TOUR 2008: THE INSTANT REACTION
The 2008 Tour de France was guaranteed a very different flavour from the moment Christian Prudhomme announced there would not be a prologue time trial.
It means every rider can roll out from Brest on Saturday, July 5, dreaming of wearing the yellow jersey in Plumelec later that afternoon.
And the rest of the route has been planned to encourage an open race.
THE OPENING WEEK
At first glance the opening week looks fascinating. Admittedly the sprinters won’t thank Monsieur Prudhomme for restricting their chances to just four stages early on. And they are not guaranteed those chances either, as the roads of Brittany are lumpy and sticky and the finish at Plumelec is uphill.
After years criticising the Tour’s obsession with 50-kilometre time trials, the 29-kilometre individual test at Cholet is a dream to see. It’ll be short, exciting and shake up the general classification without setting it in stone before the mountains. And, contrary to the predictions, this is an individual test, not for teams, which is interesting. It seems ASO is deliberately not including a team time trial until the UCI's own team race in Eindhoven is dead.
And has ASO taken a leaf out of the Giro and Vuelta route-planner’s book by chucking in back-to-back stages in the Massif Central? Stage six to Super Besse will be a nightmare for the big teams to control, as will the next one to Aurillac.
The Tour promises to burst into life earlier than usual, without offering any opportunity for the favourites to close the door.
Two Pyrenean stages come at the end of a tough block of racing. The first, to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, does not finish on a summit, but it’s long. Next day is much shorter, just 154 kilometres, but covers the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam. This is where the first big shake-up will happen and the number of contenders is radically slashed.
For the second successive year, the route joins up neatly, with no major transfers. This always pleases the riders. After the rest day in Pau, the riders will go from Lannemezan to Foix on the flatter roads, ignoring the temptation to dip south into the Pyrenees proper. But it’s still a tough stage, particularly after a day off.
The transition to the Alps is likely to be hot and although it opens the door to the sprinters again, the breakaways will put the pressure on. The temptation to move east via Mont Ventoux has been resisted, which is a shame.
Stage 15 to Prato Nevoso is very much a tentative introduction to the Alps. It’s not hard and it comes just before a rest day. The main contenders will be content to wait.
After a rest at Cuneo in Italy, which is still a surprise despite the rumours, the Alps will be decisive. The stage to Jausiers goes over the highest climb in France, the Col de la Bonette-Restfond, but the one to Alpe d’Huez is the real beauty. Let’s hope the yellow jersey is still up for grabs because this could be a belter. Over the Galibier and Croix-de-Fer is the old traditional approach and it’s a welcome return for this Alpine circle of death.
And so the time trial - yes, you’ve guessed it, 53 kilometres long - sits, waiting to determine the overall winner, if needed.
On paper it looks very appealing. It’s imaginative, certainly compared to the paint-by-numbers approach Jean-Marie Leblanc adopted. It suits the baroudeurs who want to race, not sit tight and play a tactical game.
For the first time in years the number of time trial kilometres has been capped which is a good thing. And while all the focus will be on Hautacam and Alpe d’Huez - the only two stand-out mountain stages - it’s really all about the medium mountain stages. If ever the Tour has tried to encourage heroic racing, this is it.
If the riders decide to sit quietly and wait for the obvious set-pieces, at least you can’t say Mr Prudhomme didn’t try.
Tour de france 2008 route revealed: full stage list and map