A Grand Tour with minimal transfers and mythical mountains

By Gregor Brown in Paris

The 95th Tour de France will be a Grand Tour of modest terms and with mythical mountains stages. The 2008 French Grand Tour was presented today in Paris with minimal transfers and with the inclusion of the famed mountain climbs of Hautacam and L'Alpe d'Huez. The route, 3,554 kilometres over 21 stages, will run from July 5 to 27.

"We have wanted a first week of racing with much more rhythm," explained Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. "With no prologue, an uphill finish that will suit different types of sprinters at the end of stage one, with a short time trial on stage four and the first mountain [Super-Besse] only 48 hours later, we have decided to change the scenario."

The 95th Tour starts on Saturday with its Grand Départ in the cycling-rich region of Brittany without the usual prologue start, as has been favoured by the ASO (Tour organizers) for the last 40 years. (Read news item Tour de France 2008 to start in Brest and visit Italy. It then travels in a counter-clockwise direction, hitting the Pyrénées and then the Alps before its traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées, Sunday in Paris.

"It is not good for the cyclists when there are a lot of transfers, so this route looks favourable for us," noted the 2007 Tour Champion, Alberto Contador. "There are not huge jumps from the north to the south, and this will make the race more comfortable."

Keeping in its modest terms, the 95th edition will contain one time trial of 29 kilometres in Cholet and a second one – of normal Tour length – on the penultimate day of 53 kilometres, from Cérilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond. Though the minimal transfers presented by the ASO on Thursday are favoured universally by cyclists and team staff, the lack of crono kilometres – 82 in total – was not favoured by everyone.

"Maybe I might have to modify my training a little," said Cadel Evans, second in the 2006 Tour, to Cyclingnews when he heard of the minimal time trial kilometres.

The modesty of the 2008 edition will be forgotten when riders hit the high peaks near Spain and Italy; there are a total of five mountain stages, four of which finish in an upward trajectory. Planned is a return to Hautacam (stage 10), a romp up the 2802-metre Col de la Bonette-Restefonds (stage 16) and the mythical Alpe d'Huez (stage 17). There are a total of 10 flat and four medium mountain stages that combine with the aforementioned five mountain and two time trial stages to form the 21 stages.

The final bit of intrigue provided at Thursday's presentation was the lack of time bonuses on offer. Riders in the top placings will not be award with seconds taken off their overall time when competing in intermediate sprints and stage finishes. This will change the fight amongst the sprinters who are jockeying for the maillot jaune in the first few stages, and we may not see the overall lead change hands as often.

"People like the Tour," Prudhomme commented in regards to this year's scandals that involved Moreni, Vinokourov and Rasmussen. "The public has booed Michael Rasmussen, that's a good thing! They have told us: keep courage, please fight for the Tour's survival. We have listened to this message and we want to meet their expectations. ... We want to restore romanticism."

The Tour de France will be starting in the region of Brittany for the sixth time and in the town of Brest for its third time. Fausto Coppi won his last stage when the race began in the costal town in 1952 and Belgian Eddy Merckx took honours when it hosted its last stage start in 1974. 34 years later, cyclists will face 195 kilometres, ending in Plumelec. Two more stage starts will be hosted by Brittany, Auray to Vannes (stage 2) and Saint-Malo to Nantes (stage 3).

Although the Tour does not have a prologue time trial to start next year's edition it will feature a short individual test on stage four. The 29-kilometre run starting and ending in Cholet will be seriously contested by the general classification men and see the wearer of the maillot jaune changes hands. Its distance contrasts dramatically to the last two years: 2006 had its first time trial with a distance of 52 kilometres and 2007's first time trial was held over 54 kilometres.

"It is good that there are less time trial kilometres in the 2008 race," continued Contador to Cyclingnews. "However, it would be better if that short time trial was the second and not the first of the race. I prefer long time trials first."

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