It is the Holy Grail of cycling. The Tour de France. Every cyclist dreams of one day competing in the gruelling test of endurance that dominates the French landscape for 23 days in July.
By the age of 25, even the most doggedly determined cyclist has a pretty clear idea of whether they will ever make it as a professional cyclist. For most, the answer is a resounding no.
When reality bites, these dreams shift to one day experiencing the Tour de France as a spectator and maybe even following it around France.
This year, my time has come. Even though the dreams of glory on the Champs-ÉlysÉes in Paris, where the race traditionally finishes, has long faded, being there when the final victor claims his right to the coveted maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, will become reality.
From the start in Monaco and the waters of the Mediterranean tomorrow through the high peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees all the way to the finish in Paris on 26 July, I will be following the race along with my wife, Tienkie, our bicycles, and a big bag full of camera gear and electronics which will, if all goes according to plan, allow me to report back on what I see and experience.
This year has turned into a dream opportunity, as it sees the return of the greatest champion the race has ever seen, seven time champion Lance Armstrong.
When Armstrong retired after taking his seventh Tour win in 2005, it seemed that we would never see him in action again. However, the legend will stalk the roads of France once more. Whether this will result in an eighth win remains to be seen at 37.
On paper, Armstrong’s Astana team is the strongest in the Tour. With 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador as the designated leader, the team should be unbeatable.
However, this will mean that Armstrong, a born leader, will have to follow. The team also includes former Tour de France podium finishers Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, as well as Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia, who have both claimed top finishes in Grand Tours.
There have already been signs of tension within the team, with rumours doing the rounds that Contador had been shopping for another team when it seemed that the team’s sponsorship might fold.
With so many top cyclists in the team, this may turn out to be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. If internal tensions are indeed present in the team and are allowed to influence the racing, it could leave the door open for another contender to the throne.
Two time runner up Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) could certainly be a contender, as could 2009 Tour of Italy winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank). Defending Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervelo Test Team) cannot be counted out either, even though he is not longer with the team that supported him in the 2008 race.
His departure from Team Saxo Bank leaves the door open for some of their younger stars like the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy.
However, in a race that encompasses 21 stages, there are many other factors that can influence the final outcome. Crashes and illness take their toll on the peloton and one bad day in the mountains can ruin three weeks of hard work.
This year also sees the introduction of what could be a decisive mountain stage on the penultimate day of the Tour as the peloton ascends the mythical Mont Ventoux.
It is a mountain on which Armstrong has never won. Whether this will inspire him to write yet another chapter in the legend of the mountain remains to be seen.
One thing though is certain – the 2009 Tour de France promises to be one of the best in many years and I will be there to experience the thrill of the world’s biggest annual sporting event.
- For pictures and updates from the race, visit www.caycompass.com