Le Parcours


ASO has a dilemma. Cycling fans all over the world don’t much like the course for the 2009 Tour de France. The criticism of the course has been consistent: No fireworks. It’s a shame, really. The Tour’s technical director created a course that was intended to make stage 20 up Mt. Ventoux pivotal.

It’s easy to make the case for ASO’s decision: They wanted the outcome of the race to remain in play for as long as possible. It was a response to what they considered conservative racing on previous mountain stages when the leaders would ride tempo marking each other and rarely attacking. They wanted a worthy victor to be found at the last possible moment—on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.

It’s an interesting idea, but the dissatisfaction the public feels illustrates the problem. You follow the Tour de France to see dramatic racing on a daily basis. If ASO wants a winner-take-all race decided on hors categorie climbs, then they should revive the Classique des Alpes.

Any one stage would have been acceptable in another year’s course. A mountain stage without a mountain finish isn’t a problem, but when there are so many of them they become a pattern, we’re deprived of the detonations that are so thrilling.

Further, had the GC been more thoroughly clarified, if not decided, then George Hincapie would not have been in a position to take the yellow jersey, if only for a day. Garmin had their reason to chase—to avoid a split—but as an example of negative racing, what they did was minor compared to Columbia’s efforts to disrupt the sprint. Chases get disrupted all the time, but everyone expects a sprint to unfold with all possible haste.

To be utterly fair to the ASO, if their goal was drama, then they did, in fact, succeed. In movie making, the worst thing that a director can allow to happen is for the audience to become bored and tune out. In “Psycho,” that Janet Leigh takes a shower isn’t interesting, but our anticipation keeps us riveted. Our expectation for drama has kept us tuning in.

The sense of relief at the mountaintop finish on Verbiers elicited world-wide Twitters of “fireworks.” The shame for ASO is that while the audience is happy, Verbiers provided exactly the thing they wanted to avoid—a GC selection so clear as to determine the final victor.

But that’s the score isn’t it? Contador is almost unquestionably the finest rider in the race. It’s unlikely any GC contender can put even a minute into him in the final TT.

Tour de France 2009 stg 14 Verbier 19-07-09

The question remains: Did ASO really miss the mark? After all, you, I, and the rest of the world have been on the edge of our seats waiting for Anthony Perkins to pull back the shower curtain. However, the course does have a significant flaw. By awarding double points to the final climb of each stage, rather than just those final climbs placed at the end of the stage and used for an uphill finish, the organizer has allowed the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains to be held by the least deserving leader of the classification since Laurent Jalabert won it in 2002 (as likable as Jalabert is, he wasn’t the best climber that year, not by a longshot), after finishing the race in 42nd place overall, more than 1:17 down on Lance Armstrong. Franco Pellizotti sits in 46th place, 24.26 down on Contador.

Jalabert’s win was the reason the ASO elected to double points on the final climb of each stage. Had the organizer awarded double points only on Arcalis and Verbiers, Pellizotti would not be in the polka-dot jersey and Alberto Contador would be within striking distance of it, if not already in possession of the famed maillot pois.

We’re more than two weeks into the Tour and the first real shakeout in the GC has just taken place. The ASO rarely makes the same mistake twice, so we’re not likely to see another Tour take this long to separate the gold from the ore.

Tour de France 2009 stg 14 Verbier 19-07-09

Contador’s performance on Verbier puts his muscle-flexing on Arcalis in a new light. While his attack on Arcalis did nothing to dispel the leadership tension within the team, he did the team a huge favor by not taking the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. Astana would have been worked by now if they had spent the last week defending the jersey.

Contador may be possessed of more self-confidence than one might otherwise guess. And though Cadel Evans told the AFP that Bradley Wiggins could still win the Tour, it seems more than likely the only podium spot that’s still in play is that lowest spot. It could go to either Wiggins or Andy Schleck … or maybe Andreas Kloden.

Provided Contador doesn’t lose time in the Annecy time trial, his lead should allow him to ride conservatively on Mont Ventoux. He may be the only rider who won’t have to worry about attacks. Perhaps the most interesting question remaining is if Bruyneel will try to sweep the podium with Contador, Armstrong and Kloden. It would be an historic performance.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.

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  1. Henry

    It may have been an accident but the course was a godsend for attracting a big US audience for the Tour. As as long as Armstrong was riding at the front of a rather conservative peloton they could keep up the drama of his quest for yellow.

    They will need a new narrative now to keep from losing that audience. Lance riding for Contador if spun right could do it. If they can keep Lance in contention for a podium spot all the better. For Contador it could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Not just the tour win but if Armstrong and Bruyneel were to launch a Livestrong team built around Contador it would guarantee him a stellar career. He couldn’t ask for better management/mentors.

  2. Dan-o

    The race has not been decided yet. there are significant mountain stages, including Mont Ventoux and a 40k TT. Contador is not above having a bad day and could easily lose minutes on any of these days. The brothers Schlek and Wiggins can still win this race.

  3. Vlaanderen2010

    good insight, Padraig. It is refreshing to read an article on the course from a perspective other than the general rah rah that comes with trying to make something significant out of something bland. I think the route failed this year in multiple ways- the team time trial was too soon after the start; the Pyrenees stages were insignificant; the time trial comes too late- it would have been better placed in the middle of the race between the Pyrenees and Alps stages- and the placement of Mont Ventoux, while a great climb to include, is too late in the race to prove pivotal, and too hard a climb for the contenders to ride aggressively. I also, personally speaking, feel that the race going into Spain and Switzerland, and Monaco and Andorra for that matter, is needless. This is the Tour de France after all.

  4. George

    In general, I agree with both sides. I too want the decisive stage to come at the end and I want more mountain top fireworks. The real problem isn’t the parcours, it’s the racers.

    When I’m on the rollers in the winter, I watch the 86 and 89 tours over and over I would love to watch a tour like 89 with todays coverage. Even when Fignon was in yellow, he was attacking, and not in the mountains, but on the flats and in 86 did Hinault do anything but?

    Have we become so calculating that this will never happen again?

    Maybe, Schleck will make good on his promise to attack and maybe Saxo Bank will use Voight and Spartacus to rip Astana apart on the flats.

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for the great (and funny) comments.

      George, like you’ve I’ve often wished I could get hours and hours of the ’86 and ’89 Tours, less because LeMond won than because there was aggressive racing.

  5. Barrie M

    Racers make the race. People need to remember that the Tour is a celebration of France. Much of the race is a big parade, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s the way it is. Other than 2 or 3 stages of time trialing and 5 or 6 days of climbing, the other 12 stages are 200km of fairly uneventful racing with a sprint at the end. The only fault I can find at this years tour is that they put legendary climbs early or in the middle of the stage so they couldn’t be decisive (Stage 9). Also, I think it’s about time that they changed the final stage back into an ITT. The most exciting Tours in recent memory aren’t due to the route, but to the lack of a clearly superior rider (like an Armstrong or Contador).

  6. Larry T.

    LeTour’s 2009 route seems to have been chosen to make the final result unknown until the next-to-last day. But worse, it seems the rest of the route, as in the start/finish towns were chosen NOT on sporting issues (ie ones that make an exciting stage) but rather on which towns would pony up the euros to secure the publicity that comes with being a start/finish venue. A sporting choice would have been to continue to Luz Ardiden and a summit finish rather than slogging along to Tarbes and essentially castrating what could have been a dramatic and difficult stage in the Pyrenees. Same with the stage through Italy–they could have turned off a bit sooner in the Aosta valley and taken the very tough (10 kms @ 10%) Colle San Carlo on their way to La Thuile, then continued over Petit San Bernard rather than the sort of bland route they chose. I wonder if the worldwide TV ratings will show less actual interest or it’s all just bitching and moaning by avid bike racing enthusiasts? I certainly watched far less (both on TV and the ‘net) this time round!

    1. Author

      Great points all.

      Larry: You may be onto something; bike racing enthusiasts probably aren’t satisfied unless we see guys detonating on epic climbs. I do think this year’s Tour has gotten more media coverage here in the States, if only for Armstrong’s presence. And only a bike tour guide could know the roads well enough to improve on a stage’s design.

      Even if I haven’t liked some of the stages, I have to give ASO credit for achieving their goal: With four days to go, the podium is still in play, even if we don’t think the yellow jersey is. Today’s stage was nothing if not dramatic.

  7. bikesgonewild

    …perhaps this “type” of tour route would be more appropriate as a vuelta d’ espana parcours in that it rather reminds me of a bullfight…as such, i guess it really is contador’s race…

    …lots of pomp & circumstance, false bravado & nervous pawing at the ground in the beginning…we know we’ll see blood on the sand in the end but who’s will it be ???…

    …all those long flat, fast stages plus the ttt…the picadors soften things up, take some strength out of the neck & legs of the beast or it’s all much too dangerous…

    …then, rather than decisive climbs in the pyrenees as we might get in a more traditional tour, we get more softening by attrition as the banderillos create more bloodletting to sap more strength…

    …but is the matador confident in his early cape work or does the beast still have the edge ???…things are heating up but nothing is really decided & personally, i think the matador, despite carrying himself well & looking resplendent in his yellow ‘suit of lights’ is a man w/ fear in his heart…

    …now we have the major climbs & the itt, the small red muleta & the sword, close in, artistic, even taunting w/ the drama to be drawn out in front of the crowd…can the matador be confident to stand in close & make a clean kill…
    …the crowd will ultimately decide if the matador & the beast fought bravely…

    …anyway, padraig…just a different take on an obviously different parcours…i’d even suggest that like a team & it’s riders are obligated to carefully decide how to ride each stage, it’s for us as fans to appreciate the race presented to us each year rather than criticize it…

    …it gets boring if the race plays out the same each year, even if the course is run on different roads…

  8. Flahute

    Personally, I’ve found this year’s race to be anything but boring, simply because of the political drama within Astana …

    Long breakaways have been succeeding, rather than being shut down in the last 1-2km by sprinters teams as they usually are, which has also helped improve the drama factor of the race …

    And even after today’s TT stage, there could still be a major shuffle on the Ventoux on Saturday; this race will not be over until Paris.

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