By John Wilcockson
“We want to create a race that is not predictable.”
So said Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme Thursday inannouncing the course for the 95th Tour, which takes place next year fromJuly 5 to 27. Prudhomme should get his wish because the 21-stage, 3554kmroute he presented has a plethora of stages that hark back to the dayswhen breakaways usually succeeded and the yellow jersey changed hands manymore times than it does in modern times.
The 2008 Tour starts in Brest in the far west of France, and heads counterclockwise around the country, with the race first passing through the Massif Central and Pyrénées mountains, and then the Alps, before the traditionalfinish on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
In contrast to the 2007 Tour, which started with a prologue on a spectacularcity-center course in London, there will be no opening time trial nextyear. This is because for the first time in the history of the Tour, awhole region (Brittany) has bought the rights to the grand départand not a single city. As a result, the Tour is opening with three straightroad stages that crisscross the four départements that make up theBreton peninsula.
Officially, every Tour since 1967 has started with a prologue; but therewas one exception. When the race began at La Baule in southern Brittanyin 1988, the opener was a so-called “prelude” that did not count towardthe general classification. Just one rider from each of the 16 teams racedthe straight 1km course along the Atlantic beachfront, with the ItalianGuido Bontempi taking the win. The reason for it not being included aspart of the race was that the UCI had just reduced the length of grandtours to a maximum of 21 days of racing — the prelude would have made it22 days.
Twenty years later, the Tour is still made up of 21 stages and two restdays, and as in 2007 second-year race director Prudhomme has pleased everyoneby eliminating most of the long transfers between stages — just like theold days. The only significant one remaining is the transfer by TGV expresstrain on the final day.
Here’s a closer look at the 2008 course:
Saturday, July 5 Stage 1, Brest to Plumelec (195km)
Stage 1 starts in the naval port of Brest, and heads southeast overthe rolling hills of the Monts d’Arrée to an uphill finish on theCadoudal hill in the village of Plumelec, just north of Vannes. So the2008 Tour will begin in the same manner as that non-prologue edition of1988, with a straight-out road race. The winner of that stage 1 two decadesago, and the first yellow jersey, was Canadian Steve Bauer — who went onto finish fourth overall. He won the opening stage with an amazing soloattack in the final kilometer to finish eight seconds ahead of the pack.Stage 1 in 2008 might see something similar, as the Cadoudal climb is stiffenough (2.3km at 5 percent grade) to split the peloton; the last time astage finished on this hill, in 1997, the winner was German sprinter ErikZabel — who is still racing and may again challenge for the stage victorythat looks destined for Robbie McEwen this time.
Sunday, July 6: Stage 2, Auray to St. Brieuc (165km)
Stage 2 goes from Auray, a town of 12,000 people to the west of Vannes,and heads north through central Brittany, over the infamously steep Murde Bretagne to another uphill finish, this one in downtown St. Brieuc whereItaly’s Filippo Pozzato scored a memorable stage win out of a small breakawaygroup in 2004.
Monday, July 7: Stage 3, St. Malo to Nantes (195km)
Stage 3 starts from the ancient ramparts of St. Malo, a port city onthe northern coast of Brittany, and heads south to the city of Nantes.This is likely to produce the first truly mass sprint finish, with TomBoonen, Alessandro Petacchi, Mark Cavendish and McEwen the likely protagonists.
Tuesday, July 8: Stage 4: Cholet TT (29km)
Many teams were hoping for a return, after a three-year absence, ofthe popular team time trial. But Prudhomme decided that because there isno prologue in 2008 he needed to include an early individual time trialto separate the race favorites before reaching the first challenging roadstages. At 29km, this circuit TT at Cholet, a bike-crazy town that organizesan annual French Cup race, is long enough to see a true battle betweenthe specialists like Fabian Cancellara, David Millar and Dave Zabriskieand overall contenders Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer.
Wednesday, July 9: Stage 5, Cholet to Châteauroux (230km)
This longest stage of the 2008 Tour has no serious difficulties ona straight course south of the Loire Valley and should see another fieldsprint dominated by Petacchi, Boonen and company. The only time a stagefinished here before, in 1998, sprint superstar Mario Cipollini was thewinner.
Thursday, July 10: Stage 6, Aigurande to Super-Besse (195km)
The sprinters will have to go into survival mode for a couple of daysas the Tour heads south on rugged stages through the mountainous terrainof the Massif Central. Stage 6 even has a summit finish at Super-Besse,a small ski station in the Puy de Sancy range. Its 11km of climbing ata 5-percent average is enough to draw out the likes of Contador and defendingKoM champion Juan Maurice Soler, but it’s unlikely to be decisive.
Friday, July 11: Stage 7, Brioude to Aurillac (158km)
This much shorter stage, with multiple climbs that include the 7.8km,6.2-percent Puy Mary 41km from the finish, should see plenty of breakawayaction. One of the moves will probably succeed, and let’s hope that itinvolves some of the real protagonists.
Saturday, July 12: Stage 8, Figeac to Toulouse (174km)
Still only a week into the race, this stage has enough early climbsto shed the peloton’s weaker elements, but the last part is flat and fast,so expect to see a classic field sprint into the city of Toulouse. Perhapsthe young sprinters like Cavendish and his T-Mobile teammate Gerald Ciolekwill get the better of the older generation this time.
Sunday, July 13: Stage 9, Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre(222km)
This second longest stage of the Tour will likely see a long-distancebreakaway succeed, even though it finishes with two challenging Cat. 1climbs in the Pyrénées. The main contenders should be contentto spar among themselves on the Peyresourde-Aspin combination ahead ofthe much more treacherous stage 10.
Monday, July 14: Stage10, Pau to Hautacam (154km)
On the French national holiday, Bastille Day, huge crowds will be liningthe roads of the classic Pyrenean peaks of Tourmalet and Hautacam — wherethis decisive stage 10 ends with the familiar 14.2km, 7.2-percent leg benderwhere Lance Armstrong astonished former race winners Jan Ullrich and MarcoPantani at the 2000 Tour.
Tuesday, July 15: Rest day at Pau
With half the race already in the bank, everyone will be ready forthis much-needed rest day in Pau. But no-one wants a repeat of the storiesthat nearly toppled the 2007 Tour at Pau — the elimination of AlexanderVinokourov for alleged blood doping and the sacking of race leader MichaelRasmussen after his “false” explanations about missing a couple of pre-Touranti-doping controls.
Wednesday, July 16: Stage 11, Lannemezan to Foix (166km)
The whole of this stage is in the Pyrénées, but it skirtsthe major climbs, except for the 11.6km, 7.1-percent Col de la Crouzette,57km from the finish in Foix. That climb could split the peloton, and leadto an exciting finale. All of the contenders will have to be vigilant,while opportunists like Yaroslav Popovych may be able to steal the stagewin.
Thursday, July 17: Stage 12, Lavelanet to Narbonne (168km)
This is the first of two flat stages along the Mediterranean that givesthe sprinters who’ve survived the Pyrénées a chance to returnto the limelight. But with most of the field now far back of the leaders,there will be a great opportunity for an early break to succeed.
Friday, July 18: Stage 13, Narbonne to Nîmes (182km)
This stage is much more likely to end in a bunch sprint, one that McEwenor Petacchi would dearly like to snaffle before the race heads into thefoothills of the Alps.
Saturday, July 19: Stage 14, Nîmes to Digne-les-Bains (182km)
The baking hot roads of Provence usually favor breakaways, but withno serious climbs on this unfamiliar course the sprinters may get a lastcall to show their skills on a tight finish straightaway in Digne-les-Bains.
Sunday, July 20: Stage 15, Digne-les-Bains to Prato Nevoso (216km)
This first of three stages in the Alps is long and likely to be a yawneras it crosses into Italy over the gentle Col de Larche. But fireworks awaitthe main pack when they reach the finishing climb to Prato Nevoso, whose11km at 7 percent is just tough enough to draw out the main contenders.
Monday, July 21: Rest day at Cuneo
With only six days of racing left, including the two toughest stagesin the three weeks, the 2008 Tour should be finely poised.
Tuesday, July 22: Stage 16, Cuneo to Jausiers (157km)
There has never been a stage of the Tour quite like this one. It’sless than 160km long and contains only two climbs. But the first one, theCol de la Lombarde at half-distance, is more than 20km long, and averages7 percent on its way to an elevation of 7713 feet. Then, after a rapid20km descent, the climbing begins up the giant Col de la Bonette (a.k.a.the Restefond). It opens with 15km of uphill work in a deep canyon andthen gets into serious climbing mode for another 27km at a 6.2-percentaverage to the highest elevation of any climb in France: 9193 feet abovesea level. The stage ends with a scary technical 23km of descending tothe finish in the tiny town of Jausiers. Only the prospective Tour podiumfinishers will be left to contest this stage win.
Wednesday, July 23: Stage 17, Embrun to L’Alpe d’Huez (210km)
Only four days from the Tour finish, this last stage with a summitfinish could see an even more dramatic showdown than we witnessed on theCol d’Aubisque at this year’s Tour. This classic stage 17 first crossesthe mighty Col du Galibier, then heads over the just as rugged Col de laCroix de Fer before tackling the spectacular 13.2km, 8.6-percent haul upto L’Alpe d’Huez. This is the same combination of climbs and finish thatled to the two-man show by Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986, andconsecrated LeMond as the Tour’s first American winner.
Thursday, July 24: Stage 18, Bourg d’Oisans to St. Étienne(197km)
With the Tour virtually settled (or will it be?), all of the “losers”in the race will be wanting to make it into the day’s winning break. Whoevergets up there will need to have climbing strength to contemplate takingthe win in St. Étienne because the final climb, the little-knownCroix de Montvieux, is almost 14km long at a 5.5 percent averagegrade.
Friday, July 25: Stage 19, Roanne to Montluçon (163km)
Finally, after a week of kicking their heels (and surviving the Alps),the sprinters should get a shot at another stage win. But the last timethe Tour came to Montluçon, in 2001, Belgian journeyman Serge Baguetshot out of a small breakaway group to take the honors.
Saturday, July 26: Stage 20, Cérilly to St. Amand-MontrondTT (53km)
This closing time trial is similar to the one at Angoulême in2006, when Contador, Evans and Leipheimer fought it out for the final yellowjersey. Could they again be the three contenders, or will someone comeout of the woodwork to surprise the favorites? It might be that type ofTour.
Sunday, July 27: Stage 21, Étampes to Paris (Champs-Élysées)(143km)
The traditional procession through the southern suburbs of the Frenchcapital precedes eight ultra-fast laps around the Champs-Élysées.Expect a familiar heated sprint finish to end what looks like being anotherunpredictable Tour.
Total distance: 3554km