With the 2009 Tour de France only one week away, the riders face one of the most spectacular routes in recent years. Several key differences present themselves in the route this year that have not been featured in the past.
The Team Time Trial returns along with Lance Armstrong, the event last seen in Armstrong's final 2005 Tour win. The Tour's penultimate stage is no longer a decisive time trial, but rather a road stage finishing on the brutal, exposed climb up the Mont Ventoux.
As mentioned in another article on this site, Stages 10 and 13 are going to be run without race radios, leaving the riders to use their experience and instinct rather than the informed eyes of their team directors following in the cars speaking to the riders on a constant basis.
The Astana team is back after a one-year hiatus, and is packed with a powerhouse team, featuring 2007 winner Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden.
Several key stages animate the 2009 edition of the Tour. Immediately starting the race is a 15-kilometer time trial. It is not the normal "prologue" time-trial because it is longer than the 8-kilometer-or-less prologue.
This will be long enough to open up some noticeable gaps right from the start. Look for Saxobank's powerhouse time-triallist Fabian Cancellara to animate the stage and take the first yellow jersey.
For the general classification, newly-crowned Spanish TT champ Alberto Contador (Astana) will already be looking to put time into direct rivals Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), and Denis Menchov (Rabobank).
The Stage Four team time trial will be the next major hurdle for the classification riders. The event was last seen in 2005 when Armstrong's Discovery Channel team won the day. This year, though, there is a major difference.
In past years, losses were limited to a maximum of 20 seconds from one finishing place to the next, regardless of actual winning margins. This was to prevent the leaders of weaker teams from being put of of contention before the race even got rolling. No longer.
No limits on time losses will be observed; the time the teams achieve will be what they get. Weaker teams that do poorly in the team event will be put into serious jeopardy, as their team leaders might suffer severe losses before arriving at the mountains.
Making it a true team effort, the official team time is measured on the fifth team rider (out of nine) to cross the line.
Stage Seven sees the first mountaintop finish. This is only the second time that the Tour will finish in Andorra, and the last time this finish was used, it produced surprising results.
In 1997, when Armstrong's most famous rival, Jan Ullrich, won the stage, he beat the pure climbers, instead using his muscular heft to motor up the climb.
This climb might cause time differences, it might not, but it will provide a springboard for one of the overall challengers to launch an attack to gain time.
Stages 10 and 13 will be run without radios as an experiment on returning to older methods of racing. Increasingly, some have become annoyed that races have become too predictable.
Race directors following the riders in cars have constant access to television and radio coverage. They can tell their riders exactly how fast the breakaway up the road is travelling and when and how fast they will need to ride in order to catch the breakaway within the last 10 kilometers of the race.
On one hand, this is true. On the flat, sprinters' stages, most of the time the formula of the breakaway going up the road, getting a 5-10 minute advantage, and then being caught a bit before the finish line has become all too common, thanks to the wealth of information the racers constantly receive.
The lack of radios will mean the riders need to use their experience to control the race themselves.They will still receive the time gap that they have to make up to catch the breakaway, but they won't know how long it will take to catch them, if they can catch them at all.
Stage 10 is one such flat sprinters' stage, while Stage 13 has some rolling hills throughout the stage, and would normally be conducive to a breakaway.
Luckily, if something goes drastically wrong, these stages are early enough in the race that the racers can rely on their race radios later on to correct any undue damage from a breakaway that gains too much time.
The riders hit the Alps head on starting on Stage 15, with three consecutive days of climbing, ending on Stage 17 in the town of Le Grand Bournand. Armstrong won the Le Grand Bournand stage in 2004 after a spectacular sprint for the line to overtake now-teammate Andreas Kloden who was riding for T-Mobile at the time.
Riders who want the overall win must be strong on these stages. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) will no doubt launch a massive attack up one of the final ascents, such as the mountaintop finish on Stage 15, much like he did last year on the Alpe d'Huez and this year in the Giro d'Italia to win the Monte Petrano and Mount Vesuvius stages.
Stage 18 sees the final time trial of the Tour, a 40-kilometer run through Annecy. It contains many rolling hills, and might be suited to an overall contender who can time trial, such as Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, and Levi Leipheimer.
This time trial, though, is not the penultimate day like it always was. The penultimate stage now finishes on top the Mont Ventoux, the long exposed climb known for its steep grades and strong winds. The final winner must ride strongly to the summit and at least finish with the lead group, or see his three weeks of hard work go down the drain.
As usual, the Tour ends with a nice easy, processional ride into Paris and finishes with several fast circuits on the Champs-Elysses with a sprint victory (or breakaway if someone gets very lucky). By the start of this stage, we will know who will be crowned the 2009 Tour champion.
Last year, with the absence of Contador, some see Carlos Sastre's victory as a fluke. Some even say he wasn't the strongest rider; rather, he benefited from a very strong team, one single devastating attack on the Alpe d'Huez, and a time-trial that held off the charging Cadel Evans.
It was not a fluke, but a perfectly executed plan. Some see Evans as the strongest rider of last year, but was unable to single-handedly defend himself against the forceful Team CSC.
People who make these arguments may forget that cycling is about tactics as much as it is about strength and endurance; the winner of a bike race does not necessarily have to be the strongest rider, but the smartest.
These discussions notwithstanding, this year's winner cannot afford to hide in the shadows and then put in one key attack. Much like Denis Menchov's 2009 Giro d'Italia win, the eventual winner will need to be present and attacking on every key stage and not make a mistake.
Menchov blew the field away on the 60-kilometer Stage 12 time trial and then was strong and present on every mountain stage, showing strength and determination but in metered doses. He successfully defended his lead in one of the hardest Grand Tour routes in history.
This year's Tour winner will need one or two key wins or attacks and then defend to the end over several tough stages. That is what makes it a spectacularly hard route.