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Riders, teams and veterans give Tour route thumbs up

The unveiling of next year's Tour de France route in Paris on Thursday had team managers and riders alike quietly bubbling with excitement with the suspense likely to be maintained all the way to Paris. The revamped Tour route means the likes of five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong and his closest challenger, Germany's Jan Ullrich, will be kept on their toes right up until the penultimate stage. The 2004 Tour starts in Liege (Belgium) and rides anti-clockwise around France for 3391km - with a potentially decisive individual time trial coming five days before the finish on the Champs

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By Justin Davis – Agence France Presse, Copyright AFP2003

The unveiling of next year’s Tour de France route in Paris on Thursday had team managers and riders alike quietly bubbling with excitement with the suspense likely to be maintained all the way to Paris.

The revamped Tour route means the likes of five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong and his closest challenger, Germany’s Jan Ullrich, will be kept on their toes right up until the penultimate stage.

The 2004 Tour starts in Liege (Belgium) and rides anti-clockwise around France for 3391km – with a potentially decisive individual time trial coming five days before the finish on the Champs Elysees.

After this year’s suspense, when former winner Ullrich (1997) came within a whisker of upsetting Armstrong’s five-in-a-row bid, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said they had no choice but to spice things up a bit.

“We were lucky to have an unbelievably great Tour last year on the centenary, so our aim was obviously to make the 2004 edition just as engaging,” Leblanc said.

“We wanted to make there is some drama every day and that the race isn’t won in advance.”

ONCE manager Manolo Saiz believes Leblanc’s decision to try new routes and to re-jig the Tour – getting rid of an individual time trial in the first week by having two in the final five days – means the 22 teams will have to be more focused.

“Before, most of the real stakes were in the second week of racing,” Saiz told AFP. “Now they’re all in the final week, which means the riders will have to be fresh right up until the end. It also means that teams will have to plan their campaigns with a bit more precision.

“Overall I’m pretty happy with it, I think it’s well suited to my team,” added Saiz, who is hoping he can count on his star rider, Joseba Beloki, who crashed out this year.

“He’s currently going through a period of rehabilitation and we’re hoping that if everything goes well he’ll be 100 percent fit when the 2004 Tour starts.”

At the start the Tour will spend three days in the Belgian Walloon region – which many riders will know as a number of famous races, including the Liege-Bastogne-Liege World Cup one-day classic, are held there.

Fdjeux.com team manager Marc Madiot feels the Belgian terrain will incite the peloton to get frisky a bit earlier than usual.

“The race should kick into life early on – the first few days in Belgium will be interesting, and the stage in the north where there’s some paved sections,” said Madiot, a former winner of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic.

“In general they’ve tried to spice it just about every stage. There’ll be no gifts made on any of the stages.”

After a rest day and a transfer from Brittany the race resumes in the center of France for three days of tough riding among the hilly, volcanic terrain of the Massif Central.

Former Tour hero Raymond Poulidor, known as the ‘eternal runner-up’, feels this is where it will get exciting.

“At St-Leonard-de-Noblat (stage nine) things will heat up a bit,” Poulidor. “There’s no big mountains but the peloton will start getting twitchy. Also, the fact that there’s no time trial by that stage could prove a disadvantage to Armstrong. This Tour should be full of surprises.”

Two days in the Pyrenees will prove tough, however the real fight for the yellow jersey should not really start until the Alps.

After tackling four medium-sized climbs on the 15th stage, the race could be decided the following day on an unprecedented individual time trial over 15km and 21 hairpins of climbing to the legendary l‘Alpe d’Huez. Armstrong, who held off Ullrich the last time there was a climbing time trial, to Chamrousse in 2001, said: “It’s probably a day that will decide the Tour.”

His thoughts were echoed by Credit Agricole manager Roger Legeay.

“It will be the day of reckoning on next year’s race. That is where the Tour will be won and lost,” Legeay said.

Two days of tough climbing in the Alps are followed by the last individual 54km time trial around Besancon, with the overall feeling being that next year will not be easy for Armstrong.

“It’s going to be interesting because everything’s been designed to maintain suspense right till the end,” said now-retired French legend Laurent Jalabert. “There’s a lot of crucial stages, but will the Tour be decided on one of them? The contenders will have to be on form in the final four days, and the race will be won by the freshest and more attack-minded rider. Armstrong and Ullrich are the favorites. (Alexandre) Vinokourov (who came third this year) can win it. (David) Millar can also do well, as can Beloki. It’s been made more open.”