Toughest stages of this year's Tour de France

Updated: June 30, 2006, 9:48 AM ET
By Andrew Hood | Special to ESPN.com

The 93rd Tour de France should explode like a well-shaken bottle of French champagne, even without the detonations already caused by the expulsions of favorites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and others in a doping scandal.

With its 4.4-mile opening prologue in the narrow streets of Strasbourg on July 1, the Tour gains speed and intensity as it winds for three weeks counterclockwise around France to end with the summer's biggest annual street party July 23 on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

With quick detours into Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain along the way, the 2006 Tour route is balanced and open, with the most important stages packed into what's sure to be a nail-biting final week. It's a course that will favor an all-around rider who climbs with the best in the steepest mountains but also can burn up a time trial on the flats.

AP Photo/Christophe EnaRiders won't be able to take in the sights of the Alps -- they'll be in too much pain during the Tour's late mountain stages.

"The Tour will be decided in the final week," said Team CSC sport director Bjarne Riis, whose team leader, Ivan Basso, had been one of the top favorites until he was barred on Friday. "The final week is very hard and the stages in the Alps will decide the winner."

This year's 20-stage, 2,261.2-mile course has nine flat stages, five hard days in the mountains, four medium mountain stages, a prologue and two long time trials.

Each year, the route changes for the 102-year-old grande boucle-- the big loop, as the French like to call "their tour" -- with organizers always searching out new host cities, unfamiliar mountain roads or unique combinations for the tried-and-true three-week format.

This year's Tour will see two new summit finishes, the first to Pla-de-Beret in the Spanish Pyrénées in Stage 11, and the second to La Toussuire, a spectacular climb in the heart of the French Alps, in Stage 16. The Tour's third mountaintop finish is the classic Alpe d'Huez climb in Stage 15.

Another twist this year is that the route doesn't include a team time trial, a popular fixture the past few years where entire nine-man squads ride together against the clock, but does boast 72 miles of individual time-trial stages, compared with just 46 miles last year.

Although Tour officials are loath to admit a course design is tailored to fit the strengths of any one rider, most agree this year's parcours would have favored one man: Ullrich, the 1997 champion.

Ullrich (T-Mobile) won the Tour at just 23 in 1997 but suffered humbly in Lance Armstrong's shadow for seven years to finish second five times during his Tour career. Many in France wouldn't have minded seeing the humble German win after Armstrong's sometimes controversial seven-year reign; but when Ullrich's name appeared on the list of cyclists implicated in a far-raching Spanish doping investigation this week, he was barred from the race.

Here's a look at where the 2006 Tour de France will be won or lost:

Stage 7: July 8, Saint-Grégoire to Rennes, 32.3 miles (individual time trial)

After a week of nervous flat stages across northern France and Belgium, the peloton will be looking forward to the first of two long individual time trials to impose some order on the nervous bunch.

It is called the "race of truth" because there are no teammates to help out and riders head out on the road one at a time in a race against the clock. The Tour's first important time differences will be marked on the almost dead-flat course on wide-open roads.

The course favors the time-trial specialists such as Dave Zabriskie (CSC), who can open important gaps on the rail-thin climbers. Prevailing winds should push the riders along, and speeds could top 37 mph on the flats.

Stage 11: July 13, Tarbes to Val d'Aran (Pla-de-Beret), Spain, 128.3 miles

With five rated climbs and the Tour's first summit finish, this monster stage across the Pyrénées will help separate the wheat from the chaff. This stage is too early to decide who will win the Tour, but it certainly will reveal who won't.

With the "beyond-category" Col du Tourmalet in the opening 46 miles, riders angling for the best climber's jersey could make a solo flier much in the style of last year's King of the Mountains winner Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), who escaped across the Vosges in 2005.

Three steep Category 1 climbs over the Aspin, Peyresourde and Portillon are packed in over the next 43.5 miles as the stage pushes eastward over the narrow and treacherous roads of the Pyrénées. The final run up the Puerto de Beret in Spain isn't especially hard by Tour standards, but after such a long day, any rider not in sharpest form surely will lose all hopes of overall victory.

With tens of thousands of rowdy Spanish and Basque fans sure to be lining the roads for the first stage finish in Spain since 1996, this stage will be one of the most dramatic of the Tour.

Stage 15: July 18, Gap to L'Alpe d'Huez, 116.2 miles

A classic stage ending at the Tour's most famous climb, it surely will break the back of many riders' overall hopes. After the craggy "beyond category" summit of Col d'Izoard at 53 miles and the Cat. 2 Col du Lautaret at 83 miles, the peloton will hit the base of the final 9-mile climb up the Alpe on the heels of a fast, 25-mile descent.

The 21 switchbacks (lacets in French) winding up to the brutally steep Alpe summit are emblazoned with winners of the famous climb dating back to 1952, when Italian legend Fausto Coppi won the first time up the road. The Tour didn't return until the 1970s, but it's since become a Tour tradition, with the peloton last visiting in 2004, when Armstrong won a climbing time trial.

The steep, uneven climb opens with two steep kilometers (1 1/4 miles) at 10 percent and never falls below 5 percent as the road winds tortuously to its 6,070-foot summit. The climb favors riders who can make accelerations on ramps as steep as 11.5 percent, then hold the speed to the finish.

Stage 16: July 19, Le Bourg-d'Oisans to La Toussuire, 113 miles

Already dubbed the "queen stage" of this year's Tour, an honor that goes to the most demanding mountain stage, this four-climb monster stage features a cruel, 15,000 vertical feet of climbing.

Early in the day's suffering is the Col du Galibier, the highest point of this year's Tour at 8,668 feet, but it's the "beyond category" Col de la Croix de Fer with about 37 miles to go that will blow apart the peloton.

After a dangerous descent off the Cat. 1 Col du Mollard, where Denis Menchov (Rabobank) crashed out of contention in the Dauphiné Libéré race in early June, the survivors will hit the bottom of the final 11-mile climb to the La Toussuire ski area, making its first Tour appearance.

Riders won't have much time to take in the breathtaking views up this dramatic climb that comes at the end of a spirit-breaking stage that surely will crown the eventual Tour winner.

Stage 19: July 22, Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines, 35.4 miles (individual time trial)

If there's still a battle for the overall, the Tour will be decided in this long, classic time trial. Quite hilly over narrower roads, the penultimate stage provides the last chance for the overall contenders to draw blood.

The final time trial is often a badge of honor for the eventual winner. Armstrong won the final time trial every year in his seven-year Tour reign except one, in 2004, when archrival Ullrich fell on wet roads and Armstrong eased up to avoid a crash.

From here, the surviving riders jump on one of France's high-speed trains to the suburbs of Paris for the final sprint down the Champs-Élysées in an annual tradition that remains one of sport's most endearing images.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com every year since 1996.