Besieged by several high-profile doping cases in recent weeks, the embattled organisers of the Tour de France finally got a chance to look forward Wednesday after unveiling next year's race route.
And, Tour chief Christian Prudhomme played his ace card in style by replacing the penultimate stage's traditional second time trial of the race with a climb of the difficult 'Giant of Provence', the Mont Ventoux.
A largely innovative route that takes a 190-strong peloton from Monaco over the Pyrenees, up to eastern France then through the Alps before rallying the finish line in Paris, the July 4-26 race invited a heady mix of superlatives.
Cofidis team manager Eric Boyer was among those bristling with excitement after learning that the Ventoux could be the race decider on July 25.
"Racing the Ventoux on the penultimate stage! It's daring," said Boyer. "If the Tour can be decided there, it would be fantastic."
Notably absent was seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, who still hasn't committed to racing the 2009 edition.
"As to the leadership of the Astana team in 2009, it is illogical to pre-select a leader for any race in October of the previous year," Armstrong said. "We are blessed at Astana to have the strongest team in the world and I look forward to riding with all of these great riders. I have been around long enough to know that cycling is a team sport and I am fully committed to supporting the strongest rider in any race. Whether that's me, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, or Andreas Kloden.
Joseba Beloki (L) battles Armstrong on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 2002
“The route of the 2009 Tour de France strikes me as innovative and very interesting," Armstrong added. "From its start in Monte Carlo with a 15k time trial, to the reinstatement of the team time trial, to stages in my old hometown of Girona all the way to another visit to my old friend the Ventoux, I could not have hoped for a different Tour.”
Conversely, one of Astana team managers was a bit up in arms about the Ventoux stage.
"It's murderous," said Alain Gallopin, one of the team managers with the Astana team of 2007 champion Alberto Contador and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong. "You could lose six minutes on that climb alone, and the Tour with it."
Despite an individual and team trial and three Pyreneean stages all inside the first week, the battle for the yellow jersey will not really commence until the final week.
It means the team who possesses, and wants to defend, the race lead going into the second week could be forced to expend energy that would be put to better use in the Alps during the crucial third week of racing.
Gallopin added: "The team who comes out of the Pyrenees with the yellow jersey is going to find the second week long."
While the second week looks comparatively easy on paper, it features some stages that Prudhomme classed as "hazardous".
But despite a possibly tricky day for the overall contenders on the 13th stage to Colmar in Alsace, the threat of the Alps - and the 17th stage to Le Grand Bornand - should separate the men from the boys.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg performed superbly on his debut this year, and if he can improve his time trialling could be CSC's official team leader ahead of his brother Frank.
"It's a great-looking route. You have to be really strong in the third week," said Schleck. "I don't see myself as a favourite, but I finished 12th on my first Tour. It's no secret that I'm aiming to finish a bit higher."
As far as committing to the 2009 Tour, Armstrong is keeping his cards close to his chest, although he's cranking up a bit of praise for Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) and the International Cycling Union (UCI).
“While there has been a fair bit of tension and numerous disagreements with the Tour and its organizers, I am well aware that there is new leadership at ASO and I look forward to upcoming conversations and to a mutually beneficial future together," Armstrong said Wednesday afternoon. "Whether it's promoting the Livestrong global cancer campaign or making the biggest bike race in the world the gem that it deserves to be, I look forward to next year.
"I would also like to recognize the UCI and commend them for their aggressive stance against doping, a stance that is unmatched in all of world sport.”
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008