My sporting month: July 2011

There is no major football tournament this summer – with all due respect, the European under-21s, under-17s World Cup and Women’s World Cup aren’t close to being on the same scale – but July is nonetheless an action-packed sporting month, with much of the major action taking place here in the UK.

For me, most of the month will be taken up watching 200 men in skin-tight suits with really bad tan-lines pedalling through scenic countryside. Which means, of course, that I kick off my monthly preview of sporting highlights with …

1. Tour de France (2nd-24th)

The world’s biggest cycling race starts its 98th edition tomorrow (Saturday), with a course that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first visit to the Alps. The race will climb the mighty Col du Galibier twice, setting a new record for the highest ever finish in the Tour’s history in the process.

Can Alberto Contador – who is racing pending the outcome of a doping appeal – add a fourth Tour victory to his Giro d’Italia win in May? Or will Andy Schleck, second to the Spaniard in each of the last two years, finally climb the top step of the podium? British interest will be fuelled by sprinter Mark Cavendish – winner of 15 stages in the past three years – and Bradley Wiggins, who claimed victory at the prestigious pre-Tour Critérium du Dauphiné. Cavendish will be eyeing his first sprinters’ green jersey, while Wiggins will be in hot pursuit of Contador and Schleck as they chase the yellow jersey for overall victory.

For Tour de France previews, stage recaps and analysis, click here.

2. Wimbledon finals (2nd & 3rd)

The past fortnight has given us some wonderful tennis and massive upsets, not least the departure of world number one Caroline Wozniacki, defending champion Serena Williams and her sister (and five-time champion) Venus all on the same afternoon. But as soon as it has arrived it is almost over, and the championships draw to a close with what will hopefully be a memorable set of finals on what is forecast to be a hot, sunny weekend.

In the women’s final tomorrow (Saturday), Czech eighth seed Petra Kvitová, a semi-finalist last year, will participate in her first Grand Slam final after beating Victoria Azarenka. She will take on Maria Sharapova, the 2004 champion, who will be seeking her fourth Grand Slam title, but her first since the Australian Open in 2008.

It’s anyone’s game in the men’s draw, which sees the semi-finals take place today. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, conqueror of Roger Federer, takes on Novak Djokovic, to be followed by Andy Murray against defending champion Rafael Nadal. Each has played some scintillating tennis during the tournament – Djokovic’s match against Marcos Baghdatis last Saturday being one which particularly sticks in the memory – and, whoever wins, it promises a final of the highest quality. And for the rest of the month, expect tennis courts up and down the country to be full to overflowing.

3. British Grand Prix (10th)

If anyone is to mount a serious challenge to Sebastian Vettel‘s apparently serene defence of the Formula 1 drivers’ title, it will have to start at the British Grand Prix. Jenson Button and Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber are both 77 points – more than three race wins – behind, with Lewis Hamilton the only other driver with more than half the German’s current tally of 186 points.

The Red Bull drivers have won the last two races at Silverstone, with Webber coming out on top last year, while Hamilton won in 2008. Button, however, has never finished higher than fourth here. The high-speed nature of the track and the new rule changes – the DRS moveable rear wing and faster-wearing tyres – should ensure some close and spectacular racing no matter what.

4. The Open (14th-17th)

Royal St George’s hosts the world’s oldest golf championship for the first time since 2003 when Ben Curtis lifted the old Claret Jug, with hopes high for a first European victory in three years. European golf is currently in the ascendancy after Rory McIlroy’s astonishing eight-shot triumph at the US Open last month, and with Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, McIlroy and Martin Kaymer occupying the top four spots in the world rankings.

Last year, the unheralded South African Louis Oosthuizen dominated the field at St Andrews, winning by seven shots despite having missed the cut at all but one of his previous attempts at the majors. Since then, he has continued his form, winning the Africa Open in January and tying for ninth at the US Open. Can he repeat last year’s miracle, or will the Americans finally break a winless streak at the majors dating back to Phil Mickelson’s victory at the 2010 Masters?

5. England vs India, First Test (21st-25th)

The recent 1-0 series win over Sri Lanka consolidated England‘s third place in the ICC test rankings, and they will have the opportunity to progress further with a good result against India in the first of a four-test series at Lord‘s. Not only would a series win against easily the top-ranked side in the world be a real statement of intent, it will also give England the chance to overhaul South Africa and claim second spot ahead of their tough winter tours against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Alastair Cook and Ian Bell have each scored two centuries already this summer, while Chris Tremlett and Graeme Swann have been in fine form with the ball. England will need to be at their best to defeat India, but this improving side is as good an England team as we have seen for many years.


Tour de France preview: Six key stages

Continuing my preview of the Tour de France, here are my thoughts on the six stages which are likely to generate the greatest degree of excitement, with the Mûr-de-Bretagne and the individual time trial book-ending the four key mountain-top finishes. Other stages will also materially affect the overall standings, but if you are only going to watch six stages these are the ones to go for.

Stage 4: Lorient to Mûr-de-Bretagne, 172.5km

Categorised climbs:

  • Km 79: Côte de Laz (237m) – 1.6km, 5.9 % average, Category 4
  • Km 172.5: Mûr-de-Bretagne (293m) – 2.0km, 6.9 % average, Category 3

There are only two categorised climbs, but there is barely a flat section worth the name all day, and in addition to the usual day-long breakaway a nervy peloton can expect to have to deal with a number of speculative attacks on the run-in to the final climb of the Mûr-de-Bretagne – known as the ‘Breton Alpe d’Huez’. This is a sharp 2km ascent with constantly varying gradients which will require the winner to exercise patience and a keen sense of timing. Attack too soon and you will run out of steam before the finish; leave it too late and you risk being swamped by the charging pack.

It is a finish straight out of the Ardennes classics handbook, which makes it squarely Philippe Gilbert territory. Expect Omega Pharma-Lotto teammate Jurgen van den Broeck to lead the way, and for everybody else to follow Gilbert’s wheel. Whether they are able to live with his inevitable attack is another matter entirely. Coincidentally, it is also the Belgian’s 29th birthday – and his present for winning might just be the yellow jersey.

Stage 12: Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden, 211km

Categorised climbs:

  • Km 141.5: Hourquette d’Ancizan (1,538m) – 9.9km, 7.5 % average, Category 1
  • Km 175.5: Col du Tourmalet (2,115m) – 17.1km, 7.3 % average, Category HC
  • Km 211: Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – 13.3km, 7.4 % average, Category HC

Nearly two weeks into the race, we enter the high mountains of the Pyrenees for the first of this year’s four summit finishes which will shape the general classification. The first-category Hourquette d’Ancizan is an off-shoot of the more familiar Col d’Aspin, leading straight into the Tourmalet – the final hors catégorie climb of 2010 and the first of 2011 – scene of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck’s climactic tête-à-tête last year. The descent from the Tourmalet takes the riders straight to the final climb of Luz-Ardiden, which will see the first true selection of the GC contenders. It has not been used at the Tour since 2003, when Lance Armstrong was famously felled by the handles of a spectator’s bag and got up to win the stage, changing the momentum of a race which seemed to be swinging Jan Ullrich’s way.

It is also Bastille Day, so expect a wave of breakaway attempts from French riders, all hoping that the big guns will be too busy watching each other to mount a serious pursuit. This could be a day for the likes of David Moncoutié or John Gadret to claim a famous victory on a day which is difficult but not the most savage this year’s race has to offer.

Stage 14: Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille, 168.5km

Categorised climbs:

  • Km 26.5: Col de Portet-d’Aspet (1,069m) – 4.3km, 9.7 % average, Category 2
  • Km 62.5: Col de la Core (1,395m) – 14.1km, 5.7 % average, Category 1
  • Km 94: Col de Latrape (1,110m) – 5.6km, 7.2 % average, Category 2
  • Km 109: Col d’Agnes (1,570m) – 10.0km, 8.2 % average, Category 1
  • Km 118: Port de Lers (1,517m) – 3.8km, 5.5 % average, Category 3
  • Km 168.5: Plateau de Beille (1,780m) – 15.8km, 7.9 % average, Category HC

The last day in the Pyrenees carries a significant historic significance: the summit of Plateau de Beille has hosted a stage finish four times before, and on each occasion the winner – Marco Pantani in 1998, Armstrong in 2002 and 2004, Contador in 2007 – has gone on to claim the Tour. There is little respite from start to finish, with the road heading straight to the slopes of the Portet-d’Aspet, site of Fabio Casartelli’s fatal crash in 1995. A breakaway will undoubtedly escape here on the first climb, but expect a constant concertina effect of counter-attacks and chases all the way over the five back-to-back mountains which lead to the final climb. By the end of this stage, the number of genuine yellow jersey contenders will most likely number no more than three.

Stage 18: Pinerolo to Galibier-Serre Chevalier, 200.5km

Categorised climbs:

  • Km 107: Col Agnel (2,744m) – 23.7km, 6.5 % average, Category HC
  • Km 145.5: Col d’Izoard (2,360m) – 14.1km, 7.3 % average, Category HC
  • Km 200.5: Col du Galibier (2,645m) – 22.8km, 4.9 % average, Category HC

After three transition stages – one flat and two mountainous stages of only moderate difficulty – the peloton tackles an Alpine double-header of the utmost difficulty. The first instalment of this two-parter sees the race take on three hors catégorie summits of over 2,300 metres. First the riders must negotiate the highest point of this year’s race – the Col Agnel at 2,744m – as a prelude to the Izoard (the shortest but steepest of the day’s three climbs) and then the highest summit finish of any of the Tour’s 98 editions, a previously unused road to the finish atop the Galibier.

This final climb is actually two-in-one – the relatively gentle Col du Lautaret leads into the final 8.5km ascent of the Galibier, which averages 6.9% but exceeds 12% at the summit. The most damaging attacks will probably not occur until the final couple of kilometres, but could result in some large time gaps as riders crack under the pressure and accumulated fatigue of a long day of climbing. This is a day for the true contenders to make their mark.

Stage 19: Modane Valfréjus to Alpe-d’Huez, 109.5km

Categorised climbs:

  • Km 26.5: Col du Télégraphe (1,566m) – 11.9km climb to 7.1 %, Category 1
  • Km 48.5: Col du Galibier (2,556m) – 16.7km climb to 6.8 %, Category HC
  • Km 109.5: Alpe d’Huez (1,850m) – 13.8km climb to 7.9 %, Category HC

Nearly 100km shorter than the previous day’s stage, but no less challenging. This one will be all action from the word go, with a fast and furious descent pitching the peloton straight into a second ascent of the Galibier, this time from the marginally less steep north side via the Col du Télégraphe. A helter-skelter descent will then ensue as the favourites set off in pursuit of the inevitable breakaway before tackling the iconic 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez.

Many famous names have won here – Armstrong, Hinault, Coppi, Pantani – and many other, equally legendary names have not, such as Merckx, Anquetil, Indurain and Contador. Of this year’s starters only Fränk Schleck (in 2006) has won a stage at the Alpe. The Tour may well be won and lost here.

Stage 20: Grenoble, 42.5km individual time trial

This is the same course used for the individual time trial at the Dauphiné at the start of June. On a partially wet day, Tony Martin edged out Bradley Wiggins to take the win – and the German is likely to be the biggest threat to Fabian Cancellara here. The parcours here requires a little bit of everything: power, climbing ability, and a combination of descending skills and bike handling on the return run down to Grenoble, which features a series of difficult, tight corners at the start of the descent.

Large chunks of time can be won or lost on this stage. Although exacerbated by the wet conditions, two minutes separated first from tenth on this course at the Dauphiné, with several contenders losing closer to four minutes. If the yellow jersey is leading by a minute or less, it will make for a day of high tension – particularly if there is any rain – and we may well see some significant changes in the top ten. The overall leader at the end of the day will be crowned champion in Paris the following afternoon.

Tomorrow, I will conclude my preview with a closer look at Saturday’s opening stage. For an overview of all 21 stages, have a look at the official ‘fly-over’ video preview below:

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Stage 1 preview

Links: Tour de France official

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