The shadow of Lance Armstrong loomed darkly over the Palais des Congrès in Paris on Wednesday as the Director of the Tour de France, Christian Prudhomme, unveiled the route of the 2013 edition of the race.
It was a strange affair. No mention of the disgraced Texan, of course - even his 7 Tour victories had been erased from the press pack - and Bradley Wiggins shifted uneasily in his chair as he sat beside Alberto Contador - the Spaniard in attendance having served his ban for doping. Only Paul Giacobbi, of the Corsican delegation, alluded to the events that have rocked the sport over the last few weeks.
Prudhomme, not surprisingly, was keen to keep proceedings focused on what promises to be a Tour de France that befits the 100th edition of La Grande Boucle. For the first time in ten years, the route will remain entirely within France, though the Grand Départ takes place on the island of Corsica on Saturday 29th June - the first time the race has visited the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The route will move in a clockwise direction once it reaches the mainland and there will be many highlights to look forward to as the race moves inextricably towards its dénouement on the Champs-Élysées on July 21st. It is very possible that the GC standings will be determined by the inclusion of a Team Time Trial in Nice (Stage 4) and two individual time trials - the relatively flat Stage 11, finishing beneath the photogenic Normandy landmark of Mont-Saint-Michel and the more undulating and technical Stage 17 that takes place on Wednesday 17 July.
The final individual time trial in the Hautes-Alpes is preceded by a summit finish on Mt Ventoux and sets a wonderful precursor to three hard days in the high mountains. The highlight of the Tour's stay in the French Alps, and the main talking point this year, is the dual ascent of the iconic Alpe d'Huez. After they reach the summit for the first time the riders will continue onwards and upwards, on newly laid asphalt, to the Col de Sarenne, before descending back down into the valley and negotiating the 21 hairpins of the Alpe once again. It promises to be a memorable day that should not disappoint and Prudhomme was positively licking his lips at the prospect.
There had been rumours that the race organisers would deviate from tradition and end this year's Tour de France on Alpe d'Huez. The whispers, started in the Belgian media, never gained much credence and Prudhomme was proud to announce that the finish on the Champs-Élysées will be staged late in the evening, rather than the traditional late afternoon finale.
From a British perspective the 2013 Tour offers much, though one can still only guess as to who will lead Team Sky next year. The Sky management now have to digest the course and set in motion their preparation for the defence of the title. Will Bradley Wiggins seek to defend his jersey against Contador and Andy Schleck? This would be a battle he would relish, surely? Or will he step aside and reward his able lieutenant of 2012, Chris Froome, with leading the British charge.
Wiggins has made no secret of the fact that he would love to win the Giro d'Italia and rumours have circulated for some time that this could be his primary target next year, though only last week he told Sky News:
"Next year will take shape in the next few weeks. We'll start sitting down with the coaching team and, you know, it will all sort of pan out. It may involve the Giro and probably certainly the Tour in some form. "
That 'some form' may mean a supporting role and interviewed in Paris on Wednesday, Wiggins conceded that the course probably doesn't suit him as well as the 2012 route . If Brailsford asks him to act as support for Froome next year then he said he would be happy to do so. Wiggins seemed realistic that this was the most likely scenario , but pointed out that Froome "would have to grow some sideburns" if he wanted to stand on top of the podium in Paris!
Bradley Wiggins, flanked by Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, watches proceedings.
The course certainly suits Froome. Two time trials, six mountain stages (four of them with summit finishes) and some punchy rides sprinkled throughout the parcours all favour his abilities. Wiggins, meanwhile, knows that he can put some serious time into all his rivals in the time trials (though he would prefer more!) and he showed in this year's race that he can nullify attacks by some of the most gifted climbers in the mountains. Next year, however, only Froome may possess the requisite skills to take on the likes of Contador and Schleck in the high mountains and if he is allowed to cut loose, as is widely expected, then you would have to expect a podium finish for the Sky rider.
And what about Cav? It could be a transitional year for the former World Champion with his move to the Belgian team Omega Pharma-QuickStep, but seven flat stages offer him ample opportunity to add to his impressive tally of 23 TdF stage wins. After the presentation Cavendish tweeted his intent;
'Well, a spectacular course for 2013 Tour de France. Very hard route, book-ended with 2 beautiful sprint days in Corsica & twilight in Paris.'
Corsica - 'the mountain in the sea' - will host the Grand Départ on the 29th June and this will be a date circled in red in the Cavendish family calendar. Rather than a time trial prologue, the organisers begin the Tour with a relatively flat stage along the eastern coastline. Cavendish will be relishing this stage. Victory on the day and he will be wearing the maillot jaune for the first time in his career. He has already worn the leaders jersey in the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta, but the opportunity for a sprinter to wear the most coveted jersey in cycling does not come around too often. Expect a ferociously contested bunch sprint in Bastia.
It was clear from the presentation of the route that Christian Prudhomme and his team had two central objectives in their design of the 2013 route - to showcase France's most beautiful areas whilst delivering a varied race that may not be decided until the final few days in the Alps.
On paper at least, it seems that the 2013 edition of the Tour de France promises to be a celebration of all that is good about cycling and a pertinent reminder as to why this race never fails to hold the attention of the cycling world for three weeks of the year.
THE STAGES FOR THE 2013 TOUR DE FRANCE
June 29 - 1st stage - Porto-Vecchio - Bastia, 212 km
June 30 - 2nd stage - Bastia - Ajaccio, 154 km
July 1 - 3rd stage Ajaccio - Calvi, 145 km
July 2 - 4th stage Nice - Nice, 25 km (team time-trial)
July 3 - 5th stage - Cagnes-sur-Mer - Marseille, 219 km
July 4 - 6th stage - Aix-en-Provence - Montpellier, 176 km
July 5 - 7th stage - Montpellier - Albi, 205 km
July 6 - 8th stage - Castres - Ax-3 Domaines, 194 km
July 7 - 9th stage - Saint-Girons - Bagnres-de-Bigorre, 165 km
July 8 - Rest day at Saint-Nazaire
July 9 - 10th stage - Saint-Gildas-des-Bois - Saint-Malo, 193 km
July 10- 11th stage - Avranche - Mont-Saint-Michel, 33 km (Individual time-trial)
July 11- 12th stage - Fougres - Tours, 218 km
July 12- 13th stage - Tours - Saint-Amand-Montrond, 173 km
July 13- 14th tape - Saint-Pourain-sur-Sioule - Lyon, 191 km
July 14- 15th stage - Givors - Mont Ventoux, 242 km
July 15- Rest day in the Vaucluse
July 16- 16th stage - Vaison-la-Romaine - Gap, 168 km
July 17- 17th stage - Embrun - Chorges, 32 km (Individual time-trial)
July 18- 18th stage - Gap - Alpe d'Huez, 168 km
July 19- 19th stage - Bourg-d'Oisans - Le Grand-Bornand, 204 km
July 20- 20th stage - Annecy - Annecy-Semnoz, 125 km
July 21- 21st stage - Versailles - Paris Champs-Élysées 118 km
All images courtesy of ASO
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