Cycling: Centenary race to revisit historic tour landmarks

The Tour De France will mark its centenary next year with a route perhaps overly rich in symbolism of its past glory. Unveiled yesterday in the glitzy surroundings of the Concorde Lafayette commercial centre in Paris, the 2003 route will cram in everything from the six cities originally visited on the first Tour – Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and the French capital itself – to climbs as famous as the Galibier and Alpe D'Huez.

Much of the remainder will have a similarly thinly disguised patriotic vein. The 6.5-kilometre opening prologue will start under the Eiffel Tower before running along the banks of the River Seine, for example, and not one single kilometre of the 3,361 that comprise the 2003 course is outside France's borders.

Nor are any of the Tour's usual ingredients, such as a team time-trial and two individual races against the clock, missing from the 2003 recipe. The second of these time trials – as has become traditional – takes place just 24 hours before the race returns to Paris for the typical concluding series of 10 laps around the Champs Elysées.

The 20 stages in between are equally soaked in Tour and/or French sporting history. The first begins outside the Stade de France stadium before the racing kicks off in earnest outside the Café du Reveil-Matin, the same hostelry that was witness to the start of the first Tour in 1903.

Then following a week on France's north-eastern plains the first serious challenge is a gruelling 200km grind through the Alps on day eight.

This stage will take the 22 teams past the monument to race founder Henri Desgranges on the much-feared Galibier climb before heading to the famous 23 hairpin bends on Alpe D'Huez, by far the Tour's most celebrated ascent.

But it is the four mountain stages in the Pyrenees a week later that will almost certainly decide the final classification. The toughest takes the riders over the moonscape of the Tourmalet pass immediately prior to the third and last summit finish, at Luz-Ardiden ski station. A final 40km race against the clock in Nantes will have a limited impact in comparison.

Reactions among the 21 former Tour winners present were mixed, although according to the race organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc, the route's singular lack of originality "with no more mountains or less time-trial length than usual" is intentional.

However, as Lance Armstrong fights for his fifth consecutive Tour win next July, such determination to keep the faith with its own past could also result in a course that is all too predictable – and easy, therefore, for the Texan to control.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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