LEEDS, England – So your national team is out of the World Cup in Brazil, Wimbledon doesn’t seem the same without Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal and your baseball team is slumping.
This weekend, fans of many stripes could join die-hard cycling buffs and tune in to the start of the 101st Tour de France for that much needed sports fix.
Cycling’s big event gets going today through bucolic countryside in northern England, where officials have paid for the right to host it, hoping to draw tourists, capture media attention and feed the recent cycling craze among Britons.
It could first require getting over a nagging belief that, after Lance Armstrong’s doping exposure, the sport may still be dogged by drugs cheats. Cycling chiefs and experts generally agree that the era of widespread doping is over, but few would claim to know that today’s pack is fully clean. Drugs testers will conduct hundreds of blood and urine checks during the race.
Bookmakers’ odds foresee a victory either by defending champion Chris Froome, a 29-year-old Kenyan-born Briton who leads Team Sky, or two-time champ Alberto Contador – a 31-year-old Spaniard with Tinkoff-Saxo Bank – to take home the yellow jersey when the race finishes on Paris’ Champs-Elysees on July 26.
Few of the 198 riders on the 22 teams stand a realistic chance of winning, based on recent performances, skill sets and team priorities. Most are “domestiques” who race above all to help their team leaders win. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, plus Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez, stand an outside chance.
Conceding home-road advantage, Contador said Friday that “local hero” Froome remains the favorite. The Briton, who succeeded Sky teammate and compatriot Bradley Wiggins as Tour winner, said: “I don’t think many Tour champions get to come back as defending champions and can start in front of their home crowd.”
Five of the 21 stages end in summit finishes, which usually promise drama as the cream of the climbers rises to the top first. In all, the riders will cover 2,277 miles of roads in England, France, Belgium and Spain.
Aside from cobblestone treachery in Stage 5, the mountains mostly matter this year. For the first time in 61 years, this Tour has only one long time trial – a race-against-the-clock, where racers set off one-by-one down a starter’s ramp. It comes in Stage 20. Contador and Froome are among the best in both climbing and time-trialing.
This year marks the second time that the Tour de France is starting in Britain, after a successful time in London in 2007.