Analysis: The Tour de France 2009 route

Thanks to the internet, the indiscretion of some local government officials and the work of France’s regional newspapers and radio stations, much of the 2009 Tour de France jigsaw puzzle had already been assembled before the route was officially unveiled in Paris on Wednesday.

We all knew that Mont Ventoux would be hosting a stage on the final Saturday, that the team time trial would return for the first time since 2005, and that it would be in Montpellier.

We knew that the race would visit Barcelona, that there would be summit finishes at Arcalis in Andorra and Verbier in Switzerland, and that the lake at Annecy would provide a stunning backdrop for a time trial towards the end of the final week.

There were very few surprises, which must have frustrated the organisers. Yet the Palais des Congres was packed, although the actual route of the Tour was not really the hot topic of conversation.

Instead, there was less a sense of excitement and anticipation. The towns, cities and mountains which will provide the battleground for next July’s race are just names on a map at the moment. The visual picture of what the Tour de France has in store for us is incomplete.

We cannot say for certain who will be riding. We cannot be sure that the heroes of July 2009 will still be worthy of respect and admiration when the 2010 route is launched in October.

And that’s because, for the third year in a row the video review Tour de France shown to the audience was not able tell the full story. Instead there had been some judicious editing to remove the less palatable moments from the story.

Riders who had brought the sport and the race into disrepute were removed, as if their contributions to the race had never happened. Two years ago the video ended with an image of Floyd Landis fracturing into a hundred pieces. Last year Michael Rasmussen, a double stage winner and yellow jersey wearer was simply cut out of the film.

The dramatic video that preceded the launch of the 2009 Tour de France route, concentrated on the exploits of Mark Cavendish, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and the others whose achievements are untainted.

There was no image of Stefan Schumacher winning either time trial stage. Nothing of him wearing the yellow jersey. Ricardo Ricco’s victory at Super-Besse and his Pantani-esque attack on the Col d’Aspin were left out. The film concluded with a sequence of shots from the final podium in Paris cleverly cut together so that Bernhard Kohl, third place finisher and king of the mountains winner, did not appear.

This was the Director’s Cut by Christian Prudhomme. “It is true that not every rider is featured in our film, but that’s because we don’t need to include these people,” he said, explaining the necessity to simply cut the dopers out of the story again.

Schumacher, Kohl and Ricco certainly should not have been included, but the problem remains that we end up with a Pravda-style view of history that is recent enough for us to all remember accurately.

And so by acknowledging that Ricco and Schumacher and Kohl’s achievements are effectively worthless, it becomes harder to look at the map and assess the climbs with any sense of excitement.

Super Saturday on Mont Ventoux should be an utterly mouth-watering prospect. It should offer a chance for the current generation of cycling fans to dream of a close finish to rival that of the epic LeMond-Fignon duel 20 years before.

The time trial in Monaco is bold and different, the return of the team time trial should suit the Garmin-Chipotle team. There are enough sprinting opportunities for British fans to get excited about Mark Cavendish’s chances.

But the overall feeling is that we have had so much fake drama in the past three years that it is difficult to look ahead with much relish unless cycling can demonstrably prove that the drama is real.

Amaury Sport Organisation had not managed to airbrush its former president Patrice Clerc out of the picture. His name still featured on the official invitations, although his place on the stage was taken by his successor Jean-Etienne Amaury, son of Marie-Odile, who owns ASO.

Amaury touched on the theme of ethics. He said that the Tour’s values would continue to be those of courage and honesty.

When the route was revealed, stage by stage, the overall impression was that this was an interesting route, gambling on the possibility of the race still being up for grabs when it reaches Mont Ventoux.

The route is very different to recent years and is about as far from the Jean-Marie Leblanc template as you can get. The opening time trial in Monaco is anything but a standard prologue as it climbs significantly during the first half before plummeting back down into Monte Carlo.

It will be good to see the team time trial back, particularly as it will count properly towards the general classification, doing away with the daft rule developed in 2004 and 2005.

There are three days in the Pyrenees, none of which really stands out as a classic. The Arcalis stage will be tentative, but it will be interesting to see how the riders cope with entering the big mountains as early as the first Friday. The next two stages are difficult in their own way, but long descents to the finish mean they may not play a huge part in the race for the yellow jersey.

The middle week looks lacklustre, so British fans will be relieved there are a few sprinting opportunities for Mark Cavendish. The general classification will relax into a state of suspended animation as they wait for the Alps.

Before that, an awkward day in the Vosges will keep everyone on their toes. No one can afford to relax, as Lance Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team found a few years ago.

Like the Pyrenees, the Alpine stages lack the wow-factor. Verbier hosts the only summit finish. The hidden gem is the monstrous 17th stage from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand Bornand, which takes in five mountains.

The time trial at Annecy will provide the penultimate battleground. It’s only 40 kilometres long, which is a welcome change from the usual 55-kilometre marathon.

And then it’s to Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. This is the headline stage, the crescendo the entire race will build to. It will be eagerly anticipated, but there is a danger the race could be done and dusted by then, negating its interest and impact.

It’s easy to sympathise with the riders and managers who assemble for the route presentation as they answer the same questions with the same answers. What is there to say, really? The mountains are time trials are always key. It is never possible to look at the route in October, when everyone is looking forward to their holiday, and predict how the following July’s race may turn out.

Instead, the hot topics of conversation were doping, Armstrong, Astana and doping again.

Germany’s two broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, had key representatives in the auditorium. Both explained that a final decision over whether to show the 2009 Tour would be made in November, but that they were encouraged by ASO’s continued willingness to take on the dopers.

Johan Bruyneel, who said he was confident of Astana’s place in the 2009 race, and Alberto Contador were there. Lance Armstrong was not. Armstrong may, or may not, decide to ride, Bruyneel added but the real mission was to increase awareness of cancer.

The Tour route is what it is. The towns and villages it will visit on its three-week journey from Monaco to Paris can now wait eagerly for its arrival.

Only when the riders take to the roads on July 4 will the route come alive and we will see what impact it has on shaping the race.

It is great to study the route, consider the possible effect it could have on the race, and look forward with anticipation to the great mountain stages. But the reality of the modern Tour is that its aftermath is far more important than the build-up.

Let’s hope ASO is not forced to blot out any of the 2009 Tour’s key achievers when they come to present the 2010 route.