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By Peter Cossins

25 October 2002

Last month Jean-Marie Leblanc, the head of the Societe du Tour de France, spent a couple of days at the Tour of Spain, and it would seem that after seeing what was widely regarded as the most exciting stage race of the season that he went home with a Vuelta guide to stage race planning. In fact, an initial glance at the route of the 2002 Tour de France, which was unveiled in Paris this morning, suggests that Leblanc has simply taken the basic plan for the 2001 Vuelta and laid it over a map of France.
Take away the team time trial and add in more flat stages to suit the sprinters, and the 2002 Tour looks like a Vuelta route in disguise - there are even a similar number of summit finishes. At 3,282 kilometres, it will be the shortest Tour in the modern era, although the races of 1988 and 1989 were just a handful of kilometres longer. Interestingly, the 89 race was one of the Tour's greatest, with Greg LeMond beating Laurent Fignon on the very last day in Paris. Perhaps Leblanc looked at the finish of this year's Vuelta and harked back to that.
Over the last couple of seasons Spain's biggest race has cut its total distance significantly and been rewarded with an event that has never been predictable and this year was in doubt until the very last rider crossed the finish line in Madrid. In addition, with doping still a major issue in the sport, the reduced distances should enable riders to recover quicker and stay fresher for longer.
Leblanc recognized this after unveiling the race route, telling the audience in Paris, 'It does not make sense to outlaw the taking of illegal drugs and at the same time making it tougher and tougher for the cyclists.' Consequently, there are stages over 230km and there are important rest days before the stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
As most of the route was leaked last week, there are very few surprises. The biggest of them is the decision to host the finish of the second stage in Germany at Saarbrucken after the opening prologue and stage have taken place in Luxembourg. Leblanc admitted that the STDF had wanted to take the race back to Germany as quickly as possible following the incredible reception they got on the stage to Fribourg last year.
Over the opening days the Tour follows what has become an almost standard format. The time triallists and overall contenders dispute the yellow jersey in the prologue, then the sprinters spend the next few stages battling to take it off them as they try to rack up stage wins and vital green jersey points.
Assuming nothing unforeseen occurs on these flat stages, the first major test for the overall contenders will be a 68km team time trial to Chateau Thierry in Champagne country. This is almost exactly the same distance as the TTT this year won by Credit Agricole in wet and windy conditions. Gaps between the leading teams weren't huge, and if next year's team stage is as competitive it could be that we won't see the first major moves in the overall standings until the individual time trial at Lorient on stage nine.
Brittany isn't a mountainous area, but it's hilly and the roads have a reputation for being heavy. Expect powerful riders such as Santiago Botero and Jan Ullrich to perform well here, not forgetting Lance Armstrong of course. The race then transfers south on a rest day and gets straight into the meaty business of the mountains.
There are five summit finishes (though no mountain time trial as widely predicted), and three of them come in four very hard days. After a chance to unwind on the road to Pau, the race tackles the Aubisque and the Soulor en route to La Mongie, which stands just off the Tourmalet and has hosted a Tour finish just once before in 1970 when Bernard Thevenet prevailed after two trips up the Tourmalet.
But this is very much a starter for the main Pyrenean course that comes the day after. On a stage of just under 200km, the riders will face climbs over the Col de Mente, the Portet d'Aspet, the Col de la Core, and the Col de Port before finishing on the 16km drag up to the Plateau de Beille, where Marco Pantani won in 1998 on the only previous visit.
The Core and the Port aren't particularly tough, but after what has come before the peloton should be very well spread by the lower slopes of the very difficult Plateau de Beille ascent. There's then the chance for the climbers to inflict even more damage as the second of two transition stages across to the Pyrenees finishes on the white-hot summit of the Ventoux.
After the second rest day come the final two summit finishes, making three in a row with the Ventoux as the first. Stage 15 to Les Deux Alpes is the longest of the race at 226km, but the following day's stage to La Plagne looks harder even though it's the best part of 50km shorter. The day begins by going up to the 'roof of the Tour' at 2645 metres on the Galibier, continues on the Madeleine and the Telegraphe, and ends at the ski station at La Plagne.
What makes these particular climbs so tough is not the gradient so much as their length. The 33km of the Galibier will probably be taken at a relatively easy pace by most of the peloton, but after that there are still another 42km of climbing to complete and the speed of the lead group will jump a significant notch as it heads from one climb to the next.
Compared to the day before stage 17 looks fairly innocuous. There's no summit finish and it's 'only' 141km, but there are still 58km of climbing on the road to Cluses and by this point the cumulative effect of so many days in the mountains will be considerable. Think back to how riders' fortunes fluctuated on a similar run of days through the Pyrenees in the Vuelta last month when several riders were in contention heading in, and just two were really in contention heading out.
There are then just two more flat stages either side of a time trial which should offer a flatter track than the first.
Leblanc said at the presentation that he wanted to offer a well-rounded Tour, one that offered something to everyone, and he's achieved that aim. But although there are more than 100km of time trialling, the sprinters and climbers will be happier with this route than most. The obvious favourites will be Armstrong and Ullrich, but the Spanish Kelme and iBanesto.com teams will be a huge threat, as will Gilberto Simoni at Saeco. And let's not forget Pantani either. He has very good memories of a lot of these climbs and at 31 he's still too young to be written off totally.

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