Tour de France champion Alberto Contador of Spain has targeted the mammoth 17th stage of next year's race, which finishes on the Alpe d'Huez, as crucial to a successful yellow jersey defence.
Contador, who diced with death a few years ago when head injuries from a crash revealed the possible onset of a brain haemorrhage, secured his first Tour triumph in July with a 23 second lead on Australian Cadel Evans. That winning margin came largely down to time bonuses he picked up during the high mountain stages on this year's race, where Evans performed superbly but had to battle to stay on the wheel of the sprightly Spanish climber.
As next year's course was announced in Paris on Thursday, organisers revealed several innovations - with no prologue prior to the first stage, a first week with fewer sprinters' stages and, crucially, the disappearance of time bonuses on all stages. That will please Evans, who this year would have won the race if time bonuses had not been part of the equation.
The Australian, who rides with the Predictor-Lotto team from Belgium, is usually coy about his victory chances but having finished runner-up this year he appeared quietly confident.
"It's a little bit too early to say, but if I'm as good as I was this year I can certainly be a protagonist," said Evans, who has pointed to the second week of the race as a crucial time. "I'm going to be more focused on the second half, as most GC (general classification) riders will be, although the Tour can still be lost in the first week.
"I think on paper, without the time bonuses this year I might have won the Tour, so who knows?"
With Johan Bruyneel now at the helm of Astana, who were thrown out of this year's race following the positive blood test of leader Alexandre Vinokourov, new recruit Contador will be given the kind of support Lance Armstrong enjoyed under the team leadership of the Belgian manager.
The Spaniard agrees that stage 17, held over 210 km from Embrun to Alpe-d'Huez and including climbs over the Col du Galibier (20.9 km) and the Col de la Croix-de-Fer (29.2 km), will be crucial. Despite next year's 95th edition featuring fewer high mountains stages than in 2007, Contador believes the race suits him well.
"It's the kind of course that suits a pure climber. It looks harder than this year's race," said Contador, who was purring at the thought of the 20th and penultimate stage, a hilly 53km individual time trial. But it is the mammoth day of climbing towards the summit of Alpe d'Huez that Contador, who won the Pyrenean stage to Plateau de Beille in July, has targeted most.
"I will try to win the stage to the Alpe d'Huez. It's a mythical climb, and would be a dream come true. It's a bit like Plateau de Beille this year."
Evans has been officially warned of Contador's intentions, and all but admitted he would have to be ready. "I've yet to have a good stage on Alpe d'Huez!" said the Aussie. "But we'll see... that's (stage 17) certainly the mammoth stage."
Beginning in Brest on the far north-western tip of France the 2008 edition will spend a few days in the Brittany region of the hosts' last home winner, Bernard Hinault. The Tour will then head southwards, in an anti-clockwise direction, and feature the first major time trial, over a comparatively short 29km in Cholet, on the fourth stage.
The habitual first week of mainly flat, and potentially boring stages makes way for climbing on potentially tricky medium-mountain terrain on stages six and seven. Another flat stage follows before the first days in the high mountains on stages nine and 10.
After a rest day another day will be spent in the medium-mountains at the foot of the Pyrenees before the sprinters are given a chance to shine over three days of mainly flat terrain on stages 12-14. Stage 15 takes the peloton from Digne-les-Bains in the southern French Alps towards Prato Nevoso high up in the Italian Alps.
The race's second rest day precedes a tricky 16th stage from Cuneo to Jausiers, which will take the peloton over new heights - and the Restefond mountain pass which culminates at 2802 metres altitude and has featured only three times on the Tour. The climb to the summit of Alpe d'Huez is next on the menu and signals the final day in the high mountains.
Stage 18 is classed medium-mountain, and is likely not to play a major role in deciding the fortunes of the yellow jersey hopefuls. After another flat stage the main contenders will do battle, albeit on their own, for the race's yellow jersey on the 19th and penultimate stage, a 53km time trial.
© AFP 2007