The Amaury Sport Organization has announced another unusual Tour de France route for 2010. Just as the 2009 route broke with tradition and started in the south of France, the 2010 route will break with at least one important tradition. However, it will pay homage to one of the Tour’s most enduring traditions, the Col du Tourmalet in a big way.
In broad strokes, the route sounds familiar enough. There will be two time trials, the first of which is the prologue, the second being the final time trial that falls on the Tour’s next-to-last day. There are six stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees, with just three mountain top finishes. Four stages will contain what the organizers call medium mountains and nine stages will be flat.
The Tour will begin Saturday, July 3 with an 8km prologue in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In years with even numbers, the Tour traditionally starts in a nation outside France and will ride two or three stages in other nations before entering France.
Again, in even numbered years, such as this one, upon entering France, the route typically continues a streak of cool, wet stages across the north of France as it begins a counterclockwise loop around the country. Ultimately, this results in hitting the Pyrenees Mountains first. For 2010, however, the route makes a gradual zig-zag from Rotterdam on its way to the cities of Brussels, Spa, Porte du Hainaut, Reims, Montargis, Gueugnon and Station des Rousses, before hitting the Alps first. Along the way, we know the riders will hit some hills and cobbles known in the Spring Classics.
The 2010 route features just two days in the high Alps with one, the stage into Morzine-Avoriaz culminating in a mountain top finish. The two stages will be broken up by a rest day, which suggests the ASO wants the riders rested for a second hard day in the Alps. And while the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz will fall in stage 8, on Sunday, July 11, the second Alpine stage, which will take in three Category 1 climbs before tackling the hors categorie ascent of the Col de la Madeleine will come in stage 9, on Tuesday, July 13. Set your Tivo now.
The finish in the town of St. Jean de Maurienne will be followed on stage 10, Wednesday, July 14, with what Tour organizers call a “medium” mountain stage. While exact route details haven’t been released just yet (more on that later), don’t think for a second that this will be an easy day. The route travels from Chambery to Gap and can be expected to take in several climbs in the Chartreuse Mountains before climbing through the Vercors on the way to Gap. The stage could feature a half-dozen climbs, or more.
The following Sunday, July 18, is when the real fireworks start, so if you were afraid of a repeat of this year wait-till-the-last-minute-to-determine-the-winner route, welcome to your nightmare. To be fair, the final week will be dramatic, if somewhat unusual in that the rest day won’t be at the beginning of the week, Monday, a week following the last rest day, but on Wednesday, July 21, some nine days after the last rest day. The riders should be sufficiently weary by this point.
Sunday, July 18, features the second of the mountain top finishes, with riders ascending the excruciating 2001-meter Port de Pailheres before tackling the final climb of Ax-3 Domaines to finish at the ski station there; both climbs average more than eight percent.
Stage 15, on Monday, July 19, the riders tackle what is supposed to be the second of four days in the Pyrenees, but the stage is, by Tour de France standards, relatively tame. There is but one climb of more than 1500m, the 1755m Port de Bales, which comes, thankfully, very near the end of the stage.
In stages 16 and 17, on Tuesday, July 20, and Thursday, July 22, is the 2010 Tour’s most interesting feature: Two acents of the Col du Tourmalet. On July 20 it comes mid-way into a mammoth climbing stage that features the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque. Unfortunately, the stage also features 41km of gentle downhill following the day’s final descent off the Aubisque. Whoever wins the stage is likely to weigh more than 60kg (132 lbs.), unfortunately.
On July 22, the race gives us its queen stage and while it won’t have the most climbing by meter (that came on stage 16), it will be the most interesting day of the race. Following the climbs of the Col de Marie Blanque, the Col du Soulor (both Category 1), the race will climb the Col du Tourmalet for the second time and for only the second time in history the stage will finish atop the mountain. The last time that happened was 1974.
On the first ascent of the Tourmalet on stage 16, riders will approach from the Col d’Aspin, passing through the town of Sainte Marie de Campan before ascending the Tourmalet’s somewhat easier eastern flank, passing through the ski village of la Mongie on the way to the top. However, on stage 17, riders will approach from Argeles-Gazost and climb the mountain’s more brutal western flank. While both sides average a 7.4 percent gradient, the western side is much steeper near the top with long stretches above 12 percent and the last 100m or so at 15 percent. Because there is barely room enough for the bar that sits on the scalpel of a ridge, riders will likely descend the 4km to la Mongie to meet up with support staff, team vehicles, climb the podium and, of course, give a sample for doping control.
Stage 18 gives the riders a bit of a chance to recover with a flat stage headed for Bordeaux wine country. Stage 19, on Saturday, July 24, features a 51km time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac through the dead-flat vineyards of the world’s most famous wine country. A transfer later that day will position riders for the annual parade into Paris.
Unlike the route introduction of many previous years, the ASO did not reveal all of the route information for each stage; that won’t be done until June. For many stages, the roads the riders will travel can be deduced from the towns situated at the foot of the climbs. If the riders pass through Argeles-Gazost and less than 20km later they are atop the Tourmalet, they can only be climbing the mountain’s western flank. So why withhold information about the route? While there could be a few reasons, there is one easy answer: Tour groups.
The ASO has done what it can to cut down on tour groups poaching premium watching spots. Tour companies advertising Tour de France itineraries have been sent cease and desist letters instructing them not to advertise such an itinerary unless they pay a fee (a rather exorbitant one last I read, one that would render any such tour an operating loss). On the Tour’s web site is an ad inviting folks to become Tour de France VIPs; the link takes you to a menu of three English-speaking and one French tour companies: Englishman Graham Baxter’s Sports Tours Int’l, the Aussie operation Bike Style Tours and a newer American outfit called Custom Getaways. On the French side is Ronan Pensec Travel.
It can be presumed these four operations are getting the same (or similar) hotel selection that the teams get, which will give them an advantage over any non-fee paying operation and when it comes to watching mountain stages, it’s locationlocationlocation. A well-chosen hotel will mean the difference between riding to your day’s end and getting in a car, van or bus and riding for an hour (or three) to your hotel.
Word from several insiders is that Trek Travel’s constant poaching of premium stage watching locations (complete with fenced-off, client-only areas) and hotels so chapped the ASO, they realized they had to clamp down on everyone. While some tour operators decided to focus on other locations in July (Dolomites, anyone?), others just bill their Tours differently; Trek Travel calls theirs Lance in France, which can mean but one thing for a tour starting July 3.
So what does this route mean for the racing? Naturally, we’re not likely to see a clear leader until the final week. Strategically, Alberto Contador is likely to race against Lance Armstrong and hope, a la Bernard Hinault, that blows the race apart. Armstrong will race The Shack against Contador’s team, no matter what team that is, attempting to wear them down and isolate Contador. Saxo Bank will race the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck as two sides of the same card.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International