Extreme Makeover: Every Year, A New Tour de France

Jul 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

The conditions change for many major sporting competitions each year, but very few events get the kind of radical yearly makeover the Tour de France gets. The weather might be different from year to year in Kona, Hawaii, but the Ironman Triathlon route has barely changed in twenty years. Marathons and many one-day competitions have been following the same courses for years as well. The Tour de France, however, takes on a completely new look each time it's held.

For 2004, the Tour organizers have designed a very challenging route, but as Lance is fond of saying, the route is secondary to the competitors. The intensity of the competition will dictate how hard the race really is, not the number or arrangement of mountain passes and time trials. A stage that looks brutal on paper might not have any effect on the overall standings if everyone rides tempo and watches each other. Likewise, a stage that looks mundane might be the one that decides the whole race. You never know, and that's why you have to be prepared to seize opportunities whenever and wherever they arise.

While there's no way of knowing how the 2004 Tour de France is going to unfold, history, the nature of the major contenders, and the characteristics of the course can provide some insight as to what to expect.

Week One
The prologue is short, just over four miles, but it contains two nearly dead-stop turns and is generally pretty technical. This plays to the favor of a specialist like Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com), who won last year's prologue in Paris. The sprinters should have a good day as well, and they will be highly motivated to do well because if they are close to the yellow jersey, they can claim it with bonus seconds awarded to the top finishers in the following road stages. In terms of the overall contenders, Lance Armstrong has a slight advantage over Jan Ullrich in a prologue that's this technical, but they will only be separated by a few seconds. Tyler Hamilton should also do well because he has a lot of power and he can accelerate out of those slow corners quickly.

The first week of road stages will be dominated by the sprinters' teams: Fassa Bortola riding for their speedster Alessandro Petacchi, Domina Vacanze riding for Mario Cipollini, Lotto-Domo riding for Robbie McEwen, and Fdjeux.com riding for Baden Cooke. Erik Zabel will be in the mix as well, but with his T-Mobile team focused on supporting Jan Ullrich for the overall lead, he'll have to fend for himself, or have just one man with him, during the final 20 kilometers of these stages. I have no doubt Petacchi will win multiple stages in the first week this year. He won four out of the five sprints he contested in the 2003 Tour and he was nearly untouchable in the Tour of Italy in May when he set the record for most stage wins with nine. Head-to-head in a clean sprint, American Freddy Rodriguez may have been the only person to beat Petacchi so far this year, and Freddy's not in the Tour. With the high number of quality sprinters in the race, and Petacchi's current dominance in bunch sprints, there's a good chance Cipollini won't win a single stage.

The overall contenders will stick close to the front during the first week because the 198-rider Tour de France peloton is notoriously dangerous early in the race. The main contenders will do their best to stay out of trouble, away from the inevitable crashes, and in front of any splits in the field. The Stage 4 team time trial will be the critical day of the first week for riders like Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo, and Roberto Heras. In this event, the team rides as a unit, and their time for the stage is taken when the fifth rider crosses the finish line. The U.S. Postal Service won this event in 2003, which opened a small gap between Armstrong and Ullrich, and a substantial gap of 3:22 between Armstrong and Mayo. A new rule limits the amount of time you can lose as a result of the team time trial to 2:50, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the strategies team directors employ.

By the end of the first week of racing, at least one of the main contenders for the yellow jersey will be facing a relatively large time deficit. It could be that Iban Mayo loses a lot of time in the team time trial, or Roberto Heras has trouble in the wind or the cobblestone sections of Stage 2. A mishap could put Armstrong, Ullrich, or Hamilton in trouble just as easily. One thing's for certain: if history can be used as a guide, someone will fall behind by two minutes or more by the end of week one.

Week Two
The second week of racing starts out with stages suited to the opportunists, and maybe the sprinters if they are well organized. The mountains are looming on the horizon as the race heads into the Massif Central region of France, and then south to the Pyrenees Mountains. The narrow and curvy roads of the Massif Central make this the ideal territory for breakaways because it's easy to get out of sight of the peloton and it's hard for the big bunch to stay organized with all the twists and turns. Even so, it's going to be a battle to see if the daredevils are able to outsmart and overpower the big sprinters and their teams in the final ten kilometers of these stages.

The second week ends with two of the most important stages in the entire race. The two mountain stages in the Pyrenees are very difficult, and it should be here that large time gaps start to open between the contenders for the yellow jersey. Both Stage 12 to La Mongie and Stage 13 to Plateau de Beille end with summit finishes atop beyond-category climbs. To make these climbs worse, they're in the Pyrenees, where the pitches are steeper, the roads are narrower, and the surfaces are rougher than in the Alps. These climbs are also close to Spain, Iban Mayo's home country, so expect to see thousands of orange-clad Basque supporters running and screaming along the sides of the road.

The Pyrenees will separate the pre-race favorites into two distinct groups: those fighting for the yellow jersey and those fighting to stand on the podium. I expect the first group to be Armstrong, Ullrich, Hamilton, and Mayo. The second group will probably contain Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov, and maybe even American Levi Leipheimer. Two-time Tour of Italy winner Gilberto Simoni is a wildcard. He performed poorly in the Tour de France last year, but he has the experience and talent in the mountains to play a major role in this race.

Week Three
The Tour organizers lumped a whole lot of pain into the final week of the Tour de France. It starts nicely enough with the Tour's second rest day, but then goes straight into the Alps. The first Alpine stage doesn't look that bad on paper, but after a flat stage and a rest day, it's hard to predict how the legs will respond to long hard climbs. A bad day on the way to Lannemezan and your yellow jersey hopes may be dashed.

The following day is the first-ever individual time trial up the famous 21 switchbacks of the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez. Lance went to L'Alpe d'Huez this spring, specifically to get better acquainted with its intricacies. Tyler Hamilton did the same, and it's likely that others went as well. Climbing this monster in a time trial is much different than at the end of a 200-kilometer road stage, and you can pick your own pace and places to surge instead of racing against other riders and their tactical decisions. In some ways this makes the climb easier, and faster, but it may also reduce the climb's effectiveness as a place for forging major time gaps. Asked to climb at maximum speed by themselves for just 15 kilometers, the major contenders may finish within 20 seconds of one another. This would be significant, but not enough to clinch the yellow jersey.

The day after the individual time trial on Alpe d'Huez, the riders tackle more than 16,000 feet of climbing over five major mountain passes. This is the last day in the mountains, and the last chance the climbing specialists will have the odds in their favor. While Stage 17 is not a summit finish, expect fireworks on the Col de la Croix Fry, the category 1 climb whose summit lies just 13 kilometers from the finish. Anyone crossing the top of this climb with a minute's lead or more will likely hold that lead all the way down the descent into Le Grand-Bornand.

The Tour de France spends one more day in the foothills of the Alps, but Stage 18 should be a day when the favorites watch each other and the opportunists like Paolo Bettini or Jens Voigt go off the front in search of a stage victory.

Stage 19 will be the last chance anyone has to win or lose the yellow jersey. The leader's jersey has changed hands as the result of the final individual time trial twice, in 1989 when Greg LeMond took it from Lauren Fignon, and in 1990 when Greg LeMond took it again, this time from Claudio Chiappucci. In 2004, the final individual time trial is very long, over 60 kilometers. Everyone will start to slow down in the final 15 kilometers of the stage, and the day, and maybe the whole race, may go to the man who fades the least.

Overall Lance Armstrong's preparation for the 2004 Tour de France has been nothing short of stellar. He accomplished every goal Johan Bruyneel and I set in front of him, his body weight, nutrition, health, and hydration are right where they should be, and he's as motivated as I've ever seen him. Some people have said the route was designed to favor Lance's rivals, which means they still don't understand the man. When you're better prepared than anyone else, you're able to win on any course.

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