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92nd Tour de France - July 2-24, 2005

Neil Stephens analyses the Tour - Part I

From Fromentine to Briançon...

A veteran of seven Tours de France, Australian Neil Stephens has a very good idea of what it takes to complete La Grande Boucle. Now employed as a Tour guide and Professional Cycling Coordinator within the Australian Sports Commission, 'Stevo' provides Cyclingnews with his unique take on the 2005 race route, spiced with plenty of his own experiences of Tours gone by. The first part covers stages 1-11, while the second part will cover stages 12-21.

Neil Stephens

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Neil Stephens (Stevo) retired in 1998 and now lives in Northern Spain with his wife and two children. He is still passionate about cycling and works for the Australian Sports Commission as the Professional Cycling Coordinator, helping young Australian cyclists achieve their dreams

He also works exclusively with Bikestyle Tours (www.bikestyletours.com), telling yarns (stories) and riding with clients on their trips to the major cycling events around the world including the Tour de France.

The Tour is the biggest annual sporting event in the world. Just look at the crowds on the mountain stages, especially Alpe d'Huez over the past two years where the number of spectators have been estimated as the largest ever to watch a sporting event live. I have been lucky enough to have participated in seven Tours as a rider. I finished five and have continued my involvement due to my work with www.bikestyletours.com, which organises trips to the Tour and most other major cycling events.

One of the great pleasures of my job is sitting in the bar at the hotel each night chatting with the clients and reviewing the day's stage and what might have been. I get lots of questions about what it is really like in the pro peloton. As we were going through the Tour route for 2005 and planning our trips, my mind began flooding back with memories of the days in the peloton. For once I decided I would put the words down on paper. For what they are worth here they are. I hope they give you a bit of an insight in the life of a pro and the buzz I still get when I think of the magnificent event.

There are some stages on this year's Tour that go through areas where I did not ride or that do not invoke any memories in me. Whatever, these stages will be hard fought and won.

One thing that some may find hard to realize is that the main players, the riders, are just normal guys. Guys with two arms, two legs, mortgages, snotty nosed kids and all the baggage that comes with it.

There are stages that will be controlled by the sprinters teams, stages that will be won from a break away and days when the strongest riders will just blast the field away. The one sure thing is that a stage win in the Tour could change the life of some riders. With the mountain stages and time trials well out of the reach of most, the flatter stages will be very hotly contested, to say the least.

In the pro peloton, there are a lot of mice and there is not enough cheese to go around.

The 2005 Tour

Stage 1 - Saturday, July 2: Fromentine - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile ITT, 19 km

You can look at it whichever way you want. A long prologue or a short TT. The main difference, except for the fact that you have to suffer for longer, is that you cannot finish outside the time control for a prologue and you can for a TT. The GC contenders will be up there but I would not be surprised to see a TT specialist take the stage and the first Yellow Jersey for 2005. Most riders are happy to get this one out of the way and let the show begin. The real race starts tomorrow though.

Tips: Brad McGee, Michael Rogers, Fabian Cancellara.

Stage 3 - Monday, July 4: La Châtaigneraie - Tours, 208 km

Neil Stephens
Photo ©: Brian Farrell
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Tours is one of the sprinters "paradise cities". Along with Bordeaux and Paris, Tours is one of the stage finishes that the big sprinters love to win. I suppose they always want to win, but being also the finishing city for a World Cup race, pride rides high amongst the fast boys. Every time that I have raced into Tours, the big teams have lit it up and the bunch has come in in splinters. The big boys should be well looked after and should not have any worries.

Tips: Baden Cooke might give McEwen, Petacchi and Hushovd something to think about.

Stage 4 - Tuesday, July 5: Tours - Blois TTT, 66 km

In the same way that most of the peloton looks forward to the prologue, the majority don't really look forward to the TTT. I suppose that I was one of the strange ones because I used to look forward to the TTT, in a masochistic sort of a way. In my days in the yellow ONCE machine, we ran second (by five seconds after 80km) once and third another time, so I suppose we were sort of good at it.

One of my team mates from those days, Johan Bruyneel, has got things sorted in the Postal - sorry, Discovery - camp as far as TTTs go. His main opposition for the stage win is our old boss, Manolo Saiz, but fortunately for Johan, Manolo tends to over obsess himself with this stage and lose sight of the big GC picture.

Tips: With Lance, Discovery. Without Lance, Manolo et al.

Stage 9 - Sunday, July 10: Gerardmer - Mulhouse, 170 km

Laying it down
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Although I can't place most of these climbs, I can assure you that this is solid terrain and I am sure we will see an epic battle take place into Mulhouse. Perhaps we won't see who is going to win the 2005 Tour de France but no doubt we will see a couple of the big riders fail, loosing their dream for overall victory.

Talking of battles, a lot of you will probably think of Lance Armstrong's great win in the TT in 2000 when Mulhouse is mentioned but my memories are of a different kind. It was back in 1992 when Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zülle, Johan Bruyneel and I were freshmen in the ONCE team. Our Tour had started well with Alex taking the yellow jersey on the second day in San Sebastian and Laurent winning the stage into Brussels.

On the road to Mulhouse, our team director Manolo Saiz told us (unfortunately I was the messenger boy) that we had to get on the front and force the pace behind the break away rider, Laurent Fignon. When I told the boys, Laurent said that he did not feel great and preferred that we did not light it up. Eventually Manolo sent us a second message but this time there was no room for discussion.

We got on the front and set the pace until the last climb where Alex, not Laurent, attacked, went off the front and missed out by seconds on catching Fignon for the stage win. It would have been a perfect tactic as Alex, being just a neo-pro, was going home the next day so as not to drain himself too much.

That night, Manolo went right off and left no doubt in our minds who was to call the shots in the team. During the course of an hour and mixed with some very colourful Spanish, Manolo explained that if he called a tactic, we were to carry it out no matter what we thought. If it came off, we were all winners, but if we failed, the one with egg on his face and the one who would have to justify his actions to the world, would be him.

I stayed with Manolo another four years after '92 and never again questioned his call.

Rest Day 1 - Monday, July 11

I suppose that with the first rest day rolling around, some of you would think that the riders are looking forward to a good sleep in and a day full of nothing much. That may be the case, but the truth is that riders' preferences are about as varied as bums on bike seats.

I remember going out for a couple of hours easy training on a rest day early in my career and my teammate, Marino Lejarreta (Spanish legend cyclist who now works for Liberty) waved to us from his bedroom as we left. Sure he was (probably?) going to out for a spin but first he had slept in until eleven o'clock and was not keen on having to keep up with anybody else. He did that on his race days!

I, on the other hand, dutifully went out and did the set training with my teammates and in the next day's stage, felt like what the cat dragged in. For years, in rest days in the Tour, Vuelta and Giro, I would do what I thought was right and feel like crap the next day. I started to dread the rest days more than any other day.

Now I am no physiologist, but I came to the conclusion that I seemed to get used to the rhythm of racing and the rest days left me feeling stiff and bloated. On the rest day in the '95 Tour, I went out training with my teammates but when we got near a 5km climb, I excused myself and turned off on my own. Using my heart meter, I got up near threshold and held it for the duration of the climb. After 2.5 hours riding, I got back to the team hotel and did a further 30 minutes on the home trainer.

Result? Next day I felt fine. The fact that I had gotten the body up to operational level and had a good sweat had meant the difference between race and rest days was not so great. I had still had a relaxing day, good massage etc. but had given the body a bit of a workout. This fashion of approaching the rest day served me well for the rest of my career.

Stage 10 - Tuesday, July 12: Grenoble - Courchevel, 192 km

Interpreter Neil Stephens
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Even though riders have had a hard day in to Mulhouse, today is the first of the mountaintop finishes. You might think that mountain stages and mountaintop finish stages are the same but I can assure you, they ain't.

The stage goes up two long, hard climbs but on the up side, the countryside is fantastic. The Alps are a special place and the climb up to Courchevel brings back positive memories for me in 1997. After finishing up Alp d'Huez the day before we headed off on the stage to Courchevel. A hard day with several mountain passes and we (Festina) went on the attack from the first climb. Result? The race was blown apart, Richard Virenque went on to win the stage, but a rock solid Jan Ulrich never lost his cool and more importantly, never lost sight of the overall GC picture. Sure Virenque won the battle but Jan won the '97 war.

Stage 11 - Wednesday, July 13: Courchevel - Briançon, 173 km

Even though I have raced in and around these mountains heaps of times, I don't ever remember finishing a stage into Briançon. To a degree, this is really irrelevant. Where all the damage is going to get done is out on the road from Courchevel.

The Madeleine is hard from wherever you climb it. With 25km of climbing to do (and that is only the first climb) I am pretty sure you won't get any action until the Telegraphe. Theoretically there are two climbs, being the Telegraphe and the Galibier, but in reality there is a 30 kilometre climb with a bit of a descent in the middle.

I remember back in '92, we were climbing the Galibier from another side (A climb of around 30km but a fair bit easier) and I started the climb broken away. Somewhat into the climb, Chioccioli, Robert Millar, Gianni Bugno and Laurent Fignon joined me. Before anyone else has to point it out, I was well out of my depth as these guys are all climbing legends.

Being the highest point the Tour passed that year, there was a prize for the first and the second over the top. Getting towards the top, I was in a fair bit of discomfort as Franco Chioccioli gracefully attacked off the front. Behind was Fignon helping his Gatorade teammate Bugno, followed by Millar and I was just starting to lose contact when an over zealous Italian fan got carried away by seeing his hero, got his Italian flag caught up in Bugno's wheel and down he went, taking Millar with him. Fignon could not believe what had happened and stopped to wait for his leader.

In a somewhat comical way, the couple of meters between Millar and myself was enough so that I did not pile up on top of them. I swerved to miss them and rode by only to find myself, 50 meters later, crossing the top of the Galibier in second place behind Chioccioli. I did not think anything of it until the Australian press at the finish line at Alp d'Huez told me that an Australian had never placed that highly over such a mythical climb. They were amazed. If only they knew!

Stay tuned for Part II: From Briançon to Paris

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