Tour sports new twists, but old-staple stages still pose challenge
The French are proud of their Tour de France and don't want anyone messing with it.
The Tour is innately French, like good cheese, 35-hour work weeks and national transportation strikes.
It's a summer tradition and France's best chance to preen center stage in one of the world's most colorful spectacles. Granddads bring grandkids down to the side of the road to have a picnic, sip some chilled rosé, watch the publicity caravan roll past and then cheer (such things as chapeau and allez!) as the peloton speeds by in a blur.
So it's a surprise to see some changes -- however minor -- introduced to this year's edition, changes that wrinkle the tried-and-true Tour de France blueprint.
The French typically resist change, but for 2008, the Tour organization decided to make several modifications that could have a serious impact on the outcome of the race.
"Within reasonable parameters, the organizers of the Tour de France shouldn't have restrictions," said race director Christian Prudhomme in an interview in the Tour's official guide. "I wanted to avoid stereotypical scenarios."
First, there's no opening prologue.
Since 1967, the Tour's first day of racing was a hotly contested, short race against the clock to decide the first yellow jersey. It seemed a great way for fans to watch the big stars race one at a time in a head-to-head battle that came down to the slenderest of margins (American George Hincapie lost the 2006 opening prologue by 0.73 seconds).
Prudhomme had a great idea: Why not let them sprint for it?
And it's going to make for one hell of a sprint. This year, the Tour gets right down to business, with a hilly first stage from Brest to Plumelec featuring four Category 4 climbs. The route loops across the heart of France's lush Brittany region before ending up the punchy Côte de Cadoudal (2 kilometers at 5 percent grade), with one section at an 8 percent grade just before a switchback with 300 meters to go.
It's going to be a free-for-all, as all 200 starters believe they might have a chance to be in yellow at the end of the day.
Change No. 2 -- no more time bonuses.
The top finishers of each stage typically would earn time bonuses (20, 12 and eight seconds shaved off for the top three), as well as usually up to three "hot sprints" dotted along the course (six, four and two seconds) each day to liven up the action.
The bonuses gave the sprinters a fighting chance to regain time lost in the opening prologue and make a run in the yellow jersey before the first big mountain stages. Hincapie, who lost that opening prologue by less than a second, won the maillot jaune the following day when he earned a two-second bonus.
This year, with no opening prologue and the first long, individual time trial coming in Stage 4 (another change because typically it comes toward the end of the first week, or, like last year, after the first mountain stages in Stage 13), the Tour brass decided to do away with bonuses altogether.
"I prefer things in real time," Prudhomme said. "I like the idea that a winner's overall time in Paris corresponds with the actual time it took him to complete the race."
Time bonuses can have a major outcome on the final general classification. American Levi Leipheimer lost a morale-boosting top-five in 2005 on the final day romp into Paris when perennial attacker (and now banned doper) Alexandre Vinokourov snagged finish-line bonuses to relegate Leipheimer to sixth. Last year, Leipheimer lost out on second place overall after he was penalized 10 seconds for an illegal tow following a nasty crash in the Alps and had to settle on third, just eight seconds behind runner-up Cadel Evans. That type of penalty remains in effect.
A third tweak is the reduction of distances in the individual time trials.
This year sees 82 kilometers against the clock (compared to 117.4 last year), a critical difference for GC hopefuls like Carlos Sastre and Damiano Cunego, featherweight climbers who struggle against brawnier riders on the mostly flat, big-ring courses.
All these changes are designed to keep the suspense in the race as long as possible, avoiding a scenario often seen during the heyday of Spanish rider Miguel Indurain, who would take huge, five-minute gains in the time trials and ride defensively in the mountains (a tactic that Evans already says he's hoping to copy).
Despite these adjustments and their veneer of modernity, the three-week suffering fest remains essentially unchanged. The route sees the return of such monolithic climbs as the Tourmalet, the Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez. It stays safely within the confines of France (except for a two-day excursion in Italy) and ends as it has every year, except once, in Paris.
The Tour remains Le Tour. At its core, it hasn't changed and probably never will. That's enough to keep the French happy.
Here are the key battlegrounds:
Stage 1, Saturday, July 5: Brest to Plumelec, 197.5 km
This stage could see attackers, GC faves and the sprinters riding into yellow, so it's sure to deliver a surprise first leader. From here to the mountains, which are still more than a week away, the key is to avoid crashing, illnesses and losing contact with the pack. Once time is lost in the Tour, it's very hard to wrench it back.
Stage 4, Tuesday, July 8: Cholet-Cholet, 29.5 km (individual time trial)
Shorter is the key word for the first of two time trials in this year's Tour. At less than 30 kilometers, this rolling course will create opportunities for the pure time-trial specialists, like reigning world time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank), but it shouldn't create such huge differences between the overall favorites. At least that's what the Tour brass is hoping for. Despite the shorter distance, riders like Evans will need to try to build a cushion versus the lean climbers heading toward the Pyrenees.
Stage 6, Thursday, July 10: Aigurande to Super-Besse, 195.5 km
With the first of four summit finishes coming before the first week is out, the Category 2 hump up Super-Besse should provide the first clues as to who can win the overall. These aren't the true mountains, but rather the highly unpredictable terrain of the rough-hewn Massif Central. With its unrelenting series of plateaus and valleys, it is ideal country for "headbangers," hard-nosed men like Jens Voigt (CSC-Saxo Bank) or Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), who liven up the race with daring raids that can threaten any overall favorite caught sleeping. The Super-Besse summit isn't particularly fierce, but it includes ramps as steep as 12 percent and will surely cause some fractures in the pack. If the main bunch comes in together, riders like Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who shine during the classics with their deadly top-end speed after a hard climb, could make their presence felt early.
Stage 10, Monday, July 14: Pau to Hautacam, 156 km
It's Bastille Day, so French riders will be killing themselves to win on France's Fourth of July. The beyond-category steeps of Hautacam (17 km at 7 percent) and the legendary Col du Tourmalet (18 km at 8 percent) earlier in the stage present a formidable hurdle for any would-be heroes. The primaries are over, so this is a day for the GC contenders to declare their candidacy for overall victory. Hautacam has only been featured three times in the Tour, but each time the man wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the day carried it all the way to Paris. That's unlikely this year because the Alps still loom, but Hautacam will certainly reveal who won't be winning the Tour. Coming a day after the first romp across the Pyrenees in Stage 9, any significant time lost here will almost be impossible to regain. On a cold, rainy day in 2000, Lance Armstrong used Hautacam to fortify his second of seven Tour crowns, taking out more than three minutes on Jan Ullrich and five minutes on Marco Pantani. It's a day for attacking and consolidating position on the GC contenders.
Stage 15, Sunday, July 20: Embrun to Prato Nevoso, Italy, 183 km
The Tour returns to Italy for the first time since 1999, when Armstrong won atop Sestriere in a stunning exhibition that confirmed his ability to climb in the high mountains. A first-time Tour finish, the Category 1 summit of Prato Nevoso (8 km at 8 percent) is just steep and long enough that a rider could launch an attack and drill it all the way to the top. The potentially explosive climb was featured in the 2000 Giro d'Italia, when eventual winner Stefano Garzelli dropped race leader Francesco Casagrande. The Italians will be trying to win on home roads, so watch for an early breakaway with riders named Gianni, Matteo and Paolo.
Stage 16, Tuesday, July 22: Cuneo, Italy, to Jausiers, 157 km
Sandwiched between two summit finishes, many might be tempted to overlook this two-climb return back to France because it doesn't end atop a mountain. That could be a costly mistake for anyone thinking this will be routine. Coming a day after the second rest day, this stage could turn the Tour upside down. The stage tackles the never-before-used Col de la Lombarde (21.2 km at 7 percent) on the French-Italian border before an eye-watering descent to the base of the giant Cime de la Bonette-Restefond (26.7 km at 6.2 percent). At 2802 meters above sea level, it's the highest point of this year's Tour and is only being used for the fourth time in the race's history. The savage climb will certainly whittle the pack down to a few lone survivors, but the real battle will come on its harrowing 22-kilometer downhill over recently paved roads. Excellent descenders, such as Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), will be able to gap the field and drop unsure downhillers like Sastre.
Stage 17, Wednesday, July 23: Embrun to L'Alpe d'Huez, 210.5 km
Epic is the only word to describe this four-climb death march across the Alps. With almost 15,000 vertical feet of climbing, two beyond-category climbs -- the Galibier and the Croix de la Fer -- are stacked up before the peloton hits the base of cycling's most famous climb up to L'Alpe d'Huez. The climb has been featured 24 times in the Tour, but only two eventual winners won here (Fausto Coppi in 1952 and Armstrong in 2001 and 2004). Breakaways littered with non-threatening riders have chances to stay clear as the weary GC favorites save what remaining resources they have for the final assault up the 21 switchbacks or lacet, as they're called in French. Throngs of fans line the road (one even knocked over eventual stage-winner Giuseppe Guerini in 1999) as riders knife single-file through a sea of flags, fans and banners. This stage could break the back of any leader who's not up to the task.
Stage 20, Saturday, July 26: Cérilly to Saint-Armand-Montrond, 53 km (individual time trial)
After a race loaded with new twists, the Tour gets back to its roots in the penultimate stage. Following the script from previous Tours, this stage is a time trial, long and mostly flat. It's a final chance for the overall classification to be sorted, typically with the yellow jersey well in hand. That's not to say the long distance couldn't wreak havoc on a climber who came out of the Alps nursing a narrow lead. Sastre sank from second to fourth on a similar course in 2006. Typically, the strongest riders, not the specialists, perform well in the final time trial.
Stage 21, Sunday, July 27, Étampes to Paris (Champs-Élysées), 143 km
It ain't over 'til it's over -- a bad crash or an injury can happen to anyone, anywhere, even to the yellow-jersey holder on the final day. Typically, this is a coronation parade, when riders can relax after three hard weeks of racing to enjoy some champagne. Things rev up when the pack hits Paris for eight laps on a 6.5-kilometer finishing circuit on the Champs-Élysées, where the sprinters usually hold court. There's no guarantee. In 1979, Joop Zoetemelk and Dietrich Thurau attacked with Bernard Hinault two minutes clear of the bunch.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.
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