[OK, I just can't stop myself from previewing the Tour. Is that so wrong?]
The standard let's-review-the-parcours post goes something like this: "I think the race will be won at this, this and this stage...". If you're not already bored by the end of that sentence, you certainly would be had I gone on to recite the entire article. And you certainly will be by the time you get through the VeloNews course preview, the Cycle Sport course preview, the Cyclingnews course preview... etc. [Exception: Pez will find a way to make it interesting.] The problem with course previews is the belief that readers need help figuring out what stages matter most (look: mountains! time trials!!). I think DS Little Bear could look at a map, point to Alpe d'Huez and say "that should be interesting." The punchline: he's four.
Now, full disclosure, I did this post yesterday, but in my defense my main purpose was to show the dates that people should be orienting their lives around next month -- a scheduling reminder. For more detailed route info, I think it will be more useful to preview each individual stage, the day before it happens. Something tells me we'll have just such previews running every day in July. Still, we can amuse ourselves in the meantime with this question: is this year's route interesting? The short answer is, it depends on what the riders do with it. But since I can't wait that long, let's contrast 2008's bells and whistles with those of the last several versions.
Le Tour '08
High Points: Alpe d'Huez megastage, Hautacam/Tourmalet, long final ITT, rare foray into Italy.
Left Out: Prologue, TTT, Ventoux, uphill ITT
Distinguishing Features: TTs de-emphasized, Massif Central intrigue, key points spread out
Rating: looks pretty clever, particularly the shorter ITT, and the appearance of key stages in all three weeks. Might be the model for a balaced route.
Le Tour '07
High Points: Galibier, Plateau-de-Beille, two long ITTs, London depart
Left Out: Alpe d'Huez, Ventoux, TTT, uphill ITT
Distinguishing Features: Exciting start, exciting finish, not much in between. Watered-down Alps gives time trialists big edge. Very back-loaded course.
Rating: The mea-culpa course. ASO seemed bent on not tempting the dopers with inhuman ascents. Racing wasn't bad, and the end was nail-biting. But the course was kind of vanilla overall.
Le Tour '06
High Points: Alpe d'Huez, Galibier-La Toussuire stage, Joux-Plane, Pla de Beret, two long ITTs.
Left Out: TTT, bigger Pyrenean climbs, uphill ITT Not much else.
Distinguishing Features: Very heavily back-loaded. Like, 95% backloaded.
Rating: Back-loading made for two crushing, endless weeks of anticipation. Obviously the race itself was overcome by events, but this was a classic unbalanced race. The Tour likes to talk about how it was so nip-and-tuck throughout the first two weeks, but nobody took the GC battle at all seriously until stage 15. From there, it was spectacular.
Le Tour '05
High Points: TTT (but with capped time losses), throwback Ballon d'Alsace stage, Galibier, Pla d'Adet, Aubisque
Left Out: Alpe d'Huez, uphill Alps finishes, Ventoux, uphill ITT
Distinguishing Features: Short Alps phase followed almost immediately by Pyrenees, sandwiched between two pretty dull weeks. Ridiculous amount of time trialing.
Rating: Ballon d'Alsace fun was a poor tradeoff for more uphill finishes. So many dull stages. Balanced by being dull each week.
Le Tour '04
High Points: TTT (capped gaps), Alpe d'Huez ITT, massive Pyrenean stage to Plateau de Beille, lots of time in Belgium
Left Out: Ventoux, early long ITT, big Alps finishes
Distinguishing Features: Pretty average, balanced race, centered around Alpe d'Huez ITT. TTs were pretty backloaded, though the early (and long -- 67km) TTT made up for it.
Rating: Huez ITT sort of sucked the life out of the race, then didn't deliver. Pyrenees and TTs were OK, though the TTT caps get mixed reviews.
Le Tour '03
High Points: Centenary route, Paris prologue, TTT (a real one), Galibier-Alpe d'Huez stage, big Pyrenean finale plus two other hard days, two long ITTs
Left Out: Ventoux, uphill ITT, a bit lite on Alps
Distinguishing Features: the Tour's signature parcours in many ways, starting with the Original Six cities (places like Marseille and Toulouse which are usually skipped), and the France-only route. Excellent balance and spacing of key features.
Rating: It doesn't get any better than this.
- 2008 (provisional)
If you can draw any conclusions from all this, it's that ASO reached its inspirational zenith during the Centenary course, spent the next two years making sure we all remembered how great 2003 was, tried a gimmicky course in 2006 intended to keep people on edge til the end, then wasted 2007 apologizing for the doping scandals. Since leadership turned over in this time, the contrasting styles or attempted statements of LeBlanc and Prudhomme are reflected in there someplace. Fortunately, ASO seem to have stopped playing games and gone back to basics: balance, novelty and challenge.