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TdF'06: Learning to Love the Parcours

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From the moment this blog launched, and going back a few months earlier, I personally have been railing against this year's route, calling it a "vanilla Tour" route owing mainly to the lack of uphill finishes. The lesson here is, in the blogosphere, you get what you pay for.

[Ed's note: Last week we previewed the green jersey, today the route, tomorrow the teams, and weds-thurs the GC guys. Anything else people want to raise, please feel free to write diaries. Oh, and the Tour is five days away!]

On the flip:

First off, there's what the other people think... CN calls the route a "cautious classic". Pez gives it a modest thumbs-up.

Everyone trots out the adage "it's the riders that make the race, not the route," and if it was so when Le Tour was scheduling the Alpe d'Huez ITT, then no doubt it will be especially true in 2006.

The two features that jump off the page at everyone are 1) the number of uphill finishes (3), and 2) the number of ITT kilometers (109). The message: mountain goats need not apply.

The Details

The official website doesn't seem to link to the original flash presentation anymore, but here it is. Also, if you haven't downloaded the Google Earth version... well, we've already talked about this.

The Prologue and the first two stages are all flat, but Stage 3's ride to Valkenberg in the Limburg region of Holland threatens to shake off the sprinters, even tossing in the Cauberg at the end for old times' sake. Then it's three more days of high-speed transit across nothern France where the green jersey battle will take shape.

On stage 7 (Saturday, July 8), the first ITT could give us our first real yellow jersey, or at least a preview thereof. It's 52 km of half-rolling, then totally flat... pure misery for anyone who can't time trial as guys like Ullrich, Zabriskie, perhaps Basso and a few others will be licking their chops. Another flat day before the first rest day Monday, then it's off to the Pyrenees.

Stage 9 is a flat ride in from Bordeaux to Dax, before the first major climbing stage, 190 km to Pau via the Cols de Soudet and Marie Blanque, a total of 22km between them averaging about 7.5%. But this is one of the so-called-Mountain Stages of the race, with 40km of descending and flats after the day's final summit. By the next day (Thursday) there will finally be no place left to hide, as stage 11 crosses five categorised climbs, starting with the hors categoire (French for "you don't wanna know") Col du Tourmalet, then four cat-1 climbs including the finish atop the Pla de Beret in Spain. Bastille day is a rolling downhill ride, and same goes for the next day, before finally stage 14 hits a couple minor cols on the way to Gap and the second rest day.

And rest they'd better, because Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the final week are brutes: Stage 15's signature climb to Alpe d'Huez (after the H.C. Izoard and the lesser Lauteret); stage 16's route to La Toussuire via the horrible Galibier (42 km at a 4.5% grade), and stage 17's ride to Morzine, which ends with a 12km descent, but only after three fair climbs and the incredibly steep Joux-Plane (11.7 km at nearly 9%).

The Tour's final act, played out after one last rolling sprinters' stage, will be the second endless ITT, now 57 km over slightly undulating roads.

What It Means

My initial thought was that the lack of uphill finishes sounds like a recipe for three climb-fests, three time trials, and fourteen sprint bunches. Not so, not at all. Stages 10 and 17 are unquestionably for the climbers, despite finishing in the valleys. What they won't do is sort the top climbers (Basso, Mayo, etc.) from the secondary ones (Landis, Leipheimer, Hincapie, Ullrich, etc.), assuming the latter know how to make use of the descents to minimize their losses. Stages 3 and 14 will bring out the lesser climbers and polka-dot aspirants, and the numerous rolling stages will put serious pressure on the sprinters' teams to control matters. Only a handful of stages, all prior to the Pyrenees, can be said to pack little action.

So, great for the viewer. As for the victory, the two downhill finishes will depress the time gaps some, and the long time trials threaten to completely reverse matters and steal the race from the climbers. But if the parcours favors the time trialers, it's only in that they probably won't get blown out of the water in the climbs, or even if they do they'll have an extra shot at redemption. The course does not hand them victory. If a guy like Landis drops ten minutes on La Toussuire, no amount of unique aero positioning will save him. If Basso gets five minutes on Ullrich at Morzine, the third straight day of punishment, then no time trial will be long enough for Ullrich to pull that back.

The verdict: it's a great course for what we're experiencing this year: a wide-open, closely fought campaign, which will be won by the strongest rider. So maybe all my slights at the organizers were a bit uninformed. Hey, it's the blogosphere, you get your money's worth.

Poll

How do you view the route?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Outstanding all around!
    (0 votes)
  • 52%
    Great for competition, though not enough climbs
    (10 votes)
  • 36%
    Well balanced
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    Too slanted to climbers
    (0 votes)
  • 5%
    Too slanted to time trialists
    (1 vote)
  • 5%
    Dull as dishwater
    (1 vote)
19 votes total Vote Now