By John Wilcockson
Tour de France organizers always try to come up with a course that’s challenging for the riders, but not too challenging; spectacular for the fans, but not ridiculously so; and balanced enough that it falls within the parameters outlined by the UCI. Given the grand-tour restrictions of 21 stages, two rest days and a maximum distance of 3,500km, the course for the 2010 Tour announced in Paris Wednesday has enough high points to keep everyone excited for the duration of the July 3-25 race.
There have been many more difficult Tours in modern times, notably in 1979, when the legendary race directors Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan put the pressure on the riders from the very start. After a short prologue time trial, stage 1 finished in the Pyrénées over two major climbs into Luchon. Next day came a 24km uphill time trial, followed by a mountain stage over three more higher-category passes, and then an 84km team time trial to Bordeaux! At the end of that same opening week 30 years ago came a second team time trial (only 82km!) and a monstrous stage across the cobblestones of northern France to Roubaix.
The defending champion that year was Frenchman Bernard Hinault, who was wearing the yellow jersey going into the Roubaix stage. He flatted just before the first section of pavé and spent 100km leading the chase after a small breakaway group that contained his biggest rivals, Joop Zoetemelk, Didi Thurau and Michel Pollentier. Hinault conceded 3:45 and dropped to second overall behind Zoetemelk — while the 15 riders who finished outside the official time limit were allowed to stay in the race because of the bad luck they had had with crashes and equipment failures.
Interestingly one of those 15 riders was Jean-François Pescheux, who is now the Tour’s competition director and shares course-selection duties with the race organizer and president of ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), Christian Prudhomme. Perhaps their most controversial decision this time around is to include the largest selection of cobblestones in 27 years: Stage 3 next year features seven sections of pavé, totaling 13.2km.
The current defending champion Alberto Contador tried to play down the significance of the cobblestones on Wednesday. “The most important thing will be not to crash,” he said. “I hope it will not rain there.” Contador may not get his wish.
The previous times the Tour has had its prologue in the Netherlands — at Leiden in 1978 and Den Bosch in 1996 — rain was on the agenda. So next year’s prologue in Rotterdam could certainly be affected by bad weather. The conditions were so appalling in ’78 that the prologue times were not included in the GC, while steady rain in ’96 stopped some of the favorites from taking risks on the slick circuit. Worse, heavy rain affected the whole of that year’s opening week, lowering the morale of sun-loving defending champ Miguel Induráin, who faded in the Alps and lost his title to upstart Bjarne Riis.
Even if rain is not a factor in 2010, Contador and the other lightweight climbers will need to be wary of crashes in the opening few days on roads that are more familiar to riders in the spring classics. Contador’s current Astana teammate Chris Horner, who will race for Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack formation next year, told VeloNews he’s not a fan of including these roads in the grand tours — especially after crashing out of the recent Vuelta a España on a stage through Dutch and Belgian territory.
“They should keep those roads for the classics,” Horner said, “especially the cobblestones. They might give their own drama, but fans come to watch the top five, 10 guys doing battle in the mountains. So why potentially eliminate three or four of the best on the cobblestones?”
Early stages for strong men
The absence of the team time trial and a long individual TT won’t make the first week of the 97th Tour de France any easier. It is chock full of difficulties, starting with Rotterdam’s 8km prologue on July 3, continuing with a potentially windswept stage to Brussels and a day in the Ardennes, even before reaching the cobblestones. And though there will be a few stages favoring the sprinters as the Tour heads south through the Champagne and Burgundy regions, the opening week culminates with a difficult climbing stage into the Jura.
Massive crowds and strong winds are virtually guaranteed on the long, flat stage 1, especially on the roads winding across the Dutch polders. There may not be a TTT, but a strong team is essential on all three opening stages.
Columbia-HTC showed at this year’s Tour on the stage to La Grande Motte how it could split the race apart with a strong surge in crosswinds, which is also a specialty of team manager Riis’s Saxo Bank outfit headed by Andy and Fränk Schleck, as well as teams directed by Johan Bruyneel — who will be with Armstrong at The Shack. As of today, Contador’s Astana squad is bare bones and he may have a hard time recruiting strong classics-style riders for next year’s Tour, putting him on the defensive from day one.
Team strength was a hallmark of Eddy Merckx during his grand tour- and classics-winning reign of the 1960s and ’70s, so it’s fitting that on the way into Brussels, stage 1 is routed through his hometown of Meise to mark his 65th birthday. There will be more memories of Merckx the next day, when stage 2 finishes at Spa after climbing some of the hills where Merckx won five editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The final hill, 12km from the stage finish in Spa, is the Rosier (climbing the section that’s descended in L-B-L), and that’s likely to be preceded by Mont Theux — the climb where Induráin astonished the field in the 1995 Tour, when Armstrong couldn’t hold the Spaniard’s wheel and only Bruyneel managed to hang with the champ and out-sprinted him for the stage win in Liège. Next year, Armstrong is sure to be one of the stage 2 aggressors (that’s why he’s planning a return visit to Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April), as will recent protagonists at the Ardennes classic Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers.
Contador should be at ease on these climbs, and might even attack, like Induráin did 15 years ago, but teamwork comes back into play on stage 3. Prudhomme and Pescheux have inserted three short sections of Belgian bricks into the route along with four sections of Paris-Roubaix pavé on the run-in to the finish in Arenberg, just south of St. Amand-les-Eaux.
According to the two-time Paris-Roubaix winner Marc Madiot, now manager of Française des Jeux, this will be “a day of great stress … that we’re always looking for at the Tour. Christian Prudhomme likes uncertainty, some suspense, and we can see he’s building the Tour in this way.”
When the Tour last included cobblestones — only two sections back in 2004 — they were a long way from the finish, and so a pack of 90 sprinted for the win; but one of the pre-race favorites, Iban Mayo, lost almost three minutes after crashing before the first section of cobbles and coming home in a 60-strong chase group.
Armstrong understood then (and repeated that Wednesday in Paris) that the real race was working your way to the head of the peloton entering the pavé. “Getting to the cobbles was the problem,” he said five years ago, “and stressing about it the night before. The final kilometers before the cobbles were really hectic.”
The final 27.5km of stage 3 will be a reverse of the middle part of Paris-Roubaix, crossing four gnarly sections of cobblestones (numbers 14, 15, 16 and 18 in the Hell of the North classic), with the last one at Haveluy coming only 6.4 km (4 miles) from the stage finish. That challenging finale will put a smile on the faces of past Roubaix winners Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady, while Armstrong, Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins will be looking to put time on the other GC contenders. The Texan won’t have George Hincapie to help him on the pavé next year, but the men who helped him win the TTT in 2009 should be ideal workers on this terrain.
The 2009 Tour’s top sprinters Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd have strong chances of winning the Brussels and Arenberg stages respectively, and they should resume their battle for the green jersey on next year’s rolling stages to Reims, Montargis and Gueugnon.
But the climbers will be taking over from stage 8, which traverses the limestone ridges of the Jura with a succession of six hills. The last 40km includes two long climbs, the Col de la Croix de la Serra, and a 14km ascent to the finish in Lamoura — a town that’s part of the cross-country ski station of Les Rousses.
The Alps and Massif Central
The Jura stage will whet the fans’ appetite for the three stages in the French Alps. The first one, preceding the first rest day in Morzine, features the difficult Col de la Ramaz (14km at an average grade of almost 7 percent) on its way to an uphill finish in the ski station of Avoriaz (13.6km at 6 percent). This is similar to the first alpine stage in the 1985 Tour, when Hinault attacked with Colombian mountain goat Luis Herrera on the preceding Pas de Morgins — forcing teammate Greg LeMond to play defense and lose any chance he had of winning that Tour.
Don’t expect similar heroics from today’s more calculating GC candidates as Hinault displayed 25 years ago. The fight for the yellow jersey will likely be limited to the climb to the finish, which will suit Armstrong better than did the shorter, steeper Verbier ascent where he ceded time to Contador this year. The Texan always does better on multiple climbs, so he’s likely to perform well on the other two alpine stages, which are unlikely to bring major changes to the status quo.
The last of the four climbs of stage 9, the Col de la the Madeleine, is not conducive to Contador’s lightning attacks. It’s more than 25km long, with the steeper grades at the foot of the pass giving way to gentler grades well before the 2000-meter (6,562-foot) summit. And it’s followed by a 18km downhill and 13km of flat roads in the valley floor before the finish in St. Jean de Maurienne.
The final alpine stage from Chambéry to Gap, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Savoy region becoming part of France, looks innocuous, but history says otherwise. On an almost identical course in 1971, Merckx suffered one of the most difficult days in his Tour career.
On an afternoon of torrid temperatures, he was unable to follow an acceleration by the other top contenders on the Côte de Laffrey — 7km at 7 percent with a middle section at 10 percent. And he ended up leading the chase for 100km behind Spain’s Luis Ocaña, who dropped the other leaders on the narrow early slopes of the Col du Noyer, which features erratic grades as steep as 11 percent. By the stage finish at Orcières-Merlette, Ocaña was almost nine minutes ahead of Merckx, who finished third. Only 38 riders finished within half an hour of the winner.
Next year’s stage veers off the 1971 route to climb to La Rochette and descend the same tricky downhill to Gap where, in 2003, Joseba Beloki crashed dramatically — and Armstrong avoided falling with his impromptu cyclo-cross act down a bumpy field. He won’t by trying for an encore, but will have to be wary of breakaways, especially if heat-wave conditions are repeated.
The Tour leaves the Alps on a stage for breakaways through the foothills of the Drôme region to the Rhône Valley at Bourg-de-Valence; although the sprinters teams might be ready to organize a bunch finish on perhaps their last occasion to shine before the Tour’s final days.
This is followed by two days across the Massif Central that are hilly enough to split the field. Stage 12 climbs to the 4,500-foot Suc de Montivernoux on a roller-coaster ride to Mende. This is similar to the 1995 stage when Laurent Jalabert threatened Induráin’s yellow jersey on a long, long breakaway that ended with the French legend winning on the ultra-steep Croix-Neuve climb, which will again face the riders in 2010.
Averaging more than 10 percent on its 3.1km. with 15-percent pitches on the three switchbacks, it is the steepest hill of the 2010 Tour. It’s where Contador took a breakthrough stage win at the 2007 Paris-Nice, and he’s sure to be looking to gain some time on this tough finale. It’ll be a nice dress rehearsal for tackling the Pyrénées, which follow another hilly day to Revel — where the stage is almost always contested by a long-shot breakaway group
The next stages in the Pyrénées will showcase race director Prudhomme’s desire for drama and his respect for history. The Tour first traversed this spectacular mountain range in 1910 in two marathon stages; one of 289km between Perpignan and Luchon, and the other of 326km from Luchon to Bayonne. Both were won by Frenchman Octave Lapize, the eventual Tour winner, who took almost 11 hours to complete the first one and more than 14 hours for the other!
It was a wonder that the pioneers, on their single-speed heavyweight bikes, even managed to scale mountain passes as high as the Col du Tourmalet, which were unpaved goat tracks 100 years ago. When one of the Tour organizers, Alphonse Steinès, reconnoitered the Tourmalet in the spring of 1910, he had to trudge through snowdrifts and didn’t get to the other side until the middle of the night.
His brief telegram to race director Henri Desgrange the next day read: “Crossed the Tourmalet. Stop. Very good road. Stop. Perfectly practicable. Stop. Signed Steinès.” Desgrange accepted his assistant’s optimistic verdict and wrote in his newspaper, L’Auto, that the Tour would make its first passage into the high mountains. The announcement was greeted with a mixture of derision and horror; but that bold decision turned the Tour from merely heroic to mythical.
Next year’s Pyrenean stages will celebrate the Pyrénées centennial with four very different stages. The first is a repeat of the 2003 Tour stage across the hors-cat Port de Pailhères to a summit finish at Ax-3 Domaines — where Armstrong, weakened by dehydration, almost lost the yellow jersey to Jan Ullrich, after Carlos Sastre took a memorable victory. There will be three more climbs on the second Pyrenean stage starting in Pamiers, with a finale up and over the Cat. 1 Port de Bailès. This has some 14-percent pitches and might allow aggressors to stay away on the 21km descent to the finish in Luchon.
The next stage is a classic one, between Luchon and Pau, repeating all four peaks that Lapize and company struggled over in 1910: the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. The day’s final climb is 58km from the stage finish, but Prudhomme remembered Wednesday that in his debut Tour 40 years ago Merckx crested the Tourmalet on a similar stage and proceeded to plow a lone furrow over the Aubisque — and race another 100km solo to win the stage by eight minutes. Mythical!
Don’t expect such heroics in 2010, but after a very late rest day in Pau (only four days before the finish in Paris) the contenders at this Tour head back into the mountains for one, final epic stage. The steep climbs of the Marie-Blanque and Soulor precede a return to the Tourmalet, scaling its dramatic western slopes that culminate with 18.5km of climbing at an average 7-percent grade.
This is likely to be more decisive than this year’s penultimate stage up Mont Ventoux and, fittingly, the day’s winner will receive the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize in memory of the founding race organizer, who first brought the Tour to this 2,115-meter (6.939-foot) summit a century ago.
Vintage Bordeaux redux
The sprinters who have survived the Tourmalet and the other 22 major climbs in this Tour will finally get a chance to show their skills on stage 18 to Bordeaux — which hosts a stage finish for the first time in seven years. That’s the longest break since an eight-year absence from Bordeaux through World War II. Stages haven’t finish on the city’s big outdoor velodrome since 1975, when Brit Barry Hoban used his track speed to win a historic victory. Maybe countryman Mark Cavendish will continue the tradition by taking this sprinters’ stage 35 years later.
As for the overall outcome of this 97th Tour de France, that could rest in the final Saturday’s 51km time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac. On a flat to rolling point-to-point course through the famed Haut-Médoc vineyards, Armstrong, Contador, Schleck, Sastre, Evans, Vande Velde and Wiggins might all be in contention for the next day’s podium in Paris. But the chances are that the show will be over by then. The last time there was a long TT at Bordeaux, in 1996 (it was 63.5km and finished in the St. Émilion vineyards), race leader Riis kept the yellow jersey despite conceding 2:18 to teammate Ullrich in 1996.
Back in 1979, when Hinault lost his yellow jersey to Zoetemelk at Roubaix, he had plenty of opportunities to regain time. In fact, he won all four individual TTs that year and had four mountaintop stage finishes in the Alps to put time on the opposition — and finally won that Tour by more than 10 minutes. Amazingly, he broke clear of the pack with Zoetemelk on the final stage into Paris and Hinault took the stage win over his Dutch rival in a two-up sprint on the Champs-Élysées.
Expect a more conventional field sprint finish to next year’s short final stage into Paris at the end of what could be another mythical Tour de France.
2010 TOUR DE FRANCE
|P||Prologue||Saturday, July 3||Rotterdam ? Rotterdam||8 km|
|1||Flat||Sunday, July 4||Rotterdam ? Bruxelles||224 km|
|2||Hilly||Monday, July 5||Bruxelles ? Spa||192 km|
|3||Flat||Tuesday, July 6||Wanze ? Arenberg Porte du Hainaut||207 km|
|4||Flat||Wednesday, July 7||Cambrai ? Reims||150 km|
|5||Flat||Thursday, July 8||Épernay ? Montargis||185 km|
|6||Flat||Friday, July 9||Montargis ? Gueugnon||225 km|
|7||Medium mountains||Saturday, July 10||Tournus ? Station des Rousses||161 km|
|8||High Mountains||Sunday, July 11||Station des Rousses ? Morzine-Avoriaz||189 km|
|R||Rest Day||Monday, July 12||Morzine-Avoriaz|
|9||High Mountains||Tuesday, July 13||Morzine-Avoriaz ? Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne||204 km|
|10||Medium mountains||Wednesday, July 14||Chambéry ? Gap||179km|
|11||Flat||Thursday, July 15||Sisteron ? Bourg-lès-Valence||180km|
|12||Hilly||Friday, July 16||Bourg-de-Péage ? Mende||210 km|
|13||Flat||Saturday, July 17||Rodez ? Revel||195 km|
|14||High Mountains||Sunday, July 18||Revel ? Ax-3 Domaines||184 km|
|15||High Mountains||Monday, July 19||Pamiers ? Bagnères-de-Luchon||187 km|
|16||High Mountains||Tuesday, July 20||Bagnères-de-Luchon ? Pau||196 km|
|R||Rest Day||Wednesday, July 21||Pau|
|17||High Mountains||Thursday, July 22||Pau ? Col du Tourmalet||174 km|
|18||Flat||Friday, July 23||Salies-de-Béarn ? Bordeaux||190 km|
|19||Individual time-trial||Saturday, July 24||Bordeaux ? Pauillac||51km|
|20||Flat||Sunday, July 25||Longjumeau ? Paris (Champs-Élysées)||105 km|
Approx. distance: 3,596km
- <a href="/?p=99277" title="Hinault and Zoetemelk battled in the '79 Tour – the only time the race hit l'Alpe du Huez twice!”><img src="https://www.velonews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/archive/images/bernieJop70.thumbnail.jpg" border="0" style="padding: 3px; border: 1px solid #666666;" alt="Hinault and Zoetemelk battled in the '79 Tour – the only time the race hit l'Alpe du Huez twice!” />