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One Last Tour Story: Rating the Parcours

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[Disclaimer: this is my last Tour review post; others may not be quite done yet.]

I'd say there are two ways to review a Tour de France parcours after the fact: whether people (like you) liked it, and whether it suited ASO's purposes. Feel free to chime in on the former; I'm going to take a swing at the latter. I'm not privy to all of ASO's objectives, some of which they talk about and others are more the subject of informed (or not) speculation. Here's my list of all the things they might like the parcours to accomplish:

  1. A close contest throughout the race
  2. A balanced course that keeps many riders in contention
  3. A good course for French riders to do something
  4. A hard course, but not so hard as to raise temptations
  5. A course with enough variety, and no boredom
  6. A truly "Grand Depart"
  7. A course that celebrates France

There might be more, and I'm inviting additions to or debates over the list, but let's start with these, on the flip.

1. A close contest: check

Not only was the final result close, but the yellow jersey was never firmly in anyone's control. Even in the opening sprint stages the jersey bounced around repeatedly. Most days in yellow? Evans and Sastre with five each; Kirchen next with four. Seven riders from six teams shared in the lead. Drama means good ratings, and this kind of closely-fought, rapidly shifting contest is ideal for drama. Big props for canceling the prologue, putting a short, early ITT in, and throwing in some early minor climbs as well.

2. A balanced contest: check

Mostly this has to do with limiting the advantage of the time trialers over the climbers, and vice versa. This Tour was rumored to be a climbers' Tour, and in retrospect it was moreso than in previous years, but IMHO that only underscores the advantage chronomen have had recently. The last three tours had 118, 115, and 142(!)km of time trialing. This year: 83km. Finally, the Tour has figured out that maybe the time trials were becoming overbearing, forcing the climbing stages into second-class events where the chronomen would just sit negatively on wheels and limit losses.

In this year's top ten you could split the competitors out accordingly: Sastre, Kohl, Schleck and Valverde as climbers; Evans, Menchov (debatable), VandeVelde, Sanchez, Kirchen and Valjavec as more chronomen. In 2007 the split would be Contador, Sastre, Zubeldia, Valverde, and arguably Pereiro as climbers; Evans, Levi, Kirchen, Popo and Astarloza as chronos. In '05 arguably as many as seven chrono aces made the top ten: Lance, Basso, Ullrich, Vino, Levi, Evans and Landis.

3. Good for French riders: check

France isn't producing any contenders for any of the jerseys, so that leaves stages... except there aren't any dominant French sprinters, just Jimmy Casper, Seb Chavanel and Romain Feillu looking for the open door... so that leaves breakaways. This year's course was excellent for breakaways, and French riders cashed in on stages 3 (Dumoulin), 16 (Dessel) and 19 (Chavanel). Simon Gerrans (C.A.) added an AG2R a win on stage 17, and of course Thor Hushovd did his part for Credit Agricole too, winning stage 2. AG2R was second overall in the team classification (albeit with a lot of foreign mettle), and Sandy Casar and Amaël Moinard finished 14th and 15th on GC.  About all ASO could ask for, realistically.

4. Hard, but not too hard: check

Fans love mountain stages, the harder the better. Riders love being able to get out of bed the next morning. Somewhere in between lies the ideal Tour. I liked what ASO did here: the Massif Central was good fun; the Pyrenees used Hautacam but included only one uphill finish and two hors categoire climbs. The Alps consisted of two uphill finishes sandwiched around a downhill-ending stage that challenged the peloton in unique ways. There were no 250km mountain stages, no endless parades of cat-1 or harder climbs. It never got worse than stage 17, with its three h.c. courses on the menu, but over 210km, after two days of 183 and 157km. Alpe d'Huez was a huge effort, and the climbs to Prato Nevoso and Hautacam were great action, but there was no stage in the lineup that could really kill everyone's legs. Same goes for the early time trial, a mere 29km. As doping temptations go, past Tours have been worse.

5. Variety: check

Boredom is subjective, but IMHO this course never stayed in sprint mode for too many days. The early ITT and the Massif Central really broke things up nicely. In many respects, this Tour was far from boring.

6. Le Grand Depart: check

Brittany... cycling hotbed. Lack of a prologue made it more low-key, but I did a little writeup on why Brittany was a cool place to start. One for the cycling traditionalists.

7. A Tour of France: check... I guess

Far be it from me to say whether this was representative of the country, or otherwise did its part to promote national unity. But the Tour took in some interesting departments of France: Brittany, Massif Central, a bit of Italia to shake it up a bit. Missing was pretty much everything north of Paris, but with the Grand Depart next year in Monaco, perhaps they'll snake northward in the latter stages. Actually, a start in the deep south might force ASO into scheduling some pretty huge stages early on. Stay tuned on that.