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Having seen the way the Pyrenees dominate the final week of the Tour de France so completely, Alberto Contador can be forgiven for exuding an air of extreme confidence.
Nevertheless there will be moments when he must be on his guard. However, even if he should slip-up in the first week, when the Tour enjoys a distilled version of the Belgian Classics in three days, there is ample opportunity to put his rivals to the sword.
There is no doubt this is a Tour for the climbers, and the fact there is only one long time trial, on the final Saturday, means that Andy Schleck will be his closest rival.
For Lance Armstrong there was not much to cheer. The first week offers a chance to make life uncomfortable for Contador, and it will be easy enough for him to stay in contention for a fortnight. But the amount of climbing in the final week may overwhelm him.
Dropped twice during this year’s Tour, Armstrong had to calculate when to back off and let them go and when to accelerate to recover his losses. That was with a relatively gentle itinerary in the mountains and with Contador, his team-mate in name, straining at the leash but on a leash nonetheless.
As Contador said shortly after seeing the route unveiled in Paris, he won’t have anyone telling him not to attack next year. He’s been telling people he intends to attack relentlessly in order to crack and humiliate Armstrong. With 13 Pyrenean climbs – including two ascents of the Col du Tourmalet, from the east and the west – he has been given the platform to do so.
A CLASSIC OPENING ACT
So much for a gentle introduction. The first week will be difficult and unpredictable thanks to the wind, some stiff hills and the cobbles. Contador may be vulnerable on unfamiliar territory, and Armstrong in particular will surely seek to isolate him.
Even during summer the wind that whips across Zeeland from the North Sea can be strong. Stage one travels from Rotterdam to Brussels, which tip-toes out into the sea, fighting an ever-changing wind, before crossing Flanders, via Eddy Merckx’s home town of Meise, to Brussels. While this stage should suit the sprinters, it will not be a formality. Remember how the race split in the wind on the first Monday of this year’s race, with Armstrong and some Astana team-mates getting into the Columbia-driven break on the road to La Grande-Motte? However, no one will be able to say they were caught by surprise. The wind is famous in these parts.
Stage two to Spa will feature one of the hills from the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic, the Rosier, although it will be tackled in the opposite direction. And then there are seven sections of cobbles on the third stage, which finishes in the jaws of the legendary forest of Arenberg. There will be 13.2 kilometres of cobbles that day, considerably more than the 3.9km that caused havoc in 2004. It will put the skinny climbers well outside their comfort zone, and if they suffer misfortune the price could be high.
The absence of the team time trial also suits Contador, and takes away from Armstrong. It also means the ongoing drama about which team the Spaniard rides for has slightly less importance.
COBBLES IN THE TOUR
1982 – 16.9km
1983 – 28.4km
1985 – 10.5km
1989 – 8.5km
2004 – 3.9km
2010 – 13.2km
THREE FOR THE SPRINTERS
The finishes in Reims (stage four), Montargis (stage five) and Gueugnon (stage 6) at the end of the first week are the most likely to end in a sprint, but after that the race for the green jersey is going to favour Thor Hushovd. From here on, the opportunities for the sprinters are few and far between.
Alpe d’Huez is missing from the Tour route for a second successive year – the first time that has happened since the mid-1970s.
On the face of it there is no grandstand Alpine stage, because the Pyrenees are the star of the show, marking the 100th anniversary of their first appearance in the Tour.
However, the Alps must not be under-estimated. There is a pleasing rhythm to the four days in the region, which are split by a rest day in Morzine. They rise to a peak with the ninth stage to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, which crosses the Colombière, Aravis, Saises and Madeleine.
The 11th stage to Bourg-lès-Valence and the 13th to Revel are more or less flat, but there’s no guarantee of a sprint finish for Cavendish on either, particularly if his Columbia team have any interest in the general classification with Tony Martin. In between is the finish on the airfield at Mende after the climb of what is officially known as the Croix Neuve, but has been renamed the Col de Laurent Jalabert in honour of the town’s most famous son.
There are eight days of racing between the two rest days, meaning there is no brief pause before the race reaches the Pyrenees.
If the intention was to show off the area and celebrate the cols, they could hardly have done it better.
Stage 14 boasts a summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines, which serves almost as a gentle introduction when you consider what is to come. There are three difficult cols on the next day’s stage to Luchon – the Portet d’Aspet, Ares and Balès.
The outstanding stage should have been the one from Luchon that crosses the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque – just as the 1910 Tour did on its way to Bayonne. However, the decision – almost certainly made on commercial grounds – to finish in Pau, almost 60 kilometres away from the top of the Aubisque is a huge disappointment.
When will ASO learn that an epic parcours can be severely affected by these long descents and flat run-ins? There are only three summit finishes in the race, one in the Alps and two in the Pyrenees.
The final Pyrenean stage from Pau to the top of the Tourmalet, via the western approach over the Marie-Blanque and Soulor is an appealing one. Unlike this year’s Mont Ventoux stage, there is no tame build-up in the weeks preceeding it.
Climbing the Tourmalet twice, once from each direction, will really show off what is really the Tour’s most majestic mountain, to greatest effect. It isn’t without precedent. In 1985 the Tour visit the Aubisque twice in the same race, with Stephen Roche winning the stage that finished at the top.
A DECISIVE TIME TRIAL?
If, as seems probable, the Tour is between two men and the mountains fail to split them, the time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac gives Contador the advantage.
The decision to restrict the time trials to the prologue and this final 51-kilometre test – spurning even a mountain time trial on the Tourmalet as strongly rumoured – means that the climbers will triumph over the rouleurs.