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A look at Tour 2002: Shorter but tougher

We'll never forget the last time the Tour de France started in Luxembourg, in 1989. Going into the race, defending champion Pedro Delgado of Spain was the race favorite. That tag soon disappeared. Delgado, incomprehensibly, showed up late for his prologue time trial start. Two minutes and 40 seconds late! The next day, still in Luxembourg, Delgado bonked in the team time trial stage. His Reynolds teammates had to wait for him, and they finished dead last, losing almost five minutes. So, after two days of racing, the Spanish hero was 7:20 down on the new race favorite, Laurent Fignon.

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By John Wilcockson

A look at Tour 2002: Shorter but tougher

A look at Tour 2002: Shorter but tougher

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We’ll never forget the last time the Tour de France started in Luxembourg, in 1989. Going into the race, defending champion Pedro Delgado of Spain was the race favorite.

That tag soon disappeared. Delgado, incomprehensibly, showed up late for his prologue time trial start. Two minutes and 40 seconds late! The next day, still in Luxembourg, Delgado bonked in the team time trial stage. His Reynolds teammates had to wait for him, and they finished dead last, losing almost five minutes. So, after two days of racing, the Spanish hero was 7:20 down on the new race favorite, Laurent Fignon.

Hopefully, Delgado’s misfortune won’t be repeated by current defending champion Lance Armstrong when he travels to Luxembourg next July to start the 2002 Tour.

A more likely scenario is that Armstrong will win the prologue, which takes place on a 6.5km course somewhat similar to the 1999 Tour prologue at Le Puy du Fou that gave the Texan his first Tour yellow jersey.

Yes, like Puy du Fou, the Luxembourg course is technical and includes a significant climb — in this case, an 8-percent grind up to the city’s Ducal Palace.

Luxembourg is at the edge of the Ardennes range, so expect a good selection of hills on the first 195km road stage, which loops around the Grand Duchy’s lush countryside. It’s terrain with which Armstrong is familiar, having won the Tour of Luxembourg in 1999, and he’ll likely emerge from the Tour’s opening weekend with the yellow jersey still on his back.

On leaving Luxembourg, the 21 teams in this 89th Tour first head east to Germany on a hilly 175km stage to Saarbrücken. You can be sure that this finish will attract one of the biggest crowds of the Tour, as the industrial city of Saarbrücken is about equidistant from the homes of the Deutsche Telekom team’s two German stars, Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel.

After taking three stage wins this year, and his sixth consecutive green jersey, world No. 1 Zabel will surely be hoping to take the stage victory in his home country. If not, then the German sprinter will be super-motivated when the race returns to France, and a number of sprinting opportunities, during the next several days.

After the challenging opening, the 89th Tour has three distinct phases:

– a mainly flat trek across northern France from east to west, with five stages for the sprinters, a team time trial and a second individual time trial;

– after a long transfer south to Bordeaux, an intense five days traversing southern France from west to east, featuring two mountaintop finishes in the Pyrénées and a third one ending atop Mont Ventoux in Provence;

– after a second rest day, the race heads north for three difficult days in the Alps, with two more summit finishes, before heading west to Burgundy for the third individual time trial and a last-day transfer to Paris for the finale on the Champs-Elysées.

Although the 2002 Tour’s provisional distance of 3282km (which will probably increase slightly by the time every stage is measured accurately during next spring’s final reconnaissance) is one of the shortest in history, that fact is deceptive. The Tour of 1988 measured slightly less, at 3281.5km, and it was one of the most mountainous of the past 20 years. Spanish climber Delgado won that year by more than seven minutes over two other climbing specialists, Dutchman Steven Rooks and Colombian Fabio Parra.

In 2002, the three longest stages are all in the mountains:

– stage 12 measures 198km, with four major climbs before the 15.9km, 7.8-percent uphill finish to Plateau de Beille;

– stage 14 is 220km, with a difficult route through the Cevennes before the 21km, 7.5-percent slog to the top of the Ventoux;

– and stage 15 is 226km, with three lesser climbs prior to the 11.5km, 6.1-percent summit finish at Les Deux-Alpes.

All three of these finishes have seen stage wins by the “big unwanted” of 2001, Marco Pantani, who attended Thursday’s press conference in Paris. In his winning Tour of 1998, Pantani moved into contention by winning at Plateau de Beille, and then took over the yellow jersey from Ullrich on his famous solo break in a rainstorm to Les Deux-Alpes. After sitting out the 1999 Tour, Pantani returned to prominence in 2000 by taking the Ventoux stage ahead of a benevolent Armstrong.

Will Pantani return yet again after his abysmal 2001 season? If the Italian climber does return to top form, he’ll have to do it before May 1, when the five wild-card teams are chosen by the race organizers. That’s because his heavily revamped Mercatone Uno squad (new directeur sportif, new riders) is not among the 16 automatic qualifiers for the 2002 Tour. These 16 teams will be formally announced at the end of October, but unless one of the Italian teams, such as Lampre, doesn’t wish to ride the Tour, the five wild-card teams could likely be all French — under the new qualification rules, the only French team to get an automatic spot is Cofidis.

The 16 pre-qualified formations are five from Italy (Alessio, Fassa Bortolo, Lampre-Daikin, Mapei-Quick Step and Tacconi-Vini Caldirola), four from Spain (Euskaltel-Euskadi, iBanesto.com, Kelme-Costa Blanca and ONCE-Eroski), two from Belgium (Domo-Farm Frites and Lotto-Adecco), and one each from Denmark (CSC-Tiscali), Germany (Deutsche Telekom), the Netherlands (Rabobank) and the United States (U.S. Postal Service).

The French teams pressing for the five remaining spots are AG2R Prévoyance, BigMat-Auber 93, Bonjour, Crédit Agricole, Jean Delatour and La Française des Jeux. Also vying for a place will be Italy’s Saeco — whose new team leader, Gilberto Simoni, is planning to make the Tour his big target next year, following his victory at the 2001 Giro d’Italia. All this is bad news for Mercatone Uno and Pantani.

Whether it’s Pantani, Simoni or Fassa Bortolo’s Francesco Casagrande who presents the Italian climbing challenge, the true test for defending champion Armstrong’s challengers will be the time trials.

Besides the prologue, the riders face a 68km team time trial on the rolling terrain of the Champagne vineyards on stage 4; a second individual test on stage 9 that ends the first phase of the race in Brittany, an intricate, hilly 55km route between Lanester and Lorient; and the last time trial on stage 19, which is an even hillier 52.5km through the Beaujolais vineyards between the village of Régnié-Durette and the city of Mâcon.

Armstrong and perennial challenger Ullrich will likely battle for the yellow jersey in the time trials, but the five mountaintop finishes do give some hope to the climbers — unless Armstrong is again in the astonishing form he showed in the mountains this year.

Besides the three finishes mentioned above, the first summit finish is on stage 11. This stage crosses the difficult Col d’Aubisque early in its 147km, so the field will largely regroup on the flatter terrain preceding the last 13km at 6.8 percent to La Mongie, up the western approach toward the Col du Tourmalet. This will be a much less-decisive stage than the following day’s long haul over the Menté, Portet d’Aspet, Core and Port passes prior to Plateau de Beille.

After the decisive Ventoux and easier Deux-Alpes finishes, stage 16 will be the toughest of the alpine stages: It crosses the mighty Galibier and Madeleine before the Tour’s last uphill finish to La Plagne. The final mountain stage is a short, but challenging 141km over the Cormet de Roseland, Saisies, Aravis and Colombière climbs between Aime and Cluses.

It is a course that 1988 winner Delgado would have loved, much more than his unfortunate 1989 experience. After he lost those seven minutes in the Luxembourg opening, though, Delgado came back to finish the Tour in third place, 3:34 down on the winner. That was, of course, Greg LeMond. The American won the time trials in Brittany and on the final day to beat Fignon by eight seconds, the smallest winning margin in Tour history. Maybe the 2002 Tour will just as exciting. The 2002 Tour de France Route

Prologue Saturday July 6 Luxembourg – 6.5 Km

STAGE 1 Sunday July 7 Luxembourg – Luxembourg – 195 Km

STAGE 2 Monday July 8 Luxembourg – Sarrebruck, Germany – 175 Km

STAGE 3 Tuesday July 9 Metz – Reims – 185 Km

STAGE 4 Wednesday July 10 Epernay – Château-Thierry (Team TT) – 68 Km

STAGE 5 Thursday July 11 Soissons – Rouen – 198 Km

STAGE 6 Friday July 12 Forges-Les-Eaux – Alençon – 198 Km

STAGE 7 Saturday July 13 Bagnoles-De-l’Orne – Avranches – 173 Km

STAGE 8 Sunday July 14 St Martin De Landelles – Plouay – 214 Km

STAGE 9 Monday July 15 Lanester – Lorient (Individual Time Trial) – 55 Km

Tuesday July 16 –Rest Day In Bordeaux

STAGE 10 Wednesday July 17 Bazas – Pau – 147 Km

STAGE 11 Thursday July 18 Pau – La Mongie – 158 Km

STAGE 12 Friday July 19 Lannemezan – Plateau De Beille – 198 Km

STAGE 13 Saturday July 20 Lavelanet – Béziers – 166 Km

STAGE 14 Sunday July 21 Lodève – Le Mont Ventoux – 220 Km

Monday July 22 -Rest Day In Vaucluse

STAGE 15 Tuesday July 23 Vaison-La-Romaine – Les-Deux-Alpes – 226 Km

STAGE 16 Wednesday July 24 Les-Deux-Alpes – La Plagne – 179 Km

STAGE 17 Thursday July 25 Aime – Cluses – 141 Km

STAGE 18 Friday July 26 Cluses – Bourg-En-Bresse – 180 Km

STAGE 19 Saturday July 27 Régnié-Durette – Mâcontime (Individual Time Trial)- 52.5 Km

STAGE 20 Sunday July 28 Melun – Paris-Champs-Elysées – 145 Km