99th Tour sets stage for unpredictable clash

PARIS (VN) — Some have been quick to call the 2012 Tour de France the easiest in years, but riders in attendance for Tuesday’s route unveiling said that the Tour is always hard. Long on time trials — the most against the clock since 2007 with 96.1km in two TTS…

PARIS (VN) — Some have been quick to call the 2012 Tour de France the easiest in years, but riders in attendance for Tuesday’s route unveiling said that the Tour is always hard.

Long on time trials — the most against the clock since 2007 with 96.1km in two TTS and one prologue — and short on summit finishes with just three, the 99th Tour should produce a closer, tighter race than many expect.

“There are actually more major climbs this year than last year, and everyone was calling last year my Tour,” said Andy Schleck, referring to next year’s count of 25 to this year’s of 23. “And I know I have to improve with time trials, but there were a lot of time trials in 2010 and I nearly won that. The Tour is always hard.”

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said the race is searching out new summits in an effort to branch out the race and compete with the likes of the Vuelta and Giro, which have been exploring new terrain in recent editions.

A half-dozen new summits are on tap, including the short but steep Belles Filles climb in the Vosges.

Prudhomme also said he hopes the uptick in time trial distance will force the climbers to go on the offensive.

“The route has been made so more favorites can potentially be in it,” Prudhomme said. “So a guy who is good in time trials can say ‘Ah, I might have a chance,’ and others will say, ‘Since there are fewer summit finishes, I have to attack from farther out.’ And there’s precisely the layout to allow attacks from farther out.”

The presentation is an autumn rite among cycling’s gliterati. Legends of the sport, like Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx, bump shoulders with today’s stars in what’s the season’s last big get-together for media, team managers and select riders.

Defending champion Cadel Evans, the Schleck brothers, Mark Cavendish and a surprise appearance by Alberto Contador — who skipped last year’s presentation — were among the dozens of top riders who trekked to Paris on Tuesday.

The Palais des Congres was packed to near-capacity for the multi-media presentation, now broadcast live on the Internet.

This year’s course was accidentally posted on ASO’s Tour website for just a few minutes last week, but long enough for the route to go viral. Hundreds of journalists, photographers and TV crews showed up, nevertheless, proof of the powerful draw of the Tour.

And the leak didn’t stop Tour director Prudhomme from taking center-stage and cranking up the hype-machine and even joking about the website slip-up.

There were no major surprises, at least from what was leaked last week. The race starts June 30 in Liege and, following tradition, ends with a final dash down the Champs-Élysées three weeks later.

Three major summits, three time trials and a string of technical, challenging finish-line approaches pick up where last year’s Tour left off.

Johan Bruyneel — set to lead the Schleck brothers next season with the merger of Leopard-Trek and RadioShack — said the route will provide a stiff challenge for the Luxembourg tandem who finished 2-3 on the podium this year.

“This is the anti-Schleck Tour,” Bruyneel said. “We will have a very strong team, and that will compensate for the route that will not favor the Schlecks. We can make the race hard and force the action. Andy will also be better than people expect in the time trial.”

More time trial kilometers — double the 2011 Tour — tips the balance in favor of riders like Evans, Bradley Wiggins and Contador and will put the Schleck brothers and climbers like Robert Gesink and Jurgen Van den Broeck on their heels.

“I’d like to think I will be a favorite, but I already thought that this year,” Evans said. “It’s a course that suits me on paper. The Tour is always hard and the climbs are never easy. I am not counting anyone out.”

Once again, no time bonuses mean the GC will remain tight and “unaltered” by the bonuses, which can prove decisive in the overall battle, as this year’s Vuelta a España proved after Juanjo Cobo beat Chris Froome thanks to the bonuses.

The dates have been pushed back a week to make space for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, with the road races just days after the Tour concludes.

A prologue is back on the menu, with a 6.1km course in Liege to open the action, but there is no team time trial this year.

The route opens in Liege, which should see massive crowds among the Belgian fans who will turn out to see local hero Philippe Gilbert race on home roads.

Stages in the Vosges and Jura mountains could deliver some surprises. The mountaintop finale to La Planches des Belles Filles in stage 7 tackles what Prudhomme characterized as the “steepest gradients ever in Tour history” with ramps up to 28 percent in the final 300 meters of the climb.

The Alps only see one summit finale, but the inclusion of the Colombier in stage 10 and the La Toussuire summit in a short, explosive stage packs in four rated climbs into only 140km in stage 11 will produce some fireworks.

Bruyneel said the race is “missing a classic summit finish like the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez”, but suggested that there will be plenty of chances to attack, sometimes not in the most obvious of places.

Contador, meanwhile, couldn’t help but liked what he saw. The three-time winner is hoping he will be at next year’s Tour after finally getting his day in court in his long-running clenbuterol case. If cleared, Contador says he will be at the start line with the intention of winning.

“It’s a course that’s good for my characteristics,” Contador said. “To have many time trial kilometers is better for me. The climbs are harder than they first look. We will have to go preview many of the new climbs.”

Sprinters will be happy, with plenty of chances for fast-gallop finales while breakaway artists should have their chances once the race leaves the Alps ahead of the Pyrénées.

“It will be special to wear the rainbow jersey in any race,” said recently crowned world champion Cavendish. “I want to win the green jersey again and the best way to do that is to win as many sprints as I can.”

The Pyrénées will be center stage in the 197km 16th stage that tackles both the Aubisque and the Tourmalet before a downhill finish into Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Stage 17 will be the last chance for the climbers, with the third and final summit finish, hitting the the Bales climb before the 61st passage over the Peyresourde before a sharp descent and then kicker to the new finish-line at Peyragudes.

“It’s a good course for Alberto,” said SaxoBank-Sungard manager Bjarne Riis. “There might not be many summit finishes, but the climbs are hard. Even if the stage finishes in a valley, the differences will be made on the climbs like always.”