What's Cool In Road Cycling

TDF08: Parcours Up Close – Week 1

After digesting the 2008 parcours, it was clearly impossible to present our take one sitting. This Part 1 – the PEZ eyewitness eye-view, looks at the opening week that takes the riders from northwestern Brittany though 8 stages to the steps of the Pyrenees.

For our closer look at the key sections of the race, I’ve called on the gallant PEZ-Crew, whose first-hand experience riding and racing in France, seeing le Tour up close and of course reporting on Le Grand Boucle the past few years, should offer up at the very least fodder for discussion on your Saturday ride and some useable knowledge for placing your bets on this year’s race, if not a different perspective on presenting the parcours.

Each year we look to the presentation with huge expectations for a parcours to beat all others – we all have favorite stages and elements of the race that we want to see. And usually the ASO come out with a route that pleases at least some, but also inspires a lot of head scratching. At first glance, the 2008 layout was no different, but on closer inspection, it does have some cool elements that might make for some great racing.

Tour de France 2008 Stage List
1. Saturday 5 July Brest – Plumelec 195 km
2. Sunday 6 July Auray – Saint-Brieuc 165 km
3. Monday 7 July Saint-Malo – Nantes 195 km
4. TT Tuesday 8 July Cholet – Cholet 29 km
5. Wednesday 9 July Cholet – Chвteauroux 230 km
6. Mtn Thur 10 July Aigurande – Super-Besse Sancy 195 km
7. Mtn Friday 11 July Brioude – Aurillac 158 km
8. Saturday 12 July Figeac – Toulouse 174 km
9. Mtn Sun 13 July Toulouse – Bagnиres-de-Bigorre 222 km
10. Mtn Monday 14 July Pau – Hautacam 154 km
Rest Day Tuesday 15 July Pau
11. Mtn Wed 16 July Lannemezan – Foix 166 km
12. Thursday 17 July Lavelanet – Narbonne 168 km
13. Friday 18 July Narbonne – Nоmes 182 km
14. Saturday 19 July NоmesDigne-les-Bains 182 km
15. Mtn Sun 20 July Digne-les-Bains – Prato Nevoso 216 km
Rest Day Monday 21 July Cuneo
16. Mtn Tue 22 July Cuneo – Jausiers 157 km
17. Mtn Wed 23 July Embrun – L’Alpe-d’Huez 210 km
18. Mtn Thur 24 July Bourg-d’Oisans – Saint-Йtienne 197 km
19. Friday 25 July RoanneMontluзon 163 km
20. TT Saturday 26 July Cйrilly – Saint-Amand-Montrond 53 km
21. Sun 27 July Йtampes – Paris 143 km
Total km: 3500

The Chateau Raoul is the 10th century chateau that gives “chateauroux” its name (hosting the st.5 finish) . It was built by ‘Raoul Le Large’ (now that’s a moniker.)

My assessment of the 2007 route was that it made for a great race… in the last 10 days. But I mistakenly placed too much emphasis on the route itself to determine the quality of the race – which in fact turned into a daily thrill ride from the start gun in London to the final TT results in Angoulкme.

Phil Liggett is right (he usually is when it comes to bike racing) – it’s the riders who make a race great. The organizers can only present a worthy stage upon which to wage the epic battles we hope for.

My first reaction to the 2008 parcours was to stifle a yawn, and resign my hopes to 2009 for a route that is truly inspirational – something with the panache and history of the 2003 parcours that recreated the original stages and played out as the most exciting tour of the Lance era. Then I remembered what makes PEZCycling different… and quickly realized that if we can’t find what’s cool about the 2008 Tour de France… I might as well start writing for some other mag…

Le Grand Depart next year expands from just one town to a whole region (for the first time ever). The Breton region is also home to some great (and I mean GREAT) riders like Bernard Hinault. This shot form 1980 could foreshadow the sketchy weather Bretons refer to as ‘summer’.

Here’s What You Get
The 2008 course is classically French – some great bits – like finishes at the Hautacam and Alpe d’Huez, crossings of the mighty Tourmalet and Galibier, and as always some real head scratchers.

The race starts July 5th in Brittany in the Northwest corner of France, and runs counter clockwise, dodging into the center at Chateroux to cross the Massif Central on its way to the Pyrenees. It’s 3454km long with 21 stages.

Three days in the Pyrenees reveal only 2 high mountain days, which kind of bites for anyone (like me) who appreciates the epic mountain battles that define this great race.

The traditional flat stages carry the race across the hot south, enroute to 3 days in the Alps and a stop – and start in Italy. Here we get our 3 high mountain days, including the races Queen stage (17) from Embrun to Alpe d’Huez, which also crosses the Galiber, Croix de Fer, and finally the always epic Alpe D’Huez.

Stage 3 from Saint-Malo to Nantes will see some stunning scenery – that is if you like wheat.

The final four stages carry the race back across the Massif Central, stopping in Tour favorite St. Etienne, and a final TT (53km) in Saint-Amand, before the final parade into Paris in July 27th.

Overall, the transfers between stage starts & finishes have been reduced big time from previous years. This is gonna save the riders many hours of tiresome (and exhausting) travel time between hotels and the race, which should result in more well-rested racers (and certainly fewer pissed off racers), hopefully giving us fans a higher quality of racing.

I Wonder Why…
There’s no Prologue… My anecdotal research revealed overwhelming support for the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance that is the Tour Prologue. Sure it does little to affect GC, but it does give us an inkling of who’s on good form, and is as much a part of le Grande Boucle as the Pyrenees, Alps, and the finish in Paris. The Tour website offers up a generic “official” press-written version of how the opening road stage will be a 200 rider maillot-jaune free for all, and my requests for info from the ASO went unanswered. This all leads me to believe that the Breton region ponied up a whack more cash than any single city or town could to host the opener, so why not have it their way… this is business, after all.

Everyone on the planet to ASO: bring back the TTT!

There’s no Team Time Trial Who doesn’t love the TTT? I know the ASO reads the press, even the English language websites… so they must know how much fans love this most cool event. In a time when bike racing needs all the help it can get to regain the public (and sponsors’) interest… why would you not include the coolest elements you can? … Maybe next year.

There Are Only 5 High Mountain Days
The Tour stage list defines a bunch of stages as ‘medium mountains’… but the ASO hasn’t shown us the profiles yet, so only they know how tough these days might be… But come on… the race is three weeks long – can’t you just give us 6 high mountain days? That should be a law.


WEEK 1: ‘Plus’ Cool Than You Think
Week 1 – July 5-12: Stages 1-8
Simeon Green lives in France, and races Cat.1 team CA Castelsarrasin. He recently covered the Tour presentation for us, and has first hand knowledge of riding many of the roads for this year’s race. Ed Hood represents the ‘old-guard’ (but never crusty) on PEZ, he’s covered two Tours for PEZ, witnessed countless stages roadside and has raced many of these roads in the 1970’s.

This race starts in Brittany, and as the ASO press info reminds us: “It’s a fundamental principle: a Tour that starts in Brittany finishes with the crowning of a cycling giant.” Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and Indurain all won Tours that started here… not a bad roll of honor, and an interesting tidbit if nothing else.

Stage LookStages 1, 2, and 3 essentially criss-cross the Breton peninsula, going southeast, north-east, and due south… which, given the winds of the area, should provide enough blowing to confuse and catch out at least some of the bunch. GC hopefuls will need to stay alert and near the front to avoid any embarrassing droppings so early in the race.

Sim Sez: Punch It Up
Brittany is called the “heart-land of French cycling”, partly because it’s the region with the most licensed cyclists and the most cycling clubs in France. The fans are hugely passionate and love the sport to bits. This has always seemed ironic to me personally, because it is wet and windy up there.

The roads are basically flat, but not Normandy flat. There are a lot of short sharp steep hills up there. Hills for “punchers” with a lot of power. Lightweight guys don’t get an advantage on those hills. The big thing up there, however, is the weather. Especially in the first week of the Tour which is always filled with crashes, add in the lack of prologue and the wind and you could have yourself a crash-fest.

The last time the Tour finished in Saint-Brieuc, your quintessential young, tough, punchy rider took the day: Filippo Pozzato.

Some of the northern and the Belgian teams will know how to ride these stages, and although the Tour will not be won in Brittany, if you get caught out in a “bordure” (ie: get put in the gutter and caught behind a gap/echelon etc) your Tour could be over pretty fast.

Ed Sez: Know Your Ermines
The 2008 Tour de France isn’t really starting in France; just as we Scots get upset if you call us ‘English’, Bretons aren’t keen on being branded ‘French’.

There is nary a place in the world as bike crazy as the hearty folks in Bretagne…take note of the flag.

If you check-out the neat little national flag rider name labels on the top tube of the Francaise des Jeux Lapierres, you’ll notice that the likes of double classic winner, ‘Fred’ Guesdon doesn’t have a French flag beside his name.
Instead there’s a flag that looks like a monochrome United States, ‘stars and bars,’ this is the Gwen ha Du (black and white) of Brittany, the stripes represent the ancient regions of Brittany, but the little ‘stars’ are in fact representations of ermine.

The story goes that an ermine (a weasel-like stoat in its white winter garb) was cornered by hunters’ dogs, there was an escape route, but it would have meant the ermine getting his lovely coat dirty, he wouldn’t soil his white fur and succumbed to the dogs rather than get dirty. The motto of Brittany is, ‘Rather death than the stain’ – the stain being loss of honour.

Bernard Hinault is the archetypal Breton; stubborn, determined and never more dangerous than when it looked like all wa lost, hence ‘the badger’ nickname.

As well as its own flag, the region has its own language, Breton which more than half-a-million people still speak. The French Government has given ever-more autonomy to the pesky Bretons to keep them ‘sweet,’ but you won’t see ‘F’ (for France) on Breton cars, it’s always ‘BZH’ for Breizh – Brittany.

This is as close to Flanders as it gets in France, many foreign stars have cut their teeth here, not least being, the late, great Tom Simpson who launched his continental career in Saint Brieuc, where stage two of the 2008 race will finish.

Hold on to that front wheel and try to offer up some kind of sacrifice to the howling winds…your legs should suffice.

Brittany is characterised by plateaus separated by rivers, which have carved steep-sided valleys, making for tough racing country.

The three stages in Brittany are closer to ‘transition’ stages than they are to ‘sprinters’ stages, this is tough racing country; but the scent of the yellow jersey will be strong in the nostrils of Boonen, McEwen and Bennati, so they’ll dig deep over the Monts d’Arree and Montagnes Noires ranges which have to be traversed on stage one from Brest to Plumelec.

In 1977, my 2007 Giro chauffeur, Dave Chapman and I rode the Roscoff to Lorient road race, as part of the ‘Inter – Celtic Festival’ which is held annually in Lorient to celebrate Brittany’s links with Wales, Ireland and Scotland – all Celtic cultures. With the likes of future Primavera winner, Marc Gomez lining-up at the start, our fate wasn’t hard to imagine, but we lasted long enough to sample typical Breton parcours.

The route was north to south across Brittany, whilst stage two in the 2008 Tour will run south to north, Auray to St. Brieuc; but the profile will be very similar – fast flat stretches alternating with tough hills, but even on the flat, finding a rhythm is difficult on the rough surfaces.

Local knowledge is a big help, but any rider starting this Tour carrying a few extra kilos, will suffer from the start.

Another big factor in Brittany is the weather, whilst summers are warm the wind is cruel, with 100 days per year where the wind speed exceeds 100 kph, if it’s a strong south westerly for stage three from St. Malo to Nantes and the echelons form, don’t be surprised to see big time gaps opening and favourites ruled-out before the race has properly started.

The last time we had a TT in this area (Nantes in 2003), we were treated to one of the most thrilling and fastest TTs in history…

Stage 4 TT At least we only have to wait until Stage 4 for the real race to start this year… but at 29km, it’s not long enough to really pop anyone out of contention. The ASO has chosen to tighten up the GC battle with these first stages and lack of a TTT – we hope it works.

The finish line in Chateauroux is already there. And coincidentally it will be identical to the finish of the Classique de l’Indre won by CJ Sutton of
Australia (Cofidis). It’s a sprinter’s dream – big, long and wide avenue
that blasts out of the twisty center of Chateauroux. The line is right next
to the big football stadium.

Stages 5, 6, 7, 8
Stage Look• After the stage 4 TT, the race covers some serious ground to reach the Pyrenees for stage 9. Long, direct transfer stages (stage 5 is the race’s longest at 230km) head through the Massif Central. Stage 6 actually features a summit finish after an 11km climb 0 it’s only a 5% average grade, but should at least we don’t have to wait for the high mountains to see some good climbing action.

I’ll eat my foot if you don’t see some sunflowers as we travel southward thru the Massif Central en route to the Pyrenees.

Sim Sez: Surpising Climbs
Stage 5 from Cholet to Chateauroux area is flat and windy. This is a pretty big cycling area and a few French riders are from there (the Chavanels are from Chatelleraux, Romain Feillu will be gunning for the sprint finish in Chateauroux as his is from the area. Chateauroux is also the home of the Fenioux company, which is the energy products supplier for Bouygues Telecom. The owner loves cycling and sponsors a HUGE amount of local clubs and other sporting clubs and events.

Hilly and hard…it’s to be expected in this area.

The Aurrilac Figeac (stages 7, 8) area is hard. I have done the Tour de Cantal and the Tour de Correze, and have been surprised by the size of the climbs in this area. It often rains there even in summer, but in the sun is a very beautiful and green area. The rock formations are very compact, and the mountains (although relatively small) almost sit on top of each other. This is an area not to underestimate. Figeac is also home to David Moncoutie.

Narrow, tough roads, as we head ever southward…and the Pyrenees loom.

Up Next
Stay tuned as we look deep into the Pyrenees and then the Alpine stages. Any way you slice it, this is the Tour, and you gotta love it.

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