In response to criticism that the Tour de France is too predictable and uninteresting, the organizers of the Tour have taken a novel approach to designing this year’s route: make the route suck so much that the biggest source of discussion and suspense about the race is who is the real leader of Astana and Saxo-Bank and are the teams going to self-destruct? That’s gossip, not bike racing.
Past Tours de France had a tendency towards a reasonably predictable race with the opening days following a fairly flat course suitable for the sprinters, moving into some undulating stages before a long individual time trial, followed by a big mountain stage – all by the time we reach the first rest day. Then there are some more flattish stages before a second helping of mountains and a time trial and the finish in Paris. It’s not a bad formula, and if you don’t have a single, dominant team with a dominant rider (*ahem* – USPS, Discovery, Astana), this generally leads to a reasonably interesting race. The problem with this route is that if you have a dominant team with a dominant rider who can time trial well and climb well, they will generally win the first TT and mountain stage and all but wrap up the race by stage 12.
Although the field left something to be desired, last year’s Tour had a great route which took some cue’s from the Giro d’Italia, which never ceases to be incredibly exciting. The Giro usually starts with a few days of flat stages before heading into a very hilly stage with climbs big enough to favor a great climber. Then they will toss in a few more flat stages before a small mountaintop finish and a long time trial, more mountains, another time trial, and again more mountains before heading to Milan. The key difference between the Giro and the Tour’s route is that the course is much less segregated: every week of the race has several decisive stages and that mean riders who come into the race in peak form may burn out before the end, and riders who are planning to ride into form later in the race may loose a sizable chunk of time in the first week. Further, the time trials make it possible for TT specialists who can climb reasonably well, like Denis Menchov, to win the race while at the same time, the climbs make it possible for a pure climber like Marco Pantani or Gilberto Simoni to make up enough time in the mountains to still be in the fight after the first long time trial. It seems like the Giro is never decided until the end of the third week.
I say all this understanding that France and Italy are very different geographically. But that is no excuse for putting the monstrous Col du Tourmalet 70km from the finish and blowing by two of the most awesome finishing climbs in the world – Luz Ardiden and Hautacam – on their way into Tarbes. The Tour has already passed through my favorite mountains in the world, and they amounted to nothing more than a bump in the road. Not was it indecisive, but I find it quite disrespectful to the first mountain range ever included in a Grand Tour. The organizers, quite admirably, wanted to set up a race that wasn’t decided until the last weekend, but in the process, they’ve put together what amounts to a snore-fest through France with the potential for a few interesting days of racing at the end of July.
So, here is your talking point until July 23rd: will the real leader of Astana please stand up? Discusss.