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By Andrew Hood
Mont Ventoux could play judge, jury and executioner in the 96th Tour de France in what some are already calling a climber’s course.
For the 2009 Tour, officials saved the best and hardest for last, with the mighty Ventoux poised in the penultimate day of the 21-stage, 3445km route from Monaco to Paris.
Tour officials, who unveiled the course to rave reviews in a ceremony in Paris on Wednesday, are hoping the race will be so tightly packed that almost anything could happen on the storied steeps of the géant de Provence.
“With the Ventoux coming last, you could see riders losing two, three, four minutes,” said Cyril Dessel of Ag2r-La Mondiale. “Usually, with the final time trial, everyone rides more or less at the same limit and you don’t see that many major differences. This changes everything.”
Tour officials turned tradition on its head Wednesday when they announced that the 22.7km tortuous summit will be the Tour’s last major obstacle, rather than a long individual time trial, as has been the custom for the past several years.
In fact, it’s been since 1986 that a climbing stage, not a time trial, was the last major battleground in a Tour. In that year’s Tour, a 58km time trial at Saint-Etienne was held on Thursday, with a summit finish to Puy de Dôme the following day before the finale into Paris.
“It’s a superb idea. Typically, on the morning of the final time trial, you already know who’s going to win the Tour,” said Vicent Lavenu, manager of Ag2r-La Mondiale. “This is not only a summit finish, but it’s Ventoux. There will be a lot of uncertainty and suspense right down the finale.”
The Ventoux is the third and last of three major summit finishes in the 2009 route.
The 20th stage starts in Montélimar along the Rhone Valley and loops around the north side of Ventoux, tackling four relatively minor climbs before the classic route up the southern face from Bedouin.
The moonscape, 1912-meter summit has been the site of some of the Tour’s most memorable and tragic moments and will surely provide a dramatic punctuation mark to what many are already calling a potentially volatile route.
“Ventoux doesn’t pardon anyone,” said 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne). “If you’re not at your best, you can lose everything in the final 5km of the climb. It’s a daring opportunity for someone to ride away with the yellow jersey.”
Climbers are already licking their lips at the prospect of the climb-heavy 2009 Tour.
The route packs in eight stages of medium to high mountains, with summit finishes at Arcalis in Andorra in stage 7 and Verbier in Switzerland in stage 15.
Aside from those three summit arrivals, however, the remaining five stages feature some hard climbs, but see their fangs perhaps slightly dulled with finish lines far from the lofty heights of the mountains.
Coming after the return to Arcalis in stage 7, the following Pyrenean courses in stages 8 and 9 include five major climbs, among them the hors categorie Col du Tourmalet, but both finish well beyond the steeps, allowing dropped riders with strong teams plenty of road to organize a chase and reel in any attackers.
Stage 8 ends in Saint-Girons, nearly 50km from the Col d’Agnès summit, while the following day concludes in Tarbes, more than 70km on flat or descending roads off the Tourmalet.
A bumpy, transitional stage across the Vosges in stage 13 into Colmar will be ripe for stage raiders before the route turns into the Alps, but shouldn’t deliver major shakeups among the overall contenders.
Stage 15 climbs into the Swiss Alps with the second summit arrival at Verbier at 1468 meters, a stage that should, on paper at least, only prove troublesome for riders already on the ropes.
Stages 16 and 17 include the Tour’s hardest climbs, with Saint-Bernard grand and petit climbs (with a detour into Italy) providing the most challenging test for the peloton in stage 16. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, at 2473 meters, will be the highest point of the 2009 Tour, but after coming off the slightly lower Col du-Petit-Saint-Bernard at 2184 meters, it’s all downhill to Bourg-Saint-Maurice.
The story is similar in the following stage to Le Grand-Bornand, with the rollercoaster stage tackling five rated climbs, with the final Cat. 1 Col de la Colombière some 16.5km from the finish line.
That means it could all come down to the Ventoux, at least as far as the climbers are concerned.
“It’s interesting to have the Ventoux so late in the race. It could decide everything,” said Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank), winner of the best rider’s jersey in 2008. “I’ve never raced up the Ventoux, but I’ve trained on it a dozen or so times. It’s a climb that favors the pure climbers.”
With so much attention on Ventoux, the climb could almost be anticlimactic, especially if someone takes a commanding lead out of the 40km time trial around Lake Annecy in stage 18.
In fact, it’s the three time trials, with a technical 15km opening time trial along with the 38km team time trial in stage 4, that could be the decider in the 2009 Tour.
But if the history of Ventoux is any indication, the 2009 Tour could come down to the wire.
Tour stage winners atop Mont Ventoux
1958: Charly Gaul
1965: Raymond Poulidor
1970: Eddy Merckx
1972: Bernard Thévenet
1987: Jean-Francois Bernard
2000: Marco Pantani
2002: Richard Virenque