Think of France in July and what comes to mind? Of course, the Tour de France. There is perhaps no other event that is more synonymous with Gallic culture than the Tour de France. Loved by locals, a staggering 76% percent of the French population has attended the Tour at least one time during their life. The media exposure is such that if a rider wins a single stage, with no other victories during the year, his season is deemed a success. Some say itís more a media circus than a bike race. Say what you will. There is not a pro bike rider on the planet who would not like to have a Tour title under his belt.
The 92nd Tour de France takes a departure from the typical Tour format in that the opening stage is not a short prologue, but rather a 19km time trial. This could have multiple implications. First, a sprinter will probably not have the chance to wear the leaderís yellow jersey. Secondly, a rider like Armstrong could conceivably wear the leaderís jersey from the beginning to the end of the race. In order to keep the yellow jersey, whoever wins the opening TT will have to have a strong team for the team time trial, which follows only 3 days later. Defending the yellow jersey this early into the race will be at the bottom of the priority list for the favorites. Instead, look to a rider like Thor Hushovd who time trials well and figures highly for the green jersey competition. The four flat stages after the TTT will be a crucial opportunity for consolidating a lead in the green jersey competition prior to the beginning of the mountains.
Starting on stage 9, the road starts to tilt upward with a 170km test from Gérardmer-Mulhouse. Stage 11, a 173km jaunt from Courchevel-Briancon, will take in the beastly Col de la Madeleine, Col du Télégraphe and the Col de Galibier. Two days later, the riders find themselves back in the mountains, this time itís the Pyrenees. Three successive stages (14-16) greet the peloton with stage 15 packing in the brutal Portet díAspet and Col de Peyresourde.
The capital of the French cycling industry, St. Etienne, will play host to the final individual time trial coming one day before the finish in Paris. If the GC is not well sorted out by this point, we will surely see some fireworks from the heavy GC hitters. Think back to the anticipation of the final TT of the 2003 Tour when just a few seconds separated Armstrong and Ullrich. It may not be the same two riders this year, but could very well be the same scenario.