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By John Wilcockson
Five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel will need some very detailed maps and a big chunk of time to reconnoiter the route of next year’s Tour de France, which was announced in Paris on Thursday. New stages, new climbs, and two long individual time trials in the final five days will make this 97th Tour one of the most complicated and suspenseful in race history(see “2004 Tour: Armstrong says L’Alpe d’Huez TT pivotal“).
The uphill time trial at L’Alpe d’Huez four days before the finish has attracted most of the media attention — and this will surely determine the final podium of the 2004 Tour — but Armstrong will have to be sharp throughout the preceding 15 stages, too. That’s why his annual scouting trip in May will need to be longer and in more detail than in any of the past five years.
Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said at Thursday’s unveiling of the course, “Our objective was to make the 2004 Tour just as passionate [as this year’s] — to get away from well-worn directions, discover new terrain, to change a little the traditional formula of a time trial at the end of the first week to establish an early hierarchy. Instead of this first time trial, there will be a foray into the Massif Central, that is to say a medium mountain stage, long and difficult.”
That will be stage 10, the longest of the race at 237 kilometers, between Limoges and St. Flour. On mostly narrow back roads, probably in heat-wave conditions, this marathon stage crosses nine difficult climbs in the Auvergne region, including the spectacular Puy Mary (5.5km at 8 percent) and Plomb du Cantal (8.2km at 6 percent) — which summits just 30km from the finish.
The 10 days of racing preceding that stage will demand every race favorite and their teams to be on constant guard against the expected attacks, as this will not be a straightforward opening half to the Tour.
After a flat prologue in Liège, Belgium on July 3, there will be two days in the hilly Ardennes region, which annually hosts the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège classics. A flat stage across the Belgium-France border to Wasquehal might give the sprinters a win, but the inclusion of the first part of the Mur de Grammont climb from the Tour of Flanders and two sections of Paris-Roubaix cobblestones will make the task difficult for their teams to contain breakaways.
Then comes the team time trial.
At 65km, next year’s TTT between Cambrai and Arras will be similar to those of the past two years, with long, straight rolling roads and the wind probably being a factor. Look for some of the same top teams to give their leaders a leg up in the race rankings: 2003 winner U.S. Postal-Berry Floor for Armstrong; T-Mobile (ex-Telekom) for Jan Ullrich and Alex Vinokourov; and Stayer (ex-ONCE, the 2002 winner) for Joseba Beloki.
Others who will need a TTT boost include American Tyler Hamilton (leader of the much-strengthened Swiss team, Phonak); Italians Ivan Basso (who has replaced Hamilton at CSC) and Gilberto Simoni (who will need a much stronger Saeco squad); and the Basques Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia (whose Euskaltel team needs reinforcements for the upcoming Tour).
After the TTT come two more flat stages (to the cathedral towns of Chartres and Angers), and then two hillier, possibly wet and windy, stages through bike-crazy Brittany (to St. Brieuc and Quimper). These opening days from Belgium and through northern and western France are followed by the first rest day on July 12. For the riders, there will be a one-hour air transfer to Limoges, while the media and support vehicles will have a probably seven-hour road trip that won’t leave much time for a rest.
It’s really at Limoges that the 2004 Tour begins. First up is what looks like being a very complicated, hilly 160-kilometer stage 9. This starts at St. Léonard-de-Noblat, the hometown of French Tour legend Raymond Poulidor (who was recently inducted into his country’s distinguished Légion d’Honneur) and circles a region that is a maze of twisting back roads in rugged terrain. Next comes the semi-mountainous stage 10 described above; and this is followed by yet another tortuous day in the Massif Central, the 164-kilometer stage 11 to Figeac, which includes the notorious Montsalvy climb.
After a transfer to Castelsarrasin, stage 12 heads straight for the Pyrenees, with a summit finish at La Mongie, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, where Armstrong won in 2002. That climbing aperitif is followed the next day by a full gourmet meal of mountains in the 217-kilolmeter stage 13.
The list of seven climbs is enough to give any rider indigestion. In order, they are the Col des Ares (9km at 4 percent), Col du Portet d’Aspet (5km at 10 percent), Col de la Core (14.5km at 6 percent), Col de Latrape (18km at 3 percent), Col d’Agnes (9.5km at 8.4 percent), Port de Lers (4km at 8 percent), and the finishing climb to Plateau de Beille (18.5km at 6.4 percent)!
These first two weeks of racing are going to be difficult enough, As race director Leblanc said Thursday: “The usual tactics won’t apply. [Teams] will need to use their imagination, be on their guard for 15 days until the big rendezvous of the final week — which will be the time trial at L’Alpe d’Huez, the crossing of the Alps, and the final time trial at Besançon on a demanding course.”
Before heading into the Alps, the racers will enjoy a flat 200km stage across the plains of the Midi to the ancient city of Nîmes, where the second rest day gives them some respite before the demands of the next five days.
Commenting on the final week’s difficulties, Leblanc said, “Because we’re a bit like the film directors, we want to keep the interest of the public and media for the longest possible time.” That will be achieved by the two late time trials, two unconventional stages in the Alps, and a last climbing stage only two days from the finale in Paris.
Stage 15 from Valréas to Villard-de-Lans is very similar to one in the 1987 Tour, which saw Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado emerge from a small breakaway group that left overnight race leader Jean-François Bernard more than four minutes behind. There are seven climbs, ending with the very narrow ascent to Chalimont, 15 kilometers from the finish, and a short, sharp climb to the line.
Roche won the 1987 Tour after a close battle with Delgado in the Alps and a final time trial. Maybe this year, it will be a multi-way battle that will be fought out on the spectacular slopes of the 13.8km Alpe d’Huez, which will be climbed for the first time as a time trial. Coming at a point in the final week when most riders are hanging on just to finish, the 21 turns to the Alpe will see only the strongest survive. Perhaps they will be Armstrong, Hamilton, Ullrich, Simoni and Mayo.
The next day’s 212-kilometer slog will give no chance to recover from the time trial. It open with the 27-kilometer jaunt to the Col du Glandon summit, is immediately followed by the 20-kilometer ascent to the 6561-foot-high Col de la Madeleine (the highest of the Tour), and ends with three steep climbs in the final 70 kilometers, the Tamié, Forclaz and Croix-Fry.
If that’s not enough climbing for the week, stage 18 contains six more substantial hills in the Jura. And that’s followed the next day by the 60-kilometer time trial that Leblanc thinks will be such a challenge. And if Leblanc has his wish, the final winner won’t be decided until the last of the survivors crosses the time-trial finish line in Besançon — just 24 hours before the final flourish along the Champs-Élysées.
If Armstrong and Bruyneel do their homework well, the Texan might well be celebrating his record-breaking victory No. 6 on July 25.
John Wilcockson, the editorial director of VeloNews, is authorof “The 2003 Tour de France,” now in bookstores and available from VeloPressat 800/234-8356 or www.velogear.com.