The 2011 Tour starts on the west coast of France in Vendee, spending the first (flat) week in the Brittany/Normandy region. The counter-clockwise route heads south to the Massif Central and the first real test with stage 8, a summit finish at the ski station at Super-Besse Sancy. This probably isn't a long enough or steep enough climb to sort out the contenders, but some race favorites may be struggling to stay in the lead group.
While the next day's stage to Saint-Flour contains five medium-sized climbs, the fireworks won't really begin until stage 12 with the summit finish at Luz-Ardiden. The iconic Col du Tourmalet will be crossed before Luz. Look for a lot of pain, torture and agony along this 130-mile route.
Stage 14 with it's summit finish at Plateau de Beille is another crucial test. This 5000-foot climb will definitely cause a separation among the race leaders.
This is the 100th anniversary of the Tour crossing the passes of the high alps and the race organizers haven't missed the opportunity to celebrate. Stage 17 from Gap to Pinerolo includes the Col de Montgenevre and one of Lance's favorites, Sestrieres. The sting in the tail is the Cote de Pramartino which is only about a 1500-foot ascent, but tops out only 5 miles from the downhill finish.
Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Col du Galibier starts with the massive, 9000-foot climb of the Colle de Agnello. The last 6 miles of this brutal ascent averages 10 percent, but it comes early enough in the stage to probably be a non-factor. Next on the agenda is the legendary Col d'Izoard, first crossed by the Tour in 1911, and still causing lots of grief to this day. The summit finish on the Galibier follows and while the climbing is mostly moderate in grade until the final kilometer, the 17,000+ feet of total altitude gain makes this the queen stage of the Tour.
The next day's stage is relatively short at 70 miles, but don't let that fool you. Both the massive north side of the Col du Galibier and the iconic Alpe d'Huez are included making this another critical stage with 11,000+ feet of total climbing.
The day after Alpe d'Huez is a 25-mile time trial around Grenoble and while the organizers say that there will be a bit of climbing in the route, look for this to be mostly flat meaning that a pure climber needs to have a few seconds in hand if he wants to keep the yellow jersey the next day when the race reaches Paris.
This is going to be a tough Tour and one that looks, at least on paper, to suit a rider like Andy Schleck. Will there be anyone who can step up their game to challenge the Luxembourger?
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. Find the latest news, rumors and more on his Active Expert blog. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Europe.