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By John Wilcockson
During last week’s press conference at Interbike in Las Vegas, in revealing details of his comeback to racing, Lance Armstrong blurted out that he was “looking forward to the Mont Ventoux” stage in the 2009 Tour de France.
An inveterate Internet surfer, the Texan no doubt saw a blog somewhere that said a stage to the summit of the Giant of Provence was in the cards. As it happened, the rumor was confirmed the very next day, September 25, when La Provence, a newspaper in southeast France, reported that the president of the Vaucluse regional council, Claude Haut, said there will be a Tour stage next year starting at Montélimar in the Rhône Valley and finishing atop Mont Ventoux.
Great! The Tour hasn’t visited this epic climb since 2002, when the later-discredited Richard Virenque valiantly sustained a long-distance effort and hung on to beat breakaway companion Alexander Botcharov by two minutes, with race leader Armstrong closing fast to take third. Two years before that, Armstrong famously allowed Marco Pantani to win atop Ventoux, much to his regret, with the Texan crossing the line in second. Now, with his improbable comeback to the sport, Armstrong will get a chance to finally win on the bare, often windswept, mountain in the South of France.
Given Mont Ventoux’s location, 700km southeast of Paris, the other part of the news item in La Provence was rather shocking. It said the Ventoux stage will be on July 25 — that’s the day before the finish! That’s one mean transfer to inject into the Tour, unless, of course, you take the TGV express train (as the race personnel will surely do); it averages 250 kph and gets to Paris from the Vaucluse region in less than three hours!
Another confirmed stage town for next year’s Tour is Barcelona, Spain, which was last visited by the race in 1965. In announcing a stage finish and a stage start, Barcelona sports councilor Pere Alcober said the provisional dates are July 8 and 9, to be confirmed at the Tour presentation in Paris on October 22. So, given this information and knowing that the start of the 2009 Tour is in Monaco on July 4, I thought it might be worth doing some sleuthing to see where the race will actually go between these points of reference.
I looked at Web sites of various regional newspapers around France, did some Googling, checked to see where hotels were fully booked on certain dates, and tried to interpret the logic of Tour race director Christian Prudhomme — who showed with his 2008 Tour route that he doesn’t like long transfers (I guess the Ventoux to Paris transfer on the morning of the Tour’s last day is an acceptable one, given the down-to-the-wire excitement that stage will create).
Prudhomme will announce the official route with his new boss, Jean-Etienne Amaury, who replaced Patrice Clerc as president of ASO this past Wednesday. I will discuss Clerc’s dismissal (and that of his right-hand man Gilbert Ysern) and what it means to the sport in a future column, but here are a few facts concerning the change at the head of Amaury Sport Organisation.
It has been said that Clerc and Ysern were let go because of poor financial performance, but it appears that the real reason has to do with their intransigence in regard to the UCI ProTour and a vendetta with UCI president Pat McQuaid and past president Hein Verbruggen. ASO is back in the fold thanks to Jean-Etienne’s mother, Marie-Odile Amaury, the head of parent company Editions Philippe Amaury, who went over Clerc and Ysern’s heads to talk directly with the UCI and solve the four-year battle that so rocked and divided the pro cycling community.
The new ASO boss, Amaury, 32, has an MBA from Stanford and previously worked for Bloomberg News — so he is well aware of the American way of business, unlike Clerc, who was organizer of the French Open tennis tournament for 15 years before joining ASO in 2000. Prudhomme, a former TV journalist, took over as race director two years ago following the retirement of long-time director Jean-Marie Leblanc.
2009 Route conjecturing …
So what route can we expect the new ASO team to announce later this month?
My research has revealed a course that has only two time trials, both hilly, and four summit finishes — including Mont Ventoux on stage 20. It is possible that a team time trial will be included in the first week — but the likely dates for the stage into Barcelona preclude that possibility. It is more likely that the TTT will return in 2010, and there’s already talk that it will finish on the Le Mans motor racing circuit, home of the famous 24-hour car race, in Normandy.
But back to 2009. Here’s what I think the course will look like for Armstrong’s comeback. The Monaco time trial opener will give him a chance to take the yellow jersey the very first day, and the 15km distance is long enough for the Texan (and the other strong time trialists, like his future Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer and twice-Tour-runner-up Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto) to put significant time into the main opposition.
The spectacular Monaco time trial, alongside the blue waters of the Mediterranean, will be followed by a first road stage that looks like heading through the stunning scenery of Provence made familiar by Paris-Nice each year. This is hilly country and could easily produce an important breakaway, with a likely stage finish at Sisteron, on the Durance River.
Two flat stages for the sprinters will follow across the Languedoc region with probable stage finishes in the beach resort of La Grande Motte, near Montpellier, and the other in Perpignan — which hasn’t seen a stage finish since 1997. To reach Barcelona, stage 5 looks like it will start at Amélie-les-Bains in the foothills of the Pyrénées and head over the Col d’Ares into Spain and then head south through Catalonia, past the Garmin-Chipotle team’s Spanish base in Gerona, to Barcelona — where a possible trip over the climb at Montjuich might precede a prestigious downtown finish in the city of the 1992 Olympics.
With the Tour almost a week old, the race almost certainly will next see two mountain stage in the Pyrénées. The first looks like it will have a summit finish in the tiny Principality of Andorra, perhaps at the ski station of Pal, where Jan Ullrich clinched the yellow jersey in the 1997 Tour. The other Pyrenean stage will have more climbs, but not the most difficult, and will have a flat finish into St. Gaudens.
The middle week
With the overall race likely to have a firm top 10 by this point (will Armstrong still be in contention?), the 2009 Tour will have a middle week largely made up of rolling and flat stages, with a couple of opportunities for the sprinters (probably in Bordeaux and Issoudin) and three chances for long-distance breakaways (in Limoges, Auxerre and Vittel). The first rest day looks like being in Limoges, as in 2004.
The Tour’s long trek from southwest to northeast France should culminate with a medium mountain stage in the Vosges, to the city of Colmar, on roads similar to those that secured Michael Rasmussen a solo stage win at Mulhouse in 2005. A transitionary stage to Besançon precedes the first alpine stage, which will have a mountaintop finish in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier — site of the second rest day.
The final week
A very unusual final week looks like opening with a stage cutting through Italy to a summit finish at Les Arcs (where Miguel Induráin flamed out in 1996) or in nearby La Plagne (where Michael Boogerd secured a solo win in 2002). Then comes a traditional mountain stage over multiple climbs to Le Grand Bornand (where Armstrong won in 2004), followed by the second time trial, a difficult 40km loop around the beautiful lake at Annecy that may decide who will finish on the Paris podium.
A rolling stage then heads southwest to a likely finish in Aubenas before the much vaunted and likely decisive stage 20 from Montélimar to the Ventoux summit (where an Armstrong win would be too good to be true). After taking the TGV into Paris, the Tour peloton will enjoy their traditional triumphful ride to the finale on the Champs-Élysées.
A lot of this possible route is speculation on my part, but next July’s Tour will have most of the elements and structure indicated here. But we have to wait until October 22 to get the official word from Messieurs Amaury and Prudhomme.
(John Wilcockson will report the Tour for the 41st time in 2009.)