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Le Tour 2009: Something Brewing?

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Somewhat lost in the shuffle of grand tour courses announced in the last few weeks was the Tour de France's designation this week of the 2009 Grand Depart: Monaco. Update [2007-12-16 20:5:59 by chris]: some more details about the prologue...

This is very intriguing. We've been mildly dissing the parcours selections for the preceding two years, about which the best thing you can say is that the riders make the race. At least 2007 started off in London, a spectacle that opened the race in brilliant fashion, before descending into an endless stream of sprint stages. 2008 can't even say that, kicking off in Brittany for the 563rd time.

What makes Monaco an interesting selection is that the Tour almost always starts in the north: Germany, Benelux, GB, Brittany, etc. From there, the course either winds around the north for a while, or heads down through Bordeaux, then hits the Pyrenees and Alps in either order before closing the loop in Paris. Rarely if ever does the Tour start in the south of France, because it messes up the standard rhythm: flats and an ITT, one mountain range, flats for a week, another mountain range, closing ITT, Paris. To wit:

  • In 1991 it kicked off in Lyon, southerly but not too far to stop from winding north and catching up with a typical route.
  • In 1992, the depart was in San Sebastian, which wreaked havoc on the parcours. After the prologue the race spent two days in the mountains, mostly skipping the traditional Pyrenees phase, then wound around before hitting the Alps for six stages. Also compensating for the lack of Pyrenean hell were two time trials in excess of 63km.
  • In 1981, the race began in Nice, next door to Monaco and perhaps a good indicator of what's to come. From Nice the course wound due west, dipped into the Pyrenees for just one day on stage 5, then compensated with five days in the Alpes in week three. There was also a 77km team time trial and a shorter ITT in the first four days, an unusually frontloaded race by modern standards.
  • Twice in the 1970s the race began in Fleurance and made a beeline for the Pyrenees. In both 1977 and 1979, stages 2, 3 and 4 featured classic climbs, with a long break before the Alpes punctuated by a few smaller events, like the Ballon d'Alsace (!) stage in 1979.

And that's about it for departures from the norm. Before 1951 the race always kicked off in Paris. So the Lyon race suggests that it's still possible to start in the South and have a traditional parcours, but the other exceptions show it isn't likely... and Monaco is much further south than Lyon. My bet is something completely unusual: if they stick to the tradition of alternating directions, then they'd want to head for the Alpes first. Count on futzing around the coast for a couple days, then an early, heavy dose of reality. Then, stages in the east and north, a long transfer to Bordeaux, or maybe a shorter one to Provence (Ventoux?!), before hitting the Pyrenees and heading for Paris. It's another 11 months before we find out for sure, but if I'm even close to right, we should have much to speculate about next winter.