With his background as a radio and television commentator, Christian Prudhomme has always been aware that the public seeks spectacle in sports. So when he took over the directorship of the Tour de France in 2005 he had a vision of what would make the race more interesting to the fans while respecting the event’s great history.
But Prudhomme’s dreams quickly turned to a nightmare when the first race he planned without the influence of previous race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, the 2006 Tour, ended with winner Floyd Landis being disqualified for a positive dope test.
Prudhomme hoped for a better outcome in 2007 with a race that had some impressive elements, starting with the enormously successful prologue in London and including three days in the Alps and another three in the Pyrénées. It was a challenging course that eventually gave rise to the closest podium in Tour history: 1. Contador; 2. Evans, at 23 seconds; 3. Leipheimer, at 31 seconds.
But on the way to that dramatic ending, the Tour was dismantled by doping scandals — including the blood-doping exclusion of Alexander Vinokourov and the withdrawal of his Team Astana, and the day-after-day rumors about race leader Michael Rasmussen having cheated the pre-Tour anti-doping testers, until he was sent home by his Rabobank team four days before the finish.
The doping disasters continued in 2008, when the winners of the first two mountain stages, Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli (along with their Saunier-Duval team) were thrown out of the race for testing positive with EPO-CERA. Matters were made worse when similar positives were announced post-race for third-place finisher and KOM champion Bernhard Kohl and double time-trial winner Stefan Schumacher.
The repeated scandals added fuel to the continuing debate that athletes are tempted to dope because the Tour route is too tough; there was (and is) even talk of adding a third rest day to aid in riders’ recovery. That debate definitely influenced Prudhomme’s decision on his presenting “easier” Tour courses in 2009 and 2010 — when no positive anti-doping tests would affect the race.
As for the after-the-fact “abnormal analytical finding” that defending champ Alberto Contador is now facing, that was not revealed until the 2011 Tour route was already in place. So the course that Prudhomme announced to the world on Tuesday in Paris is probably the first one that incorporates all the spectacular features he dreamed of seeing when he took the race director’s job five years ago.
Bold course, big innovations
There’s no doubt, especially if the clean-cycling movement continues to grow, that next year’s Tour de France will produce one of the most visually stimulating and athletically exciting races in the event’s 108-year history.
Prudhomme, who’ll be 50 next month, has delivered the boldest course of his tenure, notably in terms of the number of stages favorable to the pure climbers. “We really wanted as many mountain stages in the Pyrénées as in the Alps,” he said Tuesday. “That is to say, three stages in each, with two iconic finishes at altitude in both (mountain ranges). We want the suspense to remain until the very end but also have the possibility of a big battle well before that.”
Not since 2002, when there were five mountaintop finishes (at La Mongie, Plateau de Beille, Mont Ventoux, Les Deux-Alpes and La Plagne), have there been so many stages ending uphill. Next year, besides the Pyrenean finishes at Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille and the Alpine monsters of the Col du Galibier (on its 100th anniversary as a Tour climb) and L’Alpe d’Huez, the 98th Tour also includes two hilltop finishes in the first half of the race: at Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 4 and Super-Besse on stage 8.
A well as more innovative courses, Prudhomme and his organizing team at ASO have decided to make the ancillary competitions more competitive.
The points competition for the green jersey has been revamped by stepping up the points available on the early flat stages. Rather than three intermediary sprints with minimal points that are almost always taken by unimportant breakaways, 2011 will see just one big sprint mid-stage with major points for the top 15 (including 20 points for the first man across the line), while 45 points will go to the stage winner. This will make the sprinters’ teams work harder to get their men the maximum possible points at the intermediate sprint while rewarding stage winners like Mark Cavendish with a greater proportion of the available points at the finish.
As for the King of the Mountains competition, fewer riders will receive points over the tops of the various climbs, while double points will be scored only at the four mountaintop finishers rather than on every final climb of a stage when that climb is Cat. 2 or beyond.
“We are going towards simplification,” Prudhomme said. “The goal is to give these competitions more strength, and more suspense.”
Challenging opening half
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The Tour starts on the Atlantic coast of western France with a neutralized ride across the island of Noirmoutier to the infamous Passage du Gois (pronounced “gwah”), the 4.5km-long paved causeway that’s flooded at high tide, where the ceremonial flag will drop for the real start of stage 1.
Don’t expect the splits and crashes that happened here in 1999, when the Gois was mid-stage, because the racing won’t truly get underway until the peloton reaches the other side of the bay. At the end of the day the sprinters will likely contest first place, but a solo rider might get away on the uphill finish (3km at 3.6-percent grade) to the Mont des Alouettes (”Mount of the Larks”), at 761 feet (232 meters) above sea level, not far from the highest point in the Vendée region.
Stage 2 is a flat 23km team time trial on a straightforward, triangular course at the small town of Les Essarts. Riding fast in strong winds will be each team’s goal, with the short distance designed to keep the time gaps in reasonable proportions and ensure that the first week’s GC is not locked up by the TTT-winning formation.
Commenting on the TTT, AG2R-La Mondiale’s Irish team leader Nicolas Roche said Tuesday, “We’ll have to really prepare for the team time trial. Otherwise, we could lose between 90 seconds and two minutes.”
The 2011 TTT is not as long or as onerous as the one in 2009 at Montpellier, but powerful squads like Garmin-Cervélo, HTC-High Road and Liquigas-Cannondale (and their respective leaders) could well gain a minute or so on the less-organized formations.
The 2011 Tour will head north from the Vendée region, leaving the seaside town of Olonne-sur-Mer for a 198km stage on July 4 that will parallel the Atlantic coast to cross the Loire River estuary on the impressively high St. Nazaire Bridge before heading into Brittany to a flat finale exposed to crosswinds into Redon. One for the sprinters.
Prudhomme was hoping to have the next stage finish at Châteaulin, one of the high temples of Breton cycling, where elite-level races have been held on its hilly circuit since 1889. That didn’t happen but other hills of Finistère will be climbed between Lorient and Mûr-de-Bretagne, where the 172km stage 4 will finish atop the town’s famous hill, dubbed Brittany’s L’Alpe d’Huez, which has two 15-percent pitches in its 1.6km, 8.6-percent slope.
The next three days will be more suited to the sprinters. Stage 5 ends near Cap Fréhel, a scenic, windswept headland on the northern coast of Brittany, where Bjarne Riis’s CSC team tried to split the race apart in crosswinds on the stage to St. Brieuc in 2004. Stage 6 is the longest of the 2011 Tour, heading east from Dinan along the Channel coast past Mont-St-Michel and across the rolling hills of Normandy to finish in Lisieux — though a short, steep hill 1.5km from the line might cause a surprise. And stage 7 will head south from Le Mans to a flat finish in Châteauroux, where Cavendish won his very first Tour stage in 2008.
And, as in 2008, next year’s Tour will head into the hills of the Massif Central, first with an almost identical stage from Aigurande to Super-Besse — the summit finish where Riccò (later disqualified for doping) sprinted home ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans. One difference is that instead of including the fairly mild Croix Morand climb 20km from the end, the 2011 peloton will face the narrow, more selective Col de la Croix Robert — which could split the race before the long, straight uphill finish to this 190km stage.
The next day’s stage between Issoudun and St. Flour will be similar to the semi-mountainous one of 2004 that crossed a slew of long climbs, including the Puy-Mary, when KOM winner Richard Virenque finished solo in medieval St. Flour five minutes ahead of a much-reduced peloton. The big difference is that the major climbs will be closer to the finish, notably the Col du Perthus (4.4km at 8 percent) right after the Puy Mary descent and the Col de Prat de Bouc (8km at 6.2 percent with a much steeper second half) before a rolling run-in to the uphill finish.
After a first rest day, next year’s Tour will continue with another stage that favors breakaways, still in the Massif Central, but on a more rolling than hilly course with a finish in the old coal-mining town of Carmaux. The next day’s stage is of a similar nature, taking in a 168km loop through the rolling countryside east and south of Albi to a finish in Lavaur — where, in 2001, Belgian Rik Verbrugghe just out-sped Italian Marco Pinotti at the end of a successful break.
Pyrénées bare their teeth
Prudhomme’s attack on the Pyrénées starts July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday, with the 209km stage 12 that has a true sting in its tail: the new-to the Tour climb of Hourquette d’Ancizan (9.9km at 7.6 percent) just south of the traditional Col d’Aspin, the mighty Col du Tourmalet (17.1km at 7.3 percent) and the grinding finish climb to Luz-Ardiden (13.3km at 7.4 percent) where Lance Armstrong made his extraordinary comeback after crashing at its foot in 2003.
The second Pyrenean stage, starting in Pau, has just one climb, the more difficult side of the Col d’Aubisque, so an early break has a distinct chance of making it to Lourdes — where there has been only one previous finish, in 1948, taken in a small group sprint by Italian legend Gino Bartali from two French Tour winners, Jean Robic and Louison Bobet.
There’s less history to stage 14, which will start in St. Gaudens and cross multiple passes — the Portet d’Aspet, La Core, Latrape and Agnes — on its way to the Tour’s second mountaintop finish, at Plateau de Beille (15.8 km at 7.9 percent). There have been only four stages to this remote Nordic ski station and all four have been won by the man who’d go on to win that year’s Tour: Marco Pantani in 1998, Armstrong in 2002 and 2004, and Contador in 2007. Could it again predict the outcome prior to what Prudhomme hopes will be a decisive third week?
Usually, the third Sunday of the Tour is devoted to a major mountain stage or time trial, but next year’s will be a mostly flat run, out of the Pyrénées and across the Mediterranean seaboard to Montpellier. There could be a surprise if the field splits in the expected crosswinds on the final 30km of flats to the finish, but most of the peloton will be wanting an early start on the following day’s official rest day.
Alps provide true climax
The second rest day opens the final week, with a transfer across the steamy South of France before a stage 16 start at the little town of St. Paul-Trois Châteaux. This deceptive, transitional stage has a minor a sting in the tail in the form of a 20km finishing loop over the difficult side of the Col de Manse and taking in the descent from La Rochette used in this year’s stage to Gap.
That stage finale will be a warm-up for three rugged mountain stages. The first of these will cross the Alps into Italy via the Col du Montgenèvre and Sestriere prior to the brutal Colle Pra Martino (several pitches at 16 percent) just before the finish town of Pinerolo. The next stage will be an epic one, heading back into France over the fearsome Col d’Agnel (23.7km at 6.6 percent) to the highest point of this Tour at 9,002 feet (2744 meters) before taking in the legendary Col d’Izoard (14.7km at 7.1 percent) and a historic summit finish on the Galibier. The final climb is from the easier Col du Lautaret side, but it still measures 23km at an average 5.1 percent, with a last 12.5-percent kicker to the line after passing the monument to Tour founder Henri Desgrange.
At 8,677 feet (2,645 meters) elevation, this will be the highest stage finish in Tour history, and this mighty alpine pass will be climbed from the opposite direction the next day prior to the stage finish at L’Alpe d’Huez on a short, but selective 109km stage from Modane.
If those challenging alpine stages don’t settle the destiny of the 2011 Tour then the penultimate day’s time trial, on an extremely hilly 41km circuit at Grenoble, will do the job. A transfer by high-speed train the final morning will take the peloton to Creteil for the start of the traditional stage into the Champs-Élysées — just down the street from where Prudhomme unveiled his bold new route on Tuesday.
Talking about the challenges the sport (and the Tour!) has faced in recent years, Prudhomme said, “We can see clearly that the anti-doping fight in cycling is not cosmetic, it really exists. There is a true willingness. In earlier times, we deplored the sport’s omerta, but I don’t feel that sentiment exists anymore. Things have shifted even if, each year, we take a few blows. We have no wish to give up the fight, we have no wish that the cheaters can win.”
As for the route he has selected for 2011, Prudhomme could have repeated what he said in an interview a few years ago: “Cycling is an extraordinary sport, a legend of a sport and a sport of legends.”
Hopefully, the 98th Tour will join the legendary editions of the world’s greatest bike race, and not the ones that have exposed the darker side of cycling in the more recent past.