Sky Procycling starts as pre-race favourite, following his strong performance in the recent Critérium Du Dauphiné. His preparation throughout the Spring has been perfect, with wins in both the Paris-Nice and Tour de Romandie stage races preceding his victory in the Dauphiné.
Wiggins has a strong team around him (seven of the nine man Sky squad rode the Dauphiné at Wiggins' side) and it will take a monumental effort by the defending champion, Cadel Evans of Australia, and his BMC team mates to see of the challenge from the British team.
Sean Yates, Team Director at Sky, contends that Wiggins is peaking perfectly for the Tour, but Evans performed well in the Dauphiné and he proved last year that he can pace himself to perfection over the arduous three weeks of the race. Andy Schleck, who many saw as another potential winner (though the amount of time trialing was always going to put him at a disadvantage), is out of the Tour de France after suffering an injury after crashing in the Dauphiné.
Running from Saturday June 30th to Sunday July 22th 2012, the 99th Tour de France will be made up of 1 prologue and 20 stages and will cover a total distance of 2173 miles (3497 km). It begins in the heart of the Belgian city of Liège and the 3.8 mile (6.1 km) prologue is a short circuit around the city centre and is identical to the one where the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara triumphed in 2004.
The breakdown of the subsequent 20 stages are as follows:
9 flat stages, so plenty of opportunity for Mark Cavendish to add to his tally of 20 Tour de France stage victories.
4 medium mountain stages - one with a summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles (Stage 7),
5 mountain stages - two with a summit finish, the first Toussuire - Les Sybelles (Stage 11) and Peyragudes (stage 17).
2 individual time trials: Stage 9 (26 miles/41.5km) and the penultimate Stage 19 (33 miles/53.5 km)
There will be two rest days, on Tuesday 10th and Tuesday 17th July.
The cyclists will have to tackle no fewer than 25 category climbs (two more than the 2011 edition of the race). As ever the climbs will include some of the most iconic passes in cycling, though the most famous of them all, Alpe d'Huez, will not feature this year. The good news is that the Tourmalet, the Col d'Aspin, the Col d'Aubisque and the Col de Peyresourde in the Pyrenees are included and in the Alps, the Col de la Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer and the mighty Col du Grand Columbier are featured, the latter for the very first time in the race.
It should, as they say in France, be magnifique!
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