By Anthony Tan, with additional reporting by Tim Maloney in Paris
On midday Thursday at Paris' Palais des Congres, the official route of the 2006 Tour de France was unveiled. A classic course according to veteran Tour experts, but also one of the hardest in recent years, the 93rd edition of La Grande Boucle follows an anti-clockwise direction around France, the 20 stages covering some 3,600 kilometres including nine flat stages, five mountain stages, four medium mountain stages and two individual time trials. Three mountain-top finishes are on offer (yes, L'Alpe d'Huez is in there!) including 22 Cat. 1, Cat. 2 and hors categorié passes, two rest days and 116 kilometres of individual time trialling.
Beginning on July 1 with a 7 kilometre prologue in Strausbourg on the French-German border, Le Tour 2006 skirts around the northern perimeter of France towards Lorient, side-stepping into Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium on the way. The first full-length individual time trial comes on Stage 7, a 52 kilometre race against the clock from Saint-Grégoire to Rennes, and the often controversial team time trial is absent this year.
A transfer to Bordeaux after Stage 8 marks the first rest day, before two difficult, back-to-back Pyréenean stages on Stages 10 and 11: 193 kilometres from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau on July 12, followed on Thursday, July 13 by a 208 kilometre stage from Tarbes to Val d'Aran-Pla-de-Beret. The usual traverse across to the Alps takes up four days including a rest day in Gap, before two brutal Alpine stages that both end in mountain-top finishes - the first finishing atop the legendary L'Alpe d'Huez, and the second a 182 kilometre journey from Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire.
After the finish the following day in Morzine, the peloton heads north back to Paris, but before those famous final laps on the Champs-Elysées, what could be a nail-biting time test marks the penultimate stage of the 2006 Tour: a 56 kilometre ITT from Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines.
Total prizemoney: €3.2 million, with €450,000 for the winner. But just who will that be?