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Commentary: It’ll be a spectacular Tour

The structure of the 2003 Tour de France may be based on the inauguralTour route in 1903, but the organizers have included so many new stagesand climbs that there will be nothing old-fashioned about it. Most of theearly comments from personalities in the packed audience of 3000 at thePalais de Congrès in Paris, where the centennial Tour was announcedThursday, were somewhat familiar though.“It’s not the course, it’s the riders that make the Tour de France great,”said five-time winner Bernard Hinault. “It’s a very interesting course,built for a complete racer,” said another quintuple winner,

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By John Wilcockson

Photo: Tour de France

The structure of the 2003 Tour de France may be based on the inauguralTour route in 1903, but the organizers have included so many new stagesand climbs that there will be nothing old-fashioned about it. Most of theearly comments from personalities in the packed audience of 3000 at thePalais de Congrès in Paris, where the centennial Tour was announcedThursday, were somewhat familiar though.“It’s not the course, it’s the riders that make the Tour de France great,”said five-time winner Bernard Hinault. “It’s a very interesting course,built for a complete racer,” said another quintuple winner, Miguel Induráin.And most observers agreed that it was a course that should see a fifthconsecutive win by Lance Armstrong.One of the few notes of optimism came from a current rider, Oscar Sevilla,who said, “There’s lots of mountains, particularly in the Pyrénées.That perhaps will let us put Armstrong in some difficulty.” And the firstSpanish rider to win the Tour, Federico Bahamontes in 1959, agreed. Hesaid, “Sevilla, [Joseba] Beloki and [Roberto] Heras (!) could put Armstrongin difficulties.”So what are we looking at for next year’s Tour? Is it going to be harderfor Armstrong to win? And where are all those mountains?Well, what should make this Tour perhaps the most spectacular of moderntimes are its echoes to the past combined with its discovery of new terrainfor the future.The opening will not only be filled with fanfare, with the prologuestarting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, but it will also be nervous andexcitable, with the first road stage through the Paris suburbs. Two stagesfor the sprinters then take the race north and east before what shouldbe a difficult 68km team time trial in the hills of the Upper Marne. Thefirst week’s last two days are not shoo-ins for the sprinters because the196km stage to Nevers and the 225km stage to Lyon pass through the hillynorthern fringe of the Massif Central.Then, much earlier than usual, the Tour enters the Alps, with threedifficult days. First comes the longest stage of the 2003 Tour, 226.5km,which passes through the hills of the Jura region before reaching a newclimb for the Tour (it has been used in the Tour de l’Avenir), the 1619-meter(5311-foot) Col de la Ramaz. This 14.3km climb at almost 7 percent summitsjust 25km from the finish in Morzine.After that unusual, unpredictable stage, the Tour now serves up a classic,taking in not only the Télégraphe-Galibier tandem, with its30.8km of climbing to the race high point of 2645 meters (8677 feet), buta finish up to L’Alpe d’Huez. And then, on July 14, the French nationalholiday, the race goes over the Lautaret and Izoard passes before takingin two first-time climbs up the ridge above the Serre-Ponçon lake.These two climbs, of 6.7km and 3.9km may not look like much. But at theend of a long day, these narrow, twisting climbs will give ample opportunityfor the climbers to attack.The race continues for its 11th day — a flattish stage to Marseille– before it has its first rest day (combined with a road transfer to Narbonne).There follows yet another hilly stage, ending in Toulouse, before the Tourhas its first long individual time trial. If Armstrong is going to dominatethis Tour, he’ll have to do it in the mountains because, other than thebrief prologue, the race will already be in its second half before thisfirst TT. Less than 50km, the TT will be on narrow, hilly back road witha finish at Cap’Découverte, which is the deepest open-cast coalmine in Europe transformed into a spectacular recreational resort.Now come the Pyrénées, with no less than four tough stages.Stage 13 to the Plateau de Bonascre ski station above Ax-les-Thermes ispreceded by another climb new to the Tour: the Port de Pailhères.This will arguably be on e of the hardest ascents in the centennial Tour.Temperatures could be in the 90s (unless it’s raining, which will makeit even tougher) as the near-16km climb winds out of the deep canyon ofthe Aude at an average grade of almost 8 percent to a summit of 2001 meters(6564 feet). From the top, the race will be straight downhill into Ax,and then straight up the 9km climb to the finish.The other three Pyrenean stages are also extremely demanding, and allvery different. The 191.5km stage from St. Girons to Loudenvieille containssix medium, but rugged climbs. The shorter stage 15 ends with the murderouscombination of the 17km-long Tourmalet and the 13.4lm-long Luz-Ardiden— which should determine the Tour’s hierarchy (if not its eventual orderof finish). And then, after a rest day in Pau, the last mountain stage(only four days before the Paris finish) takes in a series of back-countryclimbs last used in 1987.The sprinter will have three chances to shine in the last four days,but the final podium will have to wait until a flat, fast time trial fromthe Atlantic coast to Nantes in the day preceding the finishing stage inParis.To mark this historic Tour, the organizers have added three-quarters-of-a-milliondollars to make a $3 million purse, with $400,000 to the winner. And 198riders from 22 pro teams will contest it.By today’s standards, the race will be as tough as ever. That didn’timpress another former Tour winner in Paris Thursday. The Swiss Ferdi Kubler,83, who won the Tour on 1950 when the purse was about $10,000, said, “With1600 kilometers less than in my day and with much better road surfaces,things are much easier for today’s riders.”Easier maybe, but also faster, more competitive and even more spectacular.It’ll be a great Tour to celebrate its 100th anniversary.ROUTE OF THE 2003TOUR DE FRANCE
(1903 stagetowns in bold type)July 5 Prologuein Paris 6.5km
(Time trial startingat the Eiffel Tower and circling the Maison de Radio-France in west partof city.)
July 6 Stage 1Paris – Meaux 168km
(Start outsideStade de France in northern suburbs, crossing Paris to real start in southeastsuburb of Montgeron, where first Tour began.)
July 7 Stage 2La Ferté-sous-Jouarre – Sedan 204km
(A rolling stagefrom east side of Paris up to the Belgian border.)
July 8 Stage 3Charleville-Mézières – St. Dizier 167km
(A day for thesprinters to a first-time stage town)
July 9 Stage 4Joinville – St Dizier (TTT) 68km
(A similar rollingroute as 2002’s team time trial)
July 10 Stage 5Troyes – Nevers 196km
(A hilly run intocentral France)
July 11 Stage 6Nevers – Lyon 225km
(The 1903 Tour arrived here from Paris in one 17-hour stage. This one comes after a week.)
July 12 Stage 7Lyon – Morzine 226.5km
(A hilly stagethrough the hills of the Jura, with the Ramaz alpine climb near the end)
July 13 Stage 8Sallanches – (Galibier) – L’Alpe d’Huez 211km
(The Galibier wasthe Tour’s first major alpine climb in 1911 and the Alpe saw the Tour’sfirst mountaintop finish in 1952)
July 14 Stage 9Bourg d’Oisans – (Izoard) – Gap 184.5km
(The Izoard isanother legendary alpine climb)
July 15 Stage 10Gap – Marseille 210km
(Marseille is thesecond of the original stage towns)July 16 Restday at Narbonne
(Road transferalong the coast)July 17 Stage 11Narbonne – Toulouse 158km
(One for the sprinters)
July 18 Stage 12Gaillac – Cap’Découverte (TT) 48.5km
(Hilly time trialto a dramatic new leisure park)
July 19 Stage 13Toulouse – Ax- Bonascre 197.5km
(Over new Pailhèresclimb in the Pyrénées to a summit finish used in 2001)
July 20 Stage 14St. Girons – Loudenvieille 191.5km
July 21 Stage 15Bagnères-de-Bigorre – (Tourmalet) – Luz-Ardiden 159.5km
(A classic mountaintopfinish)July 22 Restday in Pau
(Time for anotherbreak)July 23 Stage 16– (Aubisque) – Bayonne 197.5km
(A bunch of lesserclimbs in the Pyrénées)
July 24 Stage 17Dax – Bordeaux 178km
(Through the Landespine forest to a famous sprinters’ venue)
July 25 Stage 18Bordeaux – St. Maixent-l’École 200km
(The calm beforethe final time trial)
July 26 Stage 19Pornic – Nantes (TT) 49km
(The Atlantic windsshould be favorable for what could be the fastest-ever Tour TT)
July 27 Stage 20Ville d’Avray – Paris (Champs-Elysées) 160km
(The first Tourended at Ville d’Avray in the Paris suburbs)