By John Wilcockson
The juxtaposition of the Festina drugs trial going on in Lille and the announcement Thursday in Paris of next year’s Tour de France route was not lost on race director Jean-Marie Leblanc. In a 5000-word speech, Leblanc made one reference to the trial that is dredging up the Festina team’s exclusion from the 1998 Tour because of its systematic drug use.
Leblanc said, “After being brought down by dubious hands — as the Lille trial is showing right now — cycling … has suffered so much and worked so hard to correct things over the past two years, that it will end up with its head held high. That’s what the young fans and the general public want.”
He went on to say: “And we as organizers … we are behind all that willingness, with our energy, with the means at our disposal, to continue for a long time this beautiful sporting and human adventure that is the Tour de France.”
With those words, Leblanc went on to introduce the 88th Tour de France, which takes place next year from July 7-29. It is a shorter Tour than normal, only 3460km — the shortest since the 3285km of the 1989 Tour won by Greg LeMond — but filled with tough, interesting stages. The monster climb to the Pic du Midi in the Pyrénées is not on the schedule; but with five mountaintop finishes (one of them an individual time trial), a mountain stage as early as stage 7, and the repeat of a team time trial (67km) and a long (61km) individual TT in the final week, the 2001 Tour is perhaps even more demanding than this year’s.
After July 7’s traditional flat prologue in Dunkirk, on the English Channel coast, the first two stages look made for the sprinters. The finishes are in Boulogne (where Dutch sprinter Jean-Paul Van Poppel won in 1994) and Antwerp, Belgium (whose only previous stage finish in 1954 saw a win by another Dutchman, Wout Wagtmans).
The third stage, entirely in Belgium, starts out flat but ends with several climbs from the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic: Mont Theux, Côte des Forges and Sart-Tilman. On a similar stage, in 1995, Miguel Indurain broke clear with the eventual stage winner, Johan Bruyneel —— a fact that won’t be lost on the man who is now team director for defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong. Armstrong himself will reminisce on the next stage, because it ends in Verdun, where he won a Tour stage for the first time back in 1993.
Verdun also sees the start of the team time trial on a rolling course that follows a famous road to Bar-le-Duc, called the Sacred Way, used by the French Army in World War I. It will be the scene of a less-hostile battle on July 12, as the TTT will again be a stage that the best riders and their teams will be dreading.
The Tour now heads east for two stages across the Vosges mountains, the first an “easy” one to Strasbourg; but the second, 162km to Colmar, on Bastille Day, July 14, has six major climbs, four of them Cat. 2, including the Col du Bonhomme.
There follow two intermediate stages, skirting the Jura mountains, including a repeat of the similar stage in 1996 to Aix-les-Bains – where Armstrong quit the race because of breathing problems that were probably an early (yet then unknown) sign of his impending cancer.
Aix is on the edge of the French Alps, and stage 10 on July 17 will take the riders over three of the toughest climbs around: the Col de la Madeleine (25km at 6.2 percent), the Col du Glandon (20km at 7.3 percent) and the finish on L’Alpe d’Huez (14km at 8.1 percent). This is the 21st time in 25 years that the Alpe has seen a stage finish.
If that is not enough to get the climbing juices flowing for men like Marco Pantani, Roberto Heras, Armstrong and company, then the very next day they get another chance to excel: a 32km time trial that is all uphill, starting in Grenoble and climbing at a 7.1 percent average for the final 18.7km! The stage finish is in Chamrousse, a ski resort high above the forest mountainside that flanks the Isère valley. This is where Jan Ullrich will have to show his cards if he is to really challenge Armstrong for the yellow jersey.
With 12 days of intense racing behind them, the survivors from the 180 starters (20 teams of nine riders each) fly the next morning to Perpignan, down near the Spanish border, for a short rest day. Their training ride that day will be flat, but the following three days in the Pyrénées will be mostly uphill.
Five climbs are on the agenda for stage 12, including the first-time finish up the 9.4km, 7-percent climb to the Plateau de Bonascre above the stage town of Ax-les-Thermes. This is followed by the toughest stage of the Tour: 222km and seven climbs that crescendo with the rugged ascents of the Col de Menté, Col de Portillon, Col de Val-Louron-Azet and the St. Lary-Soulan finish (10.3km at 8.3 percent).
If that isn’t enough climbing, the mountain stages will climax on July 22 (a week before the finish in Paris) with another classic Pyrenean stage. It’s only 144km long, but stage 14 includes the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet (but not the new extension to the Pic du Midi) before the final climb up to Luz Ardiden (13.7km at 7.5 percent).
These three stages look made for the new wave of Hispanic climbers, and Armstrong will be happy to have 2000 Vuelta winner Heras at his side on the US Postal Service team, rather than as an opponent.
The final week will not be a sinecure, however. After a rest day in Pau, the Tour heads northeast toward the Massif Central, and not northwest on the flatter roads via Bordeaux. The week opens with three stages longer than 200km, including the longest of 226km to Lavaur, a new stage town south of Toulouse. Stage 16 takes to the sinuous, hilly roads of the Dordogne, and stage 17 is another hilly one, to Montluçon.
Here the final time trial will see the final shakedown on a difficult route through the Tronçais Forest to St Amand-Montrond. Just two stages remain, both designated for the sprinters, the first ending at Evry in the Paris suburbs, the final one, of course, on the Champs-Elysées.
With an increased winner’s prize of 2.5 million francs (about $350,000) out of a total prize package of 16 million francs ($2.2 million), it could be the setting for a third consecutive win for Armstrong; but his director Bruyneel said Thursday that “this Tour is not designed specially for Lance, even if it is a bit similar to the 2000 Tour. The important thing is to have a strong team.”
Strong team, strong legs and, hopefully, no signs of those illicit drugs that are being discussed in Lille.
2001 TOUR DE FRANCE
July 7: Prologue (TT) Dunkirk 8km
July 8: Stage 1, St. Omer—Boulogne 198km
July 9: Stage 2, Calais—Antwerp 200km
July 10: Stage 3, Antwerp—Seraing 199km
July 11: Stage 4, Huy—Verdun 210km
July 12: Stage 5 (TTT), Verdun—Bar-le-Duc 67km
July 13: Stage 6, Commercy—Strasbourg 220km
July 14: Stage 7, Strasbourg—Colmar 162km
July 15: Stage 8, Colmar—Pontarlier 220km
July 16: Stage 9, Pontarlier—Aix-les-Bains 185km
July 17: Stage 10, Aix-les-Bains—L’Alpe d’Huez 208km
July 18: Stage 11 (TT), Grenoble—Chamrousse 32km
July 19: Rest day
July 20: Stage 12, Perpignan—Ax-les-Thermes 166km
July 21: Stage 13, Foix—St. Lary-Soulan 222km
July 22: Stage 14, Tarbes—Luz-Ardiden 144km
July 23: rest day
July 24: Stage 15, Pau—Lavaur 226km
July 25: Stage 16, Castelsarrasin—Sarran 224km
July 26: Stage 17, Brive-Montluçon 200km
July 27: Stage 18 (TT), Montlucon—St. Amand-Montrond (61km)
July 28: Stage 19, Orleans—Evry 160km
July 29: Stage 20, Corbeil—Paris 150km