Wednesday, October 22, 2008
PARIS: An innovative, demanding and exhausting 2009 Tour de France was outlined Wednesday in Paris to wide acclaim.
"A super route," said Jean-René Bernaudeau, director of the Bouygues team from France. "Also original. It will excite the riders."
Michel Laurent, an official of the Crédit Agricole team from France, which went out of business this month, was equally enthusiastic.
"Very different, very challenging," he said. "It should make for an open and exciting race."
Starting July 4 in Monaco and ending July 26 in Paris, the Tour will cover 3,445 kilometers, or 2,140 miles, in a clockwise direction around France, with excursions into Spain, Andorra, Switzerland and Italy.
To transit that much ground, two long transfers, one by plane and the other by train, will be needed. The distances between the end of any daily stage and the start of the next one look to be considerable, adding to travel time.
There will be 20 major climbs, a bit less than usual, with one of the toughest scheduled right before the finish.
In a major change, the individual time trial that traditionally is held on the next-to-last day has been moved two days earlier.
Instead, a climb up Mont Ventoux, the sleeping giant of Provence at 1,912 meters high, will be the setting for the penultimate stage.
Never before in the race's 105-year history has a mountain been climbed the day before the end.
Another change will see the restoration of the team time trial, for the first time since 2005. Two individual races against the clock, including one on the opening day, are on the agenda.
Two days off are also included. The first will fall on July 13 after the race passes through the Pyrenees and the second will be July 20, during the visit to the Alps.
For all the scandals that marked the Tour this year, the presentation ceremony was remarkable for its lack of comment about doping in bicycle racing.
In acknowledgment of the problem, however, images of four star riders who flunked drug tests were snipped out of the film that, looking at the previous race, opens the presentation.
The four are Bernhard Kohl, the top climber and third-place finisher this year; Stefan Schumacher, who won the two time trials; and Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli, who won three mountain stages between them.
"It is not an omission, it is not a mistake," said the race director, Christian Prudhomme. "They have nothing to do in the great book of the Tour de France."
Not much was said officially either about Lance Armstrong, who won the race from 1999 to 2005, then retired and now, at age 37, is flirting with a return to competing in the Tour.
Although he was not in attendance at the presentation, not since Banquo's ghost sat down in Macbeth's chair has an unseen presence so dominated the proceedings as Armstrong did.
"Where is Lance?" innumerable people asked in conversations. "How is Lance? Why is Lance...."
The answers to the first two are a snap. He is at home in Austin, Texas, training for his comeback and preparing for a race he sponsors.
"He looks very good," reported Angelo Zomegnan, director of the Giro d'Italia, who visited Armstrong a few weeks ago and signed him up to compete in that race. "He's only two kilos over his usual racing weight."
As for "Why is Lance?" - meaning what's behind his reluctance to commit to appear in the next Tour - one reason might be the official coolness to that prospect.
Many people in France believe Armstrong used illegal drugs to win his first Tour, which he vehemently denies. He has challenged a report in the French sports newspaper l'Equipe in 2005 that new tests detected drugs in his urine specimens from the 1999 Tour.
Prudhomme is on record as welcoming him if "he abides by the rules concerning doping and anti-doping, which have considerably evolved in the last few years."
"It is up to him to decide whether he wants to come or not," Prudhomme said Wednesday.
"His return would be neither a good nor a bad thing. Of course he is a special character, but for the Tour he is a rider like others."
Johan Bruyneel, manager of Armstrong's Astana team, said that there was only a 50-50 chance that the American would ride in the next Tour and that it would depend on whether organizers make him feel welcome.
"If he doesn't feel an atmosphere of respect and serenity, he won't do it," Bruyneel said. "For him, the goal of a comeback is not linked to an obsession to win an eighth Tour."
Armstrong has explained that he is returning to heighten awareness of cancer, which struck him in 1996. He heads a foundation that sponsors research into the disease.
In Belgium, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Eddy Merckx, Armstrong's friend and former mentor, is convinced the American will not race in the Tour next year.
Merckx, who won five Tours, said in Le Soir newspaper that the potential struggle between Armstrong and the 2006 Tour winner, Alberto Contador, within the Astana team was one factor against a comeback.
Armstrong's plan to ride the Giro and the Tour in the same year will also be too much, Merckx felt.
6 months ago