This sounds familiar: The Tour de France organization has unveiled a route for next year’s race that’s designed to make sure Lance Armstrong has a tough time defending his title. When the Tour unveiled the 2004 route, marked by extremely challenging mountain stages, including a time trial up l’Alpe d’Huez. The route would make it more challenging for Lance, who looked vulnerable in 2003’s mountain stages, to grab his sixth consecutive TdF championship. He responded with one of his most dominating Tours.
The Tour organizers’ apparent strategy this year is different: Go easy on the killer climbs and cut the length of the time trials. That way, Lance’s greatest strengths will be minimized. The organizers have an interest in keeping the race competitive, though the biggest factor in next year’s outcome — whether Lance will compete in the TdF in 2005 — is beyond their control. Still, last year’s route ought to have made a couple of things plain: Make the race tougher for one, and you make it tougher for all. And for the cyclists at the very top of the sport, the result is about preparation (and to a much smaller degree, luck; I’m thinking of Alexander Vinokourov here, who rode a beautiful race in 2003, then crashed before the Tour and couldn’t start in 2004). All of the other riders who were expected to threaten Lance last year cracked, partly because the route was brutal for all of them, partly because none was so prepared for it as the defending champion.