The 2011 Tour de France kicks off Saturday and, though the quest for the general classification wins is widely regarded as a two horse race between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, everything else is wide open. And all it would take to open up that two horse race is a bad day, a crash or an untimely mechanical on the part of Contador or Schleck. The team time trial on Sunday could provide some separation for riders like Radio Shack's Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer and generate a situation in which Contador and Schleck have some early motivation to take back some time, though both will likely be content to wait on high mountain stages to reach for the yellow jersey. It will also be interesting to see how veterans like Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden stack. At the very least, I expect Vino's attacking style to liven up a few stages.
Stage wins. The team is going for stage wins. When you hear that from a Johann Bruyneel, you know that he has lost his star and doesn't feel like he has real chance for overall victory in the Tour de France. As an American cycling fan, that's how I feel going into this year's Tour. Do I really care if Alberto wins or if Andy Schleck can get past second place? No, not really. While the U.S. continues to produce some really great young riders, and veterans like Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde promise to make some noise, the retirement of Lance Armstrong left us without a hero. Even if you were a Lance-hater, there was a certain smug all-American satisfaction when Big Tex was kicking some Euro ass year after year on the big stage of the Tour de France. Most of us doubted his chances for a come-back, but there was hope in those early days when he was close.
Maybe some fresh face like Teejay Van Garderen or Andrew Talansky will step up. Let's hope that one of these guys or Levi, Horner or Vande Velde can stay close for a couple of weeks to keep things interesting and that the Tour isn't reduced to the Andy and Alberto show too early. That's not to say that this won't be a very exciting three weeks of racing, but I'm looking for the next American hero.
In spite of the fact that the absence of Lance Armstrong means a reduced American audience, it looks like media coverage will be better than ever. Comcast has rolled up NBC Sports Group, Versus, and Universal Sports to provide a wide range of programming that promises start-to-finish access to a wide range of media.