The Tour de France 2011 route presentation here yesterday was overshadowed by the absence of the two men who have dominated the race for the last decade – Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.
The seven-times winner Armstrong missed this high point of cycling's calendar as his partner, Anna Hansen, had just given birth to his fifth child, and because he has said he will not be taking part in the Tour again.
While the Texan's dismal 23rd place in this year's race made it brutally clear that, at 39, he is too long in the tooth to challenge in sport's most gruelling endurance event, Contador's no-show was far more controversial. The winner of the Tour in 2007, 2009 and 2010, the Spaniard is provisionally suspended from racing for a doping offence after minute traces of clenbuterol, a banned anabolic agent, were found in a urine sample taken this July.
Not turning up certainly let the 27-year-old avoid a media feeding frenzy about his ongoing battle to clear his name. But the famous pair's absence meant that even in Paris's massive Palais des Congrès, where the presentation was held, the Tour organisers had a tough time keeping the press's attention off the two elephants in the room.
Ironically, Contador, arguably cycling's best climber, would have liked what he heard if he had attended. The 2011 route would suit the Spaniard down to the ground, with four summit finishes, two in the Pyrenees and two in the Alps.
Even the opening stage, a 191km (119-mile) spin across the Vendée region in western France, finishes on a hill – the Mont des Alouettes, albeit just 232 metres above sea level. What will prove far more decisive are the race's summit finishes, the first on 2,645m Galibier and the second on Alpe D'Huez, the sport's best-known climb.
But the itinerary is a blow for Britain's best prospect for overall honours, Bradley Wiggins, as the Londoner has just one medium-length individual time trial to shine in. The ultra-tough route does no favours either to Mark Cavendish, Britain's best ever Tour de France racer and a winner of five stages this year. The Manxman's initial reaction was that only six stages look flat enough to be sure to end in bunch sprints, his forte, two fewer than in 2010.
A change of rule in the points scoring also hits Cavendish's hopes of finally nailing the green jersey after two years of challenging for it. In 2011, the traditional two intermediate mid-stage sprints have been halved to one while the points on offer in that sprint have been more than tripled, from six in 2010 to 20.
With so much to play for in mid-stage, it becomes more of a gamble to focus on taking the stage's final sprint, worth 45 points. "Mark's not sure if he will find it harder to win now, but it will definitely mean a lot more thinking on our feet for the team bosses and a lot more hard work for the team," said his team manager, Rolf Aldag.