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TDF ’06 Route Analysis: It’s A Brand New Tour

That was the theme being espoused by the Amaury Sports Organisation as it unveiled the 2006 Tour de France. Hot on the heels of the denigrating bun fight that ensued after l’Equipe announced its big post-tour poop scoop, le Tour felt it necessary to dust off the crumbs and clear the air.

The smell of freshly minted MBA’s was everywhere as le Tour announcement was prefaced by a ‘rebranding’ exercise complete with values, mission, and even vague references to a strategic alliance with WADA.

Then there’s the globalization of the Tour. The route touches the soil of five countries this year including France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain as le Tour caravan rolls into new markets to the delight of promotion savvy sponsors.

But enough about branding, mission statements and globalization. On July 1 all is forgiven and it’s eyes east to Strasbourg. Here the prologue sets off to the sounds of oom-paah bands, Eurobeat and those nifty car horns you can only hear in the Tour. Skipping a rumoured passage into Germany, the route turns north toward Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium. Of course this is great news for cycling fans.

Racing across the roads of the northern classics, it’s all about cycling’s one-day uberstar Tom Boonen. With the first week of the Tour often characterized by the peloton spending the first 200km of a stage just trying to set up a lead-out train, this time it’s gonna be different. Remember what happened in 2004 when the stage crossed the pave of Paris Roubaix?

Even with only one ‘real’ change, the race is gonna look totally different.

Dutch Alpes?
With a stage finish in Valkenberg in the ‘Dutch Alpes’ (yup…the Dutch Alpes), and a depart from the famed town of Huy, there will be great expectations on the Belgian and Dutch riders to show the flag. This should be one of the more interesting editions of the first week of the tour.

The route heads back into France and continues west where the city of Rennes hosts the first 52km ITT. The beautiful cathedral will have GC hopefuls praying for good legs and a chance at the podium in Paris. But with 2,340km to go, the race is just beginning. The avid fans of the Bretagne region will be out in force to welcome both the riders and famous homeboy Bernard Hinault, as the race continues to the Atlantic coast.

The peloton could be gruppo compatto for the first time in a week when the lads board the plane for a transfer to the town of Bordeaux. This is the Tour’s only long transfer save the traditional final TGV ride to Paris – a welcome change for riders and media alike compared to last year’s hopscotch of planes, trains and automobiles. And did I say Bordeaux? This sounds like the perfect place to enjoy some wine and catch up with life in the village.

Getting High In The Pyrenees
Two stages later the course heads to the perennial Tour stop of Pau and a last chance for the sprinters before hitting the Pyrenees. The stage includes a couple of hefty climbs in the form of the col du Soudet and the col de Marie Blanque. But the Tour’s first high-mountain stage begins with Stage 11’s west to east assault on the col de Tourmalet.

The Tourmalet is long and high, but comes too early in the stage to be decisive. This route will approach from down that valley, and climb over the peak behind us.

Legendary in status, the Tourmalet is really not that tough compared to what the riders can expect when the race reaches the Alpes. But at this point that’s all relative. When the scamper begins up the Tourmalet, followed by the col d’Aspin, col de Peyresourde and the col du Portillon and finally ending atop the 1860m Pla-de-Beret, fans should see the GC starting to take shape. Still it’s a long way to Paris and there’s lots of time left for surprises. Stage 12 finds the riders fighting heat and big hills as the peloton begins its transition across the base of southern France enroute to an uncertain destiny in the alpes.

The medieval city of Carcassonne figures again as a weigh in between the two mountain ranges. Expect sweltering heat down here.

Get This Party Started
Confounding journalists who make predictions by going around and not over Mont Ventoux, the race takes a familiar course toward some hallowed ground. Snaking its way north through the region of les alpes Maritime, these boys will make the racing look easy. But while the route map doesn’t show any climbs, it’s not flat. The riders will know that there is an uphill bias all the way to Gap where the Tour’s second rest day waits for the weary.

Climbing over the lunar landscape of col d’Izoard (French for ‘Is So Hard’), the peloton descends toward Briancon only to begin the long grind up the col de Lautaret. Not really a mountain, the Lautaret is located at the base of the broad shouldered col du Galibier. Still a real climb though and what’s left of the peloton will have to be vigilant to protect their GC riders till they hit the alpe.

Alpe – What Alpe?
What alpe you say? That would be the alpe d’Huez – need we say more? Here on Stage 15 pretenders to the podium will see their dreams rudely crushed as the stage ends atop one of cycling’s most celebrated peaks.

All those nasty switchbacks are just the beginning of the fun on Alpe-d’Huez.

But the Tour won’t end at the alpe. The next day the riders retrace their steps back up the Lautaret where the peloton will begin another long day of climbing. Crossing the Galibier, the high point of the Tour, the course descends deep into the valley below only to begin the ascent of the dreadful col du Glandon.

The Glandon has not been a regular climb in the Tour. But you may remember the Glandon as the climb where a certain Postie feigned a bad day before ripping the legs of Jan Ullrich asunder on the ascent of alpe d’Huez.

Long, narrow, brutally steep at the top, the Glandon is best described as harsh. After cresting the Glandon the riders will turn left and continue a few kms along to the top of the adjoining col de la Croix de Fer, so named for the iron cross situated at its peak.

Part way down the long descent of the Croix de Fer, road construction will force the riders to detour up the col du Mollard (honest!) before continuing down to the valley floor and setting up a final ascent to the village of La Toussuire. I expect the race to stay together over the Galibier and up the road to the base of the Glandon. While the steep slopes of the Glandon with the ensuing long descent of the Croix de Fer and subsequent mountain finish at La Toussuire could tempt the brave, the GC riders will likely be trying to control the race, thinking more about surviving the next day’s fearsome stage to Morzine.

Marco Pantani on his way to Morzine in 2000.

The Road To Morzine
The road to Morzine has been the battle ground for many a memorable duel. It was here that Richard Virenque defeated the naysayers (at least the French ones) by soloing to a redemption of sorts in 2003. Or Marco Pantani, laying it all on the line in one of the Tour’s last best breakaway efforts, hoping to clear the air over his earlier victory on Mont Ventoux. Even the great one once struggled to keep the yellow jersey on the road to Morzine.

Starting with the Col de Saisies, followed in short succession by the col des Aravis, col de la Colombiere and the cote de Chatillon, the peloton will already be in tatters by the time it reaches the base of the Joux-Plane. Then the hard racing begins and ends with the final selection of the Tour. At only 11.7km in length and an average grade of 8.7%, the col de Joux-Plane isn’t too tough on paper – but the Tour isn’t ridden on paper. By the time the peloton crests the Joux-Plane before the short descent into Morzine, we will know who will be standing on the podium in Paris.

Last Chance TT
Like last year, the Tour’s final redemption comes on the penultimate Stage 19 – a 56km ITT around Le Creusot. Look for fans to be banging on pots and pans as the yellow jersey could still be up for grabs. While some may have fantasized over the final TT being held on the Champs Elysses, Le Creusot is only famous for its bright orange cookware. From here it’s all aboard the TGV for a train ride to Paris where a new Tour champion will be crowned for the first time since 1999.

Ivan Basso likely has the biggest smile heading to next year’s race, but the smiles on the fan’s faces is surely almost as big – it’ll be a whole new race.

This Time Is Gonna Be Different
With two ITT’s and 3 mountain finishes this course looks to present a fairly balanced test. But look again. First off, notable in its absence from the 2006 Tour is the Chrono par Equipes. Recently the TTT stage has been instrumental in creating time gaps on GC that lasted all the way to Paris. The exclusion of the TTT won’t be good news for teams like CSC that performed so well in this event last year – or for T-Mobile.

Then look at the mountain stages. While the Tour says three mountain finishes, I count four. The stage finish at Morzine may be downhill but there won’t be time on the short and tricky descent to make up the time gaps that will have occurred on the Joux-Plane.

Then there’s the profile of some of the climbs. The Alpe d’Huez, col du Glandon, and Joux-Plane are going to be giving Jan Ullrich nightmares this winter. These are the steep climbs and uneven gradients that he has so often struggled with. And if anyone is even thinking about riding themselves into shape on the col du Tourmalet – that’s gonna leave a mark.

Regardless of who’s in the race, Ullrich will like the long time trials.

Who Will Win – Your Guess Is As Good As…
If you have to ask, I think about the two chronos with a combined distance of 108kms and immediately Jan Ullrich comes to mind. In 2005 he shaved 0:53 seconds off Vinokourov and 1:31 off Basso over a 55km ITT. Multiply that by two and the rest could be history. And he can climb – in 2004 he dented Basso’s hopes by 1:22 on the ITT up l’alpe d’Huez.

So what am I thinking? Well there was the climb to Courcheval in last year’s Tour where Basso took 1:04 out of Ullrich. And the stage to Ax-3-Domaines where he took another 18 seconds on a control stage, followed by a further 1:24 enroute to Pla d’Adet. If Basso wasn’t riding in the shadow of Lance Armstrong he might have done more.

And the fact that Lance won’t be racing can’t be overlooked. For the first time Ullrich will have to defend – something he isn’t used to. Everyone knows they will have to beat Ullrich in the Alpes and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Unlike Armstrong, Ullrich hasn’t had the team (will next year be any different?) and he isn’t so dominant as to dictate a mountain stage the way Armstrong could. So he will be under constant attack and Basso isn’t the only other potential winner he will have to defend against. Ullrich has never been tactically astute – the only Tour he won was at the side of mentor Bjarne Riis. So it will be interesting to see if he has the savvy to hang on until the Tour’s final chrono. Still, the race likely won’t be over until he crosses the line in Montceau-les-Mines. So mark down stages 15,16,17 and19 in your calendar.

But like we said at the beginning, it’s a brand new Tour and I think it will crown a “brand new” champion. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you in France!

TDF ’06 Stage List
P Saturday, July 1st 7 km Strasbourg (TT)
1 Sunday, July 2nd 183 km Strasbourg > Strasbourg
2 Monday, July 3rd 223 km Obernai > Esch-sur-Alzette
3 Tuesday, July 4th 216 km Esch-sur-Alzette > Valkenburg
4 Wednesday, July 5th 215 km Huy > Saint-Quentin
5 Thursday, July 6th 219 km Beauvais > Caen
6 Friday, July 7th 184 km Lisieux > Vitrй
7 Saturday, July 8th 52 km Saint-Grйgoire > Rennes (TT)
8 Sunday, July 9th 177 km Saint-Mйen-le-Grand > Lorient
R Monday, July 10th Rest day – Bordeaux
9 Tuesday, July 11th 170 km Bordeaux > Dax
10 Wednesday, July 12th 193 km Cambo-les-Bains > Pau
11 Thursday, July 13th 208 km Tarbes > Val d’Aran – Pla-de-Beret
12 Friday, July 14th 211 km Luchon > Carcassonne
13 Saturday, July 15th 231 km Bйziers > Montйlimar
14 Sunday, July 16th 181 km Montйlimar > Gap
R Monday, July 17th Rest day
15 Tuesday, July 18th 187 km Gap > L’Alpe d’Huez
16 Wednesday, July 19th 182 km Bourg d’Oisans > La Toussuire
17 Thursday, July 20th 199 km Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne > Morzine
18 Friday, July 21st 193 km Morzine > Mвcon
19 Saturday, July 22nd 56 km Le Creusot > Montceau-les-Mines (TT)
20 Sunday, July 23rd 152 km Antony-Parc de Sceaux > Paris Champs-Йlysйes
TOTAL 3,639 km

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