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Tour de France

2009 Tour will reward consistency, team strength

What’s most clear from Wednesday’s announcement of the 2009 Tour de France is that the winner will have to maintain top form from the very first day in Monaco on July 4 to the finish in Paris on July 26.

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Should Lance Armstrong start next year’s Tour he’ll find a course that suits his strengths

By John Wilcockson

Garmin expects to come to the Tour's TTT loaded for bear.

Garmin expects to come to the Tour’s TTT loaded for bear.

Photo: Graham Watson

What’s most clear from Wednesday’s announcement of the 2009 Tour de France is that the winner will have to maintain top form from the very first day in Monaco on July 4 to the finish in Paris on July 26.

The first week is probably the toughest ever, while the summit finish on Mont Ventoux the day before the finish in Paris could see the most dramatic eleventh-hour battle for the yellow jersey in Tour history. The need for race-long consistency is emphasized by the inclusion of a highly technical team time trial on the fourth day, with actual times counting on individual GC, and a challenging individual time trial two days before the Ventoux showdown.

The 3435km route of the 96th Tour certainly favors a rider on a power-pack team, not only because of the return of the team time trial but also because the three early mountain stages in the Pyrénées will reduce the number of GC contenders to just a handful by the end of the first week. Race director Christian Prudhomme said at the splashy presentation in Paris that he was pleased with the atypical opening — in which only three of the first nine stages favor the sprinters — but there’s a danger that the much earlier challenges will make for a long stalemate before the unprecedented finale.

96TH TOUR DE FRANCE, JULY 4-26, 2009

July 4: Stage 1, Monaco TT (15km)
Hilly time trial

July 5: Stage 2, Monaco—Brignoles (182km)
Hilly stage through Provence with flat finish

July 6: Stage 3, Marseille—La Grande Motte (196km)
Flat stage across the Camargue to flat finish on the Mediterranean coast

July 7: Stage 4, Montpellier TTT (38km)
Rolling, technical team time trial on city streets with short hills in wine country

July 8: Stage 5, Le Cap d’Agde—Perpignan (197km)
Flat to rolling stage with flat finish along the Mediterranean coast

July 9: Stage 6, Girona—Barcelona (Spain) (175km)
Hilly stage along the Costa Brava with an uphill finish in Montjuich Park

July 10: Stage 7, Barcelona—Arcalis (Andorra) (224km)
Mountain stage via Port d’Oliana with summit finish at Arcalis in the Pyrénées

July 11: Stage 8, Andorra-la-Vella—St. Girons (176km)
Mountain stage via Port d”Envalira, Col de Port and Col d’Agnès with flat finish

July 12: Stage 9, St. Gaudens—Tarbes (160km)
Mountain stage via Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet with flat finish

July 13: Rest day in Limoges

July 14: Stage 10, Limoges—Issoudun (193km)
Rolling to flat stage through French heartland with flat finish

July 15: Stage 11, Vatan—St. Fargeau (192km)
Rolling stage across Loire Valley with flat finish

July 16: Stage 12, Tonnerre—Vittel (200km)
Rolling stage through Burgundy and Champagne regions with flat finish

July 17: Stage 13, Vittel—Colmar (200km)
Mountain stage in Vosges via Col de la Schlucht, Col de Platzerwasel and Col du Firstplan

July 18: Stage 14, Colmar—Besançon (199km)
Rolling stage

July 19: Stage 15, Pontarlier—Verbier (Switzerland) (207km)
Mountain stage through Jura and Switzerland via Col des Mosses to summit finish at Verbier

July 20: Rest day


July 21: Stage 16, Martigny— Bourg St. Maurice (160km)
Mountain stage via Grand St. Bernard and Petit St. Bernard passes through Italy to flat finish

July 22: Stage 17, Bourg St. Maurice —Le Grand Bornand (169km)
Mountain stage via Cormet de Roselend, Col des Saisies, Côte d’Arèches, Col de Romme and Col de la Colombière to uphill finish after final descent

July 23: Stage 18, Annecy TT (40km)
Hilly time trial counterclockwise around Lake Annecy

July 24: Stage 19, Bourgoin-Jallieu—Aubenas (195km)
Rolling stage across Lyonnais region to flat finish on edge of Massif Central

July 25: Stage 20, Montélimar—Mont Ventoux (167km)
Rolling stage through alpine foothills with summit finish on Mont Ventoux

July 26: Stage 21, Montereau-Fault-Yonne—Paris (160km)
Flat stage to traditional circuit finish on Champs-Élysées

Total distance: 3.435km

Start along Mediterranean coast
The only other Tour that has started in the Cöte d’Azur (“the Blue Coast”) was in 1981, when the first week included a short prologue TT in Nice, two team time trials, a mountaintop finish at Pla d’Adet in the Pyrénées and a second individual TT. By the end of those seven days, Frenchman Bernard Hinault was already in the overall lead, with only one man still in contention, Australian Phil Anderson, riding his first Tour, who was 13 seconds back. The rest of the competition was almost five minutes behind. Anderson did his best to challenge Hinault but the French legend gradually added to his advantage for the remaining two weeks and won that 1981 Tour by almost 15 minutes over the eventual runner-up, Lucien Van Impe of Belgium.

It’s possible that a similar scenario will be repeated 28 years later, but the Tour is much more competitive nowadays, with 20 teams instead of 15, and many riders who target the Tour as their main season goal. What’s likely is that the difficult 15km TT in Monaco will already create a hierarchy — perhaps dominated by the Astana hot team’s time trialists Lance Armstrong (he’ll be very much race fit after riding the Giro d’Italia should he decide to start the Tour), Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alberto Contador.

Not since the unbelievably strong La Vie Claire team of two decades ago has there been a Tour team as potent as Astana. American fans will remember that when Greg LeMond took his first Tour victory in 1986, his La Vie Claire teammates Hinault, Andy Hampsten and Niki Rüttimann all finished top 10 — respectively second, fourth and seventh. It’s possible that the acrimonious battle for the yellow jersey between teammates LeMond and Hinault could be repeated n 2009, should Armstrong, Contador and Leipheimer all arrive at the Tour in top shape.

Of the other likely GC contenders, two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), two-time Vuelta a España winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) are the only ones likely to challenge the Astana armada. Vande Velde and the Astana team riders should add to their overall advantage in the 38km stage 3 TTT at Montpellier — where Menchov will likely lose ground, as will defending champion Carlos Sastre (whose upstart Cervélo team is unlikely to be ready for the challenge of a Tour TTT). In contrast, the promising Andy Schleck could regain some time with a strong TTT performance by his Saxo Bank squad, with the help of two-time world TT champ Fabian Cancellara.

The TTT is sandwiched between two sprinters’ stages along the Mediterranean coast before a two-day incursion into Spain. The Americans will feel right at home on stage 6, which starts in the Garmin team’s European base of Girona, while Astana’s Leipheimer also lives here in the summer and Armstrong raced out of Girona through 2005 prior to his retirement. This stage along Catalonia’s Costa Brava will end with a 1.7km climb in Barcelona’s Montjuich Park — where Belgian Claude Criquielion won the 1984 world pro championship.

Into the Pyrénées
With no time bonuses at the 2009 Tour, don’t expect Contador to try for a stage win on Barcelona’s uphill finish in front of his home fans; he will wait 24 hours before launching his bid to repeat his 2006 Tour triumph. The stage 7 summit finish in Andorra is the familiar climb to the ski station of Arcalis — where Germany’s Jan Ullrich scored a solo stage win and took the yellow jersey at the 1997 Tour. Arcalis, which is a regular stop at the Vuelta and Tour of Catalonia, is not a particular hard climb. Its effect will be further minimalized by being the stage’s only major difficulty at the end of a marathon day. This is the longest stage of the Tour and it could well take the field more than six hours to complete the 224km route through the Pyrenean foothills.

The Tour’s first mountaintop finish always springs surprises, especially on one so early in the race, and it will be instructive to see which men come out on top. Although Armstrong’s participation depends on how he shapes up in earlier races, he should have no trouble in staying with the best climbers at Arcalis — assuming he emerges from the Giro with competitive form. And, predicated on a likely Astana victory in the stage 4 TTT, it’s very possible that the seven-time Tour champ and teammates Contador and Leipheimer will stand atop the GC standings by the end of this first week. But they and the rest of the field will be looking to see how challengers like Evans, Menchov, Sastre, Schleck and Vande Velde perform on this first summit finish.

There are two more stages in the Pyrénées, but they will likely consolidate, rather than shake up, the overall standings. Most of the climbers will remain together over the scenic Col d’Agnès, the third and last climb of stage 8, because the stage finish at St. Girons is 43km away from the summit. Similarly, the climb over the mighty Col du Tourmalet the next day is too far from the finish in Tarbes (70km) to encourage aggressive riding from the main contenders.

The route for the 2009 Tour de France will present some interesting challenges.

The route for the 2009 Tour de France will present some interesting challenges.

Photo:

Transition stages
While the riders will fly by charter jet from Tarbes to their rest day in Limoges, the remainder of the race entourage will be driving 450km north, through Toulouse and across the undulations of the Massif Central. Following the day off, the Tour resumes with four transition stages, heading northeast across the French heartland, through the Burgundy and the Champagne regions to the Vosges mountains in Alsace.

The first of these stages, into Issoudun, St. Fargeau and Vittel give the sprinters three more chances to cop a stage win,, but they are stages the race leader’s team might have a hard time controlling, especially if the sprinters’ teams are unwilling to chase down breakaways. Working hard at the front of the peloton day after day is an exhausting task that can get to the strongest of team riders — and should Armstrong, Contador and Leipheimer all be well placed at this point in the Tour that would mean only six teammates riding support every day. Even when Armstrong had all of his eight men riding for him during his seventh Tour victory three years ago they faltered at times.

The best (or worst) example of that came on stage 8 to Gérardmer when Armstrong was left alone in a large front group when all of his teammates were dropped on the climb to the Col de la Schlucht. Ironically, this is the first climb of stage 13, albeit from the opposite direction. The Schlucht is the first of three moderate, rarely used climbs on a stage that is unlikely to produce major changes in the rakings. There follows one more transition stage, to the city of Besançon, which should end in a field sprint prior to the first stage into the Alps.

The demanding final week
Stage 15 sees the second of the Tour’s summit finishes, though the well-engineered Swiss road climbing to the ski resort of Verbier is not steep enough or long enough to create major time differences. It may well produce a stage win for Contador, but even the world’s best current climber will be hard-pressed to gain more than a few seconds. The Spaniard, if the Astana team’s internal dynamics are settled by then, may have to wait until Mont Ventoux to make a true strike for overall victory.

But after the Verbier rest day there are three other crucial stages that could again change the strategies of the leading players. Stage 16 climbs the very long Great and Little St. Bernard passes, which are likely to produce a small group finish in the valley town of Bourg St. Maurice. Stage 17 is by far the toughest of all the mountain stages, featuring five major climbs, including the new-to-the-Tour Col de Romme, which directly precedes the most difficult section of the Col de la Colombière — last used in the 2007 Tour — before the finish in Le Grand Bornand.

If the standings are still close, then the stage 18 time trial at Annecy will set the framework for the final podium even before the Ventoux two days later. Whomever is in yellow — whether it’s Contador, Leipheimer or Armstrong — will expect to have the full backing of his teammates. But this being the Tour de France, making prognostications is probably a cycling journalist’s most hazardous, and often most embarrassing, task.

So I’ll leave you this much safer prediction: The 2009 Tour will be full of shocks, surprises and dramatic stages. But I wouldn’t bet against Armstrong producing the most sensational result of his life.

(John Wilcockson will report the Tour for the 41st time in 2009.)

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