In announcing the 2001 Tour De France, race director Jean Marie Leblanc told his audience gathered in Le Palais De Congres that, "As the Tour De France enters a new century, it does so with a return to its roots - to Dunquerque, where in the early part of the century, the Tour often visited as a stage start or finish."
That may be true, but not much else about the 2001 Tour De France is traditional or ordinary. In fact, the short distance of 3462 km and difficult, unorthodox Tour parcours may be the most testing in the last decade. As the TDF video camera panned across the concerned faces of many the top riders seated in the front row of the hall, their serious expressions showed how much suffering would be on the menu for next July's Tour.
Starting in far northwest France on the English Channel coast, called the "Cote d'Opale", Dunkerque will be the site of the opening 8 km prologue. Kind of ironic, since was the site of the British WW2 panic evacuation in 1940, with prologue pro Brit, David Millar the favourite to take the first Maillot Jaune. After a weekend on the windy, hilly terrain of the coast of Le Manche, the Tour then heads into Belgium with a stage finish in Antwerp, with a few pavé sections of East Flanders on the menu. Then it's across Belgium in the only stage that's 100% outside of France with a few tasty "côtes" from Liege-Bastogne-Liege thrown in for good measure before the finish in Seraing.
The parcours dives due south back to France on Stage 4 from Huy, the start city of La Fleche Wallone to Verdun through the leg-sapping climbs of the Ardennes Mountains. A spectacular, rolling, Team Time Trial stage of 67 km from Verdun-Bar-Le-Duc will provide Stage 5 and already, the '01 TDF will certainly be finding its weak sisters.
Stages 6 and 7 will then traverse the Vosges Mountains to arrive at the foot of the Alpes; sleeper stages that don't look too hard on paper but both will put a major hurt on the legs of the TDF peloton, especially Stage 7 to Colmar with four Cat. 2 climbs in 162 km!
Unlike the previous few years, Stage 10 from Aix-Les-Bains to L'Alpe D'Huez will be the only point-to-point stage in the Alpes. With 208 km and the ascents of the 24 km long, 2000m high Col de la Madeleine and the steep 19.9 km long, 1924m Col du Glandon before the famous 14 km, 21 hairpin turn climb up to l'Alpe D'Huez, this alpine stage will be very tough.
But there will be still no rest for the peloton of Le Tour '01. The next day, Stage 11 is an uphill 32 km individual time trial from Grenoble up the steep ascent of the Chaine de Belledonne to Chamrousse; 18.7 km of climbing at 7.1% average gradient to reach the ski resort of Chamrousse. With tired legs from Stage 10, this uphill TT will be the first real moment of truth in Le Tour '01.
After the TT, it's rest day number 1, with a transfer to Perpignan at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Unlike the last few years, the Pyrenees will be the stage where the '01 TDF is won or lost, with three consecutive mountaintop finishes on Stages 12, 13 and 14.
Stage 12 from Perpignan to Ax-Les-Thermes will conclude with an unknown final ascent to Plateau de Bonascre, 9.4 km climb at 7%; similar to the Plateau de Bielle climb where Marco Pantani won in a TDF stage in '98. 222 km Stage 13 will be the unlucky number for some riders in the '01 TDF, as it's likely to be truly the toughest test of the Tour. Six major cols with 80 km of climbing are on the menu before the mountaintop finish in Pla d'Adet.
The Pyrenees end with Stage 14; a short, sharp 144 km to the 7.5%, 13.7 km ascension of Luz Ardiden via the 1498 m Col d'Aspin and 2115 m Col du Tourmalet. Next year's Tour de France offers a tough trio of terrible Pyrenees stages, with back to back to back mountaintop finishes that will separate the men from the boys and set the stage for the final week back to Paris.
But when the Pyrenees are finished, Le Tour '01 offers No easy ride for the peloton to arrive back to Paris. Au contraire, the Tour heads straight back to the capital via center of France, on the tiny, twisting roads on the corrugated terrain and baking temps though le Massif Central. After a rest day in Pau and transition Stage 15, the subsequent two stages will be a major tempo test for whatever team that holds Le Maillot Jaune. Once Le Tour '01 arrives in the heart of France, the final race of truth will be Stage 18's 61 km Individual Time Trial from Montluçon to Saint-Amand-Montrond. Then there are only two stages left before the finish in Paris of a short, intense Tour de France.
Next year's prize list has been beefed up by ASO, the Tour organizers. The total prize list will be FF16,000,000 ($US2,285,000), with the winners of the classment general's share at FF2,500,000 ($US360,000).
Jean-Marie Leblanc also discussed the new formula for team selection for Le Tour, which will also be adopted by the organizers of the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta d'Espana. 20 teams of 9 riders will be chosen in two rounds: January 2001 and June 2001 with the criteria based on "sporting and ethics." Leblanc said that "we are looking for good performances from good teams." The new team selection criteria are as follows:
This is to avoid the problems of the TDF 2000, where French teams were left at home during their national tour.
Top 16 Teams (January 23, 2001)
On the subject of doping, Leblanc repeated his request of the previous year, "vite messieurs, vite," to Hein Verbruggen, UCI president and Daniel Baal, French Federation boss to come up with stronger controls on doping. "My conviction is that we will eventually find the right way to solve the doping problem," said Leblanc. Perhaps this was an aside to remind the assembled elite of world cycling just who was not attending the bash for the 2001 Tour; self-declared black sheep Richard Virenque and his ex-Festina mob, who were a few hundred kilometers north in Lille, enjoying the attentions of criminal prosecutors as the Festina court case continues.
With a short and difficult parcours, 12 new stage cities and a new formula for team invitations, the 2001 Tour De France promises to be intense. Lance Armstrong and his newly reinforced USPS squad will have to face the onslaught of the challenge from Olympic Champion Jan Ullrich and his Telekom team, as well as the always unpredictable outsider Marco Pantani of Mercatone Uno. As always, cyclingnews.com will be at Le Tour 2001, 24/7 with the best cycling content on the internet.
Jan Ullrich: "This is a Tour I like. I will do everything I can to start well prepared. My 2001 season has one big target: the Tour de France. And I like the stage with the Alpe d'Huez."
Walter Godefroot (Telekom): "The Tour is short and intense. I expect the decision in the Pyrenees. But maybe some big names will already be tired before the Alps."
Christophe Moreau: "I'm thinking about a top 3 place in Paris, a stage victory and I dream about the yellow jersey."
Joseba Beloki: "Many mountains, many time trials. I like that."
Christophe Agnulutto: "It's a pity the final stage isn't completely in Paris. It was a great happening in July."
Johan Bruyneel: "This Tour isn't made specially for Lance Armstrong. It is important to have a strong team."
Bjarne Riis: "The stage in the Vogeses could be very important and is a good stage for Laurent Jalabert. I am hoping for the first 10 days, including the team time trial."
Bernard Hinault: "I think the mountain time trial in Chamrousse is the most important stage."
Manulo Saiz: "I'm happy with the three stages in the Pyrenees. A lot of Spanish and Basque people will be there to motivate us."
Vicente Belda: "It will be a harder Tour than this year. We shall not lose so much time in the team time trial. We are hoping for Botero and Sevilla in the important mountain stages."
Total distance: 3,462 km
Col de Kreuzweg (15
km at 3.6%)
Col du Frêne
(2.1 km at 8.6%)
Montée vers Chamrousse (18.7 km at 7.1 %)
Col de Jau (22.8 km
at 5.2%). Col de Coudons (10.9 km at 5.5%)
Col du Portet d'Aspet
(2.6 km at 8.6%)
Col du "Haut
de la Côte" (1.5 km at 6.3%)