Tour 2005 route unveiled in Paris

The 92nd Tour has been unveiled and has its usual raft of surprises, not least the absence of Alpe d

The 92nd Tour has been unveiled and has its usual raft of surprises, not least the absence of Alpe d
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Tour de France boss Jean-Marie Leblanc unveiled the route of the 92nd Tour de France in Paris's Palais des Congrs this morning, and as usual it contained a few surprises mixed in with the traditional staples. The biggest debating points are the absence of most of the Tour's great mountain challenges, including Alpe d'Huez, the Ventoux and widely expected return to the Puy de Dome, and the inclusion of just one major individual time trial on the penultimate day of racing. The opening stages in the Vende have been known for some time. The race starts with a 19km time trial out to the Ile de Noirmoutier, the length of which was a considerable surprise given the by now almost traditional prologue of between five and 10 kilometres. But more surprising still is the absence of another individual time trial until a 55-kilometre test at St Etienne on the penultimate day. This is reason, it seems, for the climbers to be rubbing their hands with glee. However, that bonus for the mountain men is rather nullified by the lack of high mountain summit finishes - there are just three, at Courchevel, Ax 3 Domains and Saint Lary Soulan. Although the usual suspects are certain to be in contention, headed by six-time champion Lance Armstrong, the inclusion of some tricky stages through the Vosges mountains and the Massif Central may well open the race up to some new faces. Perhaps these tweaks to the standard Tour route have been made in order to prevent Armstrong dominating in the all-encompassing way he did this year. The race that splits into two very clear sections: the first of flat racing, across the country from west to east and the second of heavy climbing, from north to south and then back north again. After the Vende opening, a succession of flat stages take the race into the Loire heartlands of Tours and Blois. It's here after four stages that the 66-kilometre team time trial will take place. In 2003 and 2004, US Postal proved to be the dominant collective force. On these rolling roads, the Discovery Channel team could yet find them a hard act to follow. The first of several transfers takes the convoy south of Paris, on to Troyes and then Nancy, prior to crossing the German border en route to Karlsruhe at the end of the first week. By the time the race crosses back into France on the stage from Pforzheim to Gerardmer, the climbs will have begun. The wooded slopes of the Alsace may not be as fearsome as the Alps or Pyrenees, but they will soften up those who are flagging. After an air transfer from Mulhouse to Grenoble the crossing of the Alps begins with the first summit finish at Courchevel. The climb to the ski station will be preceded by the Col de la Madeleine, one of the hardest mountain passes in the Haute Savoie. The next day, the peloton tackles more heady summits as it snakes south towards Briancon, followed the next day by the tough climb of the Corobin on the way into Digne Les Bains. The Midi will pass in a blur with a fast stage Montpellier, prior to the first Pyrenean summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines, site of Carlos Sastre's famous 'dummy-in-mouth' victory in 2003. The next day the convoy climbs to the tiny Pla d'Adet ski resort, tucked away in the Pyrenean escarpments. A third Pyrenean stage (which will also be the setting for the Etape du Tour mass participation event) takes the race on a loop through the Atlantic Pyrenees and then descends to Pau, where the second rest day is scheduled. By now, you might think that the climbing was over but there's plenty more still to come in the final week as the peloton squares up to the Massif Central. The longest stage, of 239 kilometres, from Pau to Revel comes before a tough stage from Albi to a finish at Mende, where Laurent Jalabert scored a famous Bastille Day win in 1995. After another transfer, from Mende to Issoire, the bunch sweeps into the steep streets of Le-Puy-en-Velay, prior to yet another transfer to the showpiece Saint-Etienne time trial centred on the Pilat national park. This race route has been conceived in the hope of a cliff-hanging finale. Whether, on the basis of last year's Tour, that is likely, depends not only on Lance Armstrong but also on those rivals who capitulated so easily in 2004. Yet you can't help feeling that Armstrong, with the benefit of all of his experience, will see more opportunities here than obstacles.
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