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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

First Edition News for October 24, 2003

Edited by Jeff Jones

A Tour in two parts

By Jeff Jones in Paris

Leblanc announces the course as Armstrong watches
Photo: © AFP

The dust is still settling on the 2003 Centenary Tour de France, which had all of us enthralled for three weeks this past July. It was the closest Tour in years and one thoroughly deserving of the 100th anniversary of La Grande Boucle. But while the Centenary Tour can still be savoured, it's time to look at what the next edition has in store. Today in Paris's Palais des Congrès, the 2004 Tour de France was unveiled to a couple of thousand invited guests and media, including the riders such as Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Iban Mayo who made the 2003 Tour so memorable.

In announcing next year's route, which will start in the Belgian city of Liège with a 6 km prologue on July 3, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc posed the question "How can we make sure it's as good as the Centenary Tour?"

It's a tough question, but the answer to that will only be known on July 25, 2004 when the Tour rolls into Paris for the final stage. As far as the racing is concerned, it is always up to the riders to make the Tour is exciting and as hard fought as possible, so that the public that comes out in droves every summer will continue to do so. But the Tour is much more than a bicycle race - it's a massive cultural event that grips France and the rest of the world for three weeks every year. And the closer you get, the more you see.

At the presentation, Leblanc admitted that "At times it is much bigger than we would like it to be," while explaining the problem of keeping the Tour under the control of the race organisation. Each year, the crowds are incredible everywhere as people treat Le Tour as a perfect opportunity for a holiday. 15 million spectators can't be wrong. Towns that host the start and finish of stages can swell to well over 10 times their population when the Tour juggernaut rolls in.

This year's winners
Photo: © CN

Leblanc recalled the words of an 80 year old woman who spoke to him this year about the attraction of the Tour. "I don't have much time left in this world," she said. "But one thing I will miss is the Tour de France each year."

Wallonian start

It's been known for some time that the 2004 Tour's Grand Départ will be in the Walloon region of Belgium, and the race will spend four days in the French speaking part of this country. Starting with the 6 km flat prologue in Liège's centre, the Tour will then travel to the industrial town of Charleroi for stage 1 over a moderately challenging 195 kilometres. Stage 2 is from Charleroi to the beautiful town of Namur on the banks of the Meuse, again over 195 km. The third stage starts from the historic town of Waterloo, where Napoleon's French army was defeated by the Duke of Wellington and General Blücher in 1815. It takes the riders another 195 kilometres into French territory to Wasquehal, including some of the feared pavé sections that Paris-Roubaix is famous for.

The fourth stage team time trial stage takes place between Cambrai (a first visit by the Tour) and Arras over 65 km of flat and potentially windy terrain. Stage 5 from Amiens to Chartres over 195 km heads southwest, which Chartres another first time Tour host town. The Tour's trajectory continues southwest between Bonneval and Angers on stage six (190 km), another flat one that the sprinters should enjoy.

Across to Brittany

After missing Brittany in the 2003 Tour, Jean-Marie Leblanc said that "We will rectify that this year" before announcing stage 7 between Chateaubriant and Saint Brieuc over 208 km. The Tour started here in 1995 when Jacky Durand won the prologue. Stage 8 will also be in Brittany, taking the riders from Lamballe towards the western tip of France, finishing in Quimper after 172 km. Lamballe is a new Tour town, while Quimper last hosted a stage finish in 1991 when Phil Anderson won.

After nine days of racing, the Tour will transfer to Limoges on July 12, the first rest day in the 2004 edition. The action begins anew with the 9th stage from Raymond Poulidor's home town of St Leonard de Noblat (new to the Tour) to Guéret (also new) over 160 km. In fact, this stage is the first ever in the Tour's history to be run in the department of Creuse.

The mountains of the Massif Central and Pyrenees

The first mountainous stage will be Stage 10 between Limoges and St Flour over 237 km of the Massif Central. Of the four categorised climbs en route, the biggest is the 1589m Col du Pas de Peyrol, which measures only 5.5 km but is steep at an average of 8%. This stage will soften up the legs of the riders for the upcoming big mountain stages, which are all concentrated in the final half of the 2004 Tour.

Stage 11 from St Flour to Figeac is a rolling 164 km, but most will be thinking of Stage 12, between Castelsarrasin and La Mongie over 199 km. La Mongie is better known as the ski resort a few kilometres from the top of the Col du Tourmalet, and the Tour last visited there in 2002. It's the first uphill finish, with the final climb measuring 15 km at 5.7%, but there is only one other climb to contend with in the stage: the 12.5 km Col d'Aspin.

Stage 13 from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille (217 km) is a lot tougher, and is the classic epic Pyrenean stage. Featuring six categorised climbs (Col des Ares, Col de Portet d'Aspet, Col de la Core, Col de Latrape, Col d'Agnes and Plateau de Beille) this will really test the climbers and GC riders. The final ascent to Plateau de Beille is a torturous 18.5 kilometres at 6.4 percent, and the gauntlet should be thrown down here as it was in 2002 by Lance Armstrong and Roberto Heras.

Stage 14 from Carcassonne to Nimes (200 km) is a "rest day" before the second rest day, as there are no serious climbs to contend with in this stage. The Tour takes a proper day off on July 19 in Nimes, ready for the final six stages.

The Alpine onslaught

The Alps approach in Stage 15 from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans, which will feature a number of tough 1000 plus metre climbs. This stage was designed by Charly Mottet, and most of the climbs will be new to the riders. There are seven in total, with the toughest being the Col des Limouches (10.7km at 6.4%), Col de l'Echarasson (12km at 7.4%), and Cote de Chalimont (10.3 km at 5.8%). The finish in Villard-de-Lans is virtually at the foot of the descent of the Chalimont, but there remains the "Cote 2000", a 2.3 km climb at 6.6% before the actual finish line.

The 16th stage is the twist in this year's Tour, a mountain time trial from the Alpine town of Bourg d'Oisans to Alpe d'Huez, over 15 km. The main part of the climb is 13.8 kilometres at 7.9%, and most think that this will be the decisive stage. The next day takes the riders from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand, over two big Alpine cols, the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Madeleine, which at 2000m is the highest point of the Tour 2003. These giants come in the first half of the stage, but there remain three shorter climbs before the finish in Le Grand Bornand. The Col de la Croix-Fry (12.5 km at 6.8%) comes with just 12 downhill kilometres from the finish, and this could be another interesting stage.

The 18th stage is the final mountain stage, between Annemasse (a new Tour town) and Lons le Saulnier over 166 km. After what has come before and the next day's time trial, this should be a relatively quiet one for the GC riders despite the 11.5 km climb of the Col de la Faucille in the middle.

The final test

Stage 19 takes place in the eastern French town of Besançon, last visited by the Tour in 1996 when Jeroen Blijlevens won. Appropriately, as the leading French watch making centre, Besançon will host a 60 kilometre time trial over rolling terrain. "We will know who the winner is after this stage," commented Leblanc.

After a transfer by train to Montreau, the final stage is the traditional parade into Paris for the laps of the Champs-Elysées, always one of the most spectacular images of the Tour de France each year and a perfect way to celebrate 101 years of tradition.

In summary, it's a Tour in two parts. The first 11 stages will mostly suit the sprinters, whose teams will want to keep things together before the mountains hit in stage 12. Then it becomes a battle of survival in the Pyrenees and the Alps, and whoever's got the legs in those final two time trials will win the Tour.

At just under 3,400 kilometres total, Jean-Marie Leblanc commented that it was " of the shortest Tours in history. The starts and finishes are often in different towns to make the stages shorter. And for the first time ever, the first time trial will be five days from the finish, which will force riders and teams to change their strategies. It's a very difficult last week, and will keep the suspense until the finish of the Tour."

Also see: Main pageMap and SummaryPhotosHistory

Reactions to the route

Lance Armstrong (USPS-Berry Floor, 2003 winner)

Virenque and Armstrong
Photo: © AFP

"In the Alps this year it will be a little more special with the time trial on l'Alpe d'Huez. It's probably the day that will decide the Tour...but the Tour is always difficult. It's hard to carry out a judgment on this parcours, because this is the first time that I've seen it. I will know more after training over some of the parcours.

"The third week is special, but that's the beauty of the Tour, it always changes. I love this race. My aim is a sixth victory."

On his main rival, Jan Ullrich, Armstrong commented, "I have the impression that Jan has been progressing more. On paper his new team is impressive - we'll see what happens on the road."

Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile, 2003 runner-up)

Jan Ullrich
Photo: © AFP

"My new team is very strong and I think that I will have my chances. Lance will be of course be there but it will be also necessary to watch the others, notably Beloki if he comes back. As usual, the Pyrenean stages will be difficult. The last week will be particularly hard. But hard is always good. The mountain time trial is especially good for me.

"I've been second often enough. Next year I want to finally win the Tour."

Richard Virenque (Quick.Step-Davitamon)

"I'm troubled, this Tour de France will be strange. On one hand, the fact that the first time trial is only four days from the finish doesn't concern me. The fact that this is on l'Alpe d'Huez will deprive me of an additional rest day. Everything will be played out by the end. Before the final week, starting with the Plateau de Beille, we will have done ten days without a lot of mountains. But the more the difficulties are concentrated, the better for me. I'll start with ambitions similar to those in 2003: the polka dot jersey and a stage victory.

"For Armstrong it's fair, he'll only have the stages of Plateau de Beille and l'Alpe d'Huez to make the difference. For him, to avoid falling into traps will be tough."

Gilberto Simoni (Saeco)

"I'm anxious to be there. This Tour pleases me a lot, more than the last one! I'm already very motivated, especially by this time trial on Alpe d'Huez. In 2004, I will do the Giro/Tour double but my program will be different because I want to come to the Tour at one hundred percent of my capabilities. It is out of the question that I would dispute Paris-Nice for example."

Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole)

"This Tour is a little atypical, and the reconnaissance of the parcours will play a big role. We are coming up against a lot of unknown territory."

Johan Bruyneel (USPS-Berry Floor director)

Armstrong and Bruyneel
Photo: © AFP

"This is a Tour that could be called 'unconventional', but nonetheless there are the Pyrenees, the Alps, a team time trial and individual time trials. All the ingredients are there as every year. There is always a lot of talk during the winter, some say that it's apparently not good for the climbers, or not good for those who like time trials, but in the end it's always the best one who wins."

Marc Madiot ( director)

"The Alpe d'Huez time trial, that's good for TV. The two time trials in four days, they will concern three or four riders, those who are likely to win the Tour. There is a risk of arriving at the two time trials with very small gaps between the favourites. That opens up a few scenarios that aren't too bad.

"Our minimum ambitions will be to win a stage because all the teams will not be able to achieve that. This will be a suspenseful Tour with the first part, until the Pyrenees, that seems tricky to me. Especially the stages of Guéret and Saint-Flour will be very dangerous and already, before the first mountain, the riders will be looking at making the time limits. Then, in the final and very difficult week, the strong will show themselves."

Team selection decided earlier

The 2004 Tour peloton will consist of 198 riders from 22 teams of nine riders each. Each year the selection of teams is the most contentious issue, with much (generally pointless) debate over who should have been included but weren't. Next year will be no different, although the selection procedure will be somewhat simpler and the teams decided much earlier in the season.

"There are many more candidates than places and some will be disappointed," said Leblanc. "But there's no reason for us to be the victim of such difficult responses from those who are not selected, such as legal processes. We have done our best to be fair and we have the full support of the Professional Cycling Council (CCP)."

On January 31, 2004, the first 14 teams will be selected according to the UCI ranking at the end of the 2003 season. On March 1 - a full four months before the Tour starts on July 3 - the organisers will allocate eight wild cards to fill the final team positions.

"For wild cards, we will no longer take into account the early season results like in the past but the strength of teams on paper," Leblanc added.

Rule changes to TTT and mountains jersey

The two main rule changes next year concern the Team Time Trial and the King of the Mountains competition. In the former, which is always placed early in the race in case teams lose too many riders, teams can only lose a maximum of two and a half minutes to the winning team, no matter what their actual time is. This should not make any difference to the top teams but it will help the weaker teams that contain good climbers: Euskaltel-Euskadi this year was a good example.

In the King of the Mountains competition, the organisers have made the final climbs of each stage (provided they are Cat. 2 or higher) worth double their usual points. This will disadvantage those climbers who escape early in the stage and are allowed to get a big lead, picking up all the intermediate mountain points until they are (typically) caught on the final climb. At the same time it will reward the faster climbers in the race, as these riders generally only come to the fore on the final couple of climbs.

Museeuw plans for April finish

Johan Museeuw (Quick.Step-Davitamon) has announced that he has extended his contract with the team until April 14, 2004. On that day - after both the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix - he will retire from cycling, with the Grote Scheldeprijs in Antwerp being his last race.

"My preparation for next season won't be any different from previous years," said Museeuw today. "My first race will be in Mallorca and the Scheldeprijs will be my last. I chose that because I want to end my career in Belgium near my fans."

The massively popular Johan Museeuw is regarded as the modern king of the classics, with 11 victories to his credit including three wins apiece in Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Vandenbroucke leaves Quick.Step

Frank Vandenbroucke and Quick.Step Davitamon have decided "by mutual consent" to part ways, despite the fact that Vandenbroucke intended to ride with Quick.Step for the 2004 season. Both parties have agreed to dissolve the contract, and Vandenbroucke is free to go to another team. There are rumours that he will join the new Chocolade-Jacques team in 2004, but these have yet to be confirmed.

Bölts to direct Gerolsteiner

The recently retired Udo Bölts will become a team director for Gerolsteiner next year. The 37 year old rode his last race, the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt, in September this year after 14 years as a pro.

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