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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Two times up the Alpe in the 2011 Tour de France route?

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Oct. 13, 2010
  • Updated Feb. 17, 2011 at 4:19 PM EDT

Bernard Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk battle in the '79 Tour - the only time the race hit l'Alpe d'Huez twice!

When Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France race director, unveils the route for the 2011 Tour in Paris on October 19, he may have some startling news about next year’s race. And I’m not talking about Alberto Contador and the chance his 2010 title will be taken from him. What could jolt the audience is that when the peloton climbs to the top of L’Alpe d’Huez two days before the Paris finale that the riders could hear bell ring: one more lap!

Outrageous? Maybe. But with the official announcement of the complete course a week away, we can still speculate on what will make the 98th Tour de France more fascinating than ever.

More certain is that prior to Prudhomme’s speech he’ll play a video that will zoom through the 21 stages as seen from above a 3D map of France. There’ll also be a highlights reel from this year’s Tour (Will Contador figure prominently?) that probably includes shots of riders struggling through the fog to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet on the iconic Pyrenean stage won by Andy Schleck.

Just as that finish atop the Tourmalet this past July marked the centennial of the first crossing of the Pyrénées, so the 2011 Tour will culminate in a stage to the summit of the Galibier — 100 years after the race’s first passage over this mythic climb in the High Alps. At 8,675 feet (2,642 meters) elevation, this will be the highest stage finish in Tour history, and it seems likely that the mighty Alpine pass will be climbed from the opposite direction the next day prior to the stage finish (and a second lap?) at L’Alpe d’Huez.

That will be the climax of a rugged final week, but there may well be other stages that are just as decisive in next year’s Tour — so here’s a run-down on what those stages might look like in this sneak peek of a course that Prudhomme will reveal officially next Tuesday.

To date, the only confirmed details are those of the Grand Départ in the Vendée region of western France. As in 1993 and 1999, the teams will be presented to the public prior to a nighttime sound-and-light show at the lakeside medieval castle of Le Puy du Fou. That spectacular introduction of the Tour riders happens on the last day of June, two days before an unusual opening stage. …

After a neutralized ride across the island of Noirmoutier from the fishing town of Fromentine, the riders will stop at the infamous Passage du Gois (pronounced “gwah”), the 4.5km-long paved causeway that’s flooded at high tide. Here, at the lowest point in the Vendée, the ceremonial flag will drop for the real start of stage 1.

Don’t expect the splits and crashes that happened here in ’99, when the Gois was mid-stage, because the racing won’t truly get underway until the peloton reaches the other side of the bay. At the end of the day the sprinters will likely contest first place, but a solo rider might get away on the uphill finish (3km at 3.6-percent grade) to the Mont des Alouettes (”Mount of the Larks”), at 761 feet (232 meters) above sea level, not far from the highest point in the Vendée.

The 2009 Dauphiné Libéré 2009 on the Galibier.

Stage 2, we know, is a flat 23km team time trial on a straightforward, triangular course at the small town of Les Essarts. Riding fast in strong winds will be each team’s goal, with the short distance designed to keep the time gaps in reasonable proportions and ensure that the first week’s GC is not locked up by the TTT-winning formation.

Those opening two stages are set in stone, so the rest of this story is based on piecing together information from regional French newspapers, hotel booking sites and various European blogs, to assemble the lists of stage towns in advance of the official announcement. And we can only guess the details of the actual stage routes — partly because ASO, the organizer, is usually working on these until the last minute.

But knowing the distances and terrain between stage towns and interpreting how the organizers’ minds think about what difficulties to include, we can come up with a course that is likely 90-percent accurate. For the Tour, we know that ASO’s race director Prudhomme likes to spice up the mix of stages in the first half of the race — as with a cobbles stage and early “semi-mountain” stages this year.

For 2011, Prudhomme said he wanted to have a team time trial and a difficult hilltop finish in opening week, mixed in with courses that go to historic, scenic or iconic locations. So, based on racing the roads of western France in my 20s, riding the mountain stages on several Tours, and following the race as a journalist for more than four decades, here are my (sometimes wild) thoughts on where the 98th Tour de France will go after its Grand Départ.

Brittany and the Massif Central

The Tour will head north from the Vendée, leaving the seaside town of Olonne-sur-Mer for a medium-length stage 3 on July 4. It will likely parallel the Atlantic coast to cross the Loire River estuary on the impressively high St. Nazaire Bridge before heading into Brittany through the cyclocross-crazy town of Pontchâteau to a slightly uphill finish in Redon. One for the sprinters.

Jean Robic climbs L'Alpe d'Huez in the 1952 Tour

Prudhomme was hoping to have the next stage finish at Châteaulin, one of the high temples of Breton cycling, where elite-level races have been held on its hilly circuit since 1889. That demanded a start in Lorient, 120km from Redon; and despite Châteaulin dropping out Lorient remains even though it’s only 70km from the new stage town of Mûr-de-Bretagne.

This stage 4 will finish atop the town’s famous hill, dubbed Brittany’s L’Alpe d’Huez, which has two 15-percent pitches in its 1.6km, 8.6-percent slope. Given the short distance between Lorient and the finish, it’s likely that the stage will do a finishing loop at Mûr-de-Bretagne (similar to the one that may be awaiting at the real L’Alpe d’Huez a couple of weeks later), which will allow the always huge crowds at Mûr-de-Bretagne to see the riders climb the hill twice (or maybe more?).

The next three days will be more suited to the sprinters. Stage 5 is said to end near Cap Fréhel, a scenic, windswept headland on the northern coast of Brittany, where Bjarne Riis’s CSC team tried to split the race apart on a stage to St. Brieuc in 2004. Stage 6 is likely to be the longest of the 2011 Tour, heading east from Dinan along the Channel coast past Mont-St-Michel and across the rolling hills of Normandy to finish in Lisieux, next to its massive Gothic cathedral. And stage 7 will head south from Le Mans to another flat finish, in Châteauroux, where Mark Cavendish won his very first Tour stage in 2008.

And, as in 2008, the 2011 Tour will next head into the hills of the Massif Central, first with an almost identical stage from Aigurande to Super-Besse — the summit finish where Riccardo Riccò (later disqualified for doping) sprinted home ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans. The next day’s stage between Issoudun and St. Flour will be similar to the semi-mountainous one of 2004 that crossed a slew of long climbs, including the Puy-Mary, when KOM winner Richard Virenque finished solo in medieval St. Flour on the uphill finish five minutes ahead of a much-reduced peloton.

After a first rest day, next year’s Tour will continue with another stage that favors breakaways, still in the Massif Central, but on a more rolling than hilly course with a finish in the old coalmining town of Carmaux.

Possible route of the 2011 Tour de France

July 2-Stage 1: Fromentine to Mont des Alouettes            180km
July 3-Stage 2: Les Essarts TTT                        23km
July 4-Stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon            170km
July 5-Stage 4: Lorient to Mûr-de-Bretagne            125km
July 6-Stage 5: Carhaix-Plouguer to Cap de Fréhel            190km
July 7-Stage 6: Dinan to Lisieux                        230km
July 8-Stage 7: Le Mans to Châteauroux            225km
July 9Stage 8: Aigurande to Super-Besse            190km
July 10-Stage 9: Issoudun to St. Flour                        165km
July 11-Rest day at Super-Lioran
July 12-Stage 10: Aurillac to Carmaux            160km
July 13-Stage 11: Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur TT            53km
July 14-Stage 12: (Toulouse) to (Tarbes)            180km
July 15-Stage 13: (Oloron) to (Lourdes)            200km
July 16-Stage 14: St. Gaudens to Plateau de Beille            165km
July 17-Stage 15: Limoux to Montpellier            195km
July 18-Rest day at (Orange)
July 19-Stage 16: St. Paul-Trois Châteaux to Gap            180km
July 20-Stage 17: Gap to Pinerolo (Italy)            200km
July 21-Stage 18: Pinerolo to Col du Galibier            200km
July 22-Stage 19: Modane to L’Alpe d’Huez            160km
July 23-Stage 20: (Grenoble) TT            35km
July 24-Stage 21: Provins to Paris (Champs-Élysées)            150km

TOTAL DISTANCE: 3,376km

The next day’s stage 11 looks sure to be the Tour’s first individual time trial, on a flat to rolling point-to-point course of about 53km between Blaye-les-Mines and Lavaur. By this point in the race, a sort of hierarchy will have been established by the various hilltop finishes, but this will be the first man-to-man showdown on a course that is bound to produce some shocks.

Pyrénées before the Alps

The sprinters are likely to get one of their rare bites of the stage-winning cherry on stage 12, that’s likely to start in or near Toulouse and finish in or near Tarbes, at the foot of the Pyrénées. This is July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday, so the stage may have a twist at the end — perhaps a climb and descent of the Col d’Aspin, as happened in 2008, another stage that was taken, in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, by the later disgraced Riccò.

2001 Tour de France: the view from the top of L'Alpe d'Huez

Which brings us to the two “official” Pyrenean stages. The first of these is likely to start in or near Pau, with a finish in or near Lourdes. If that’s the case then this stage will probably head southwest, perhaps to the Col de Soudet with a finish over the Col d’Aubisque.

More certain is that stage 14 will start in St. Gaudens and cross multiple passes — perhaps the Portet d’Aspet, La Core and Agnes — on its way to the Tour’s first mountaintop finish at Plateau de Beille. There have been only four stages to this remote Nordic ski station and all four have been won by the man who’d go on to win that year’s Tour: Marco Pantani in 1998, Lance Armstrong in 2002 and 2004, and Contador in 2007. Could it again predict the outcome prior to what Prudhomme hopes will be a decisive third week?

Unusually, the third Sunday of the Tour is devoted to a major mountain stage or time trial, but next year’s will be a mostly flat run, out of the Pyrénées and across the Mediterranean seaboard, to Montpellier. There could be a surprise if the short but ultra-steep Mont St. Clair climb at Sète is followed by crosswinds on the final 30km of flats to the finish.

The second rest day opens the final week, with a transfer toward Avignon or Orange before the stage 16 start at the little town of St. Paul-Trois Châteaux. This stage will have a sting in the tail in the form of a 30km finishing circuit that will climb Col Bayard (7.5km at 7 percent) before looping back over the Col de Manse and the descent from La Rochette used in this year’s stage to Gap.

That stage finale will be a warm-up for three rugged mountain stages. The first of these will cross the Alps into Italy via the Col d’Izoard, Col du Montgenèvre and Sestriere prior to the brutal Colle Pra Martino (several pitches at 16 percent) just before the finish town of Pinerolo. The next stage will head back into France, possibly over the Col de l’Echelle, with the historic summit finish on the Galibier; the final climb is from the easier Col du Lautaret side, but it still has a 12.5-percent kicker to the line.

This brings us to the last mountain stage, which seems likely to start in Modane (probably accessed by team buses through the Fréjus tunnel) and will climb up the more difficult side of the Galibier via the Col du Télégraphe, a total ascent of some 30km; don’t expect heroics on Galibier II because the field has to negotiate a mostly downhill run of more than 40km (via the Col du Lautaret) before starting the 13km climb to L’Alpe d’Huez.

And this is where Prudhomme could make the dramatic gesture of sending the riders on a 48km loop over the Col du Sarenne, down to the end of the Lautaret descent and back up the Alpe. The hundreds of thousands of fans would love it!

If those alpine stages don’t settle the destiny of the 2011 Tour then the next day’s time trial, probably on a hilly circuit at Grenoble, will do the job. A transfer by high-speed train the final morning will take the peloton to Provins for the start of the traditional stage into the Champs-Élysées — just down the road from where ASO’s Prudhomme will be unveiling the official route on October 19. Let’s hope he includes some of the things on my wish list!

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