It’s less than a month before the 100th Tour de France kicks off in Corsica, the only part of France the race has never previously visited. And like the Centennial edition of 2003, which marked the Tour’s first century of existence, this year’s event will commemorate and celebrate many of the places and personalities that have contributed to its rich history. But this time, it will be played out in a much more upbeat mood.
Ten years ago, the organizers pulled out all the stops to make the Centennial Tour more memorable than usual. They decided to give that edition a picture-perfect start with a prologue time trial in the center of Paris, starting at the Eiffel Tower. To maintain the spirit of the inaugural 1903 edition, they kept the race entirely within French borders, visiting all the original stage towns: Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris. They ran a special Centenary Classification, based on the results of those six stage finishes, and they were thrilled that the competition emphasized the Tour’s growing global status when Australia’s Stuart O’Grady won it ahead of Norway’s Thor Hushovd.
As for the competition, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc and his team mapped out one of the Tour’s more difficult routes. There were seven mountain stages, including summit finishes at L’Alpe d’Huez, Ax-3 Domaines and Luz-Ardiden, along with a team time trial and two long individual races against the clock. The weather cooperated nicely, with 21 days of endless sunshine before a rainstorm hit the penultimate stage. And the race itself was full of dramatic incidents.
Heading at high speed toward a mass sprint finish on the first stage, the peloton exploded in a kaleidoscope of broken bikes and riders in what was the biggest pileup in Tour history. Exiting the Alps, one of the top favorites misjudged a tight downhill turn slicked by wet tar, crashed heavily, and sustained multiple fractures that ended his career. Racing in heat-wave temperatures in the first long time trial, the race leader suffered from dehydration and surprisingly lost to his main rival. And in the key mountain stage, after the yellow jersey tangled with a spectator and fell at the foot of the final climb, he fought back in a fierce counterattack to win the stage and clinch the Tour.
It was the sort of race where heroes were made and myths created, but instead of joining the list of greatest Tours, that centennial edition has since been discredited. Eight of the top 10 finishers either confessed to doping or were involved in doping scandals, while overall winner Lance Armstrong has been officially stripped of what was his then fifth consecutive title. Absent Armstrong, the virtual podium would have been Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov and Tyler Hamilton—each of whom tested positive for blood doping and/or acknowledged their involvement in the Operación Puerto doping ring.
A decade later, we can look forward to a Tour that’s contested by a new generation of professional cyclists. Of those who finished the centennial Tour in 2003, only 20 are possible starters this year. And of those 20 riders, only two have been stained by past doping offenses. David Millar, 36, was busted for using EPO in 2004 and suspended for two years, although he has since become an advocate for clean cycling with the Garmin-Sharp team. And Mikel Astarloza, 33, was suspended for two years in 2009 after a positive test for EPO—though he has repeatedly denied using the banned blood-boosting drug—and he returned to racing with the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in 2011.
One of two others have been linked to dubious sports doctors or teams that cheated, but none of them were suspended. In fact, most of that score of finishers from the ’03 Tour are fierce proponents of dope-free cycling, including those 2003 protagonists O’Grady, 39, and Hushovd, 35, along with Frenchmen Sandy Casar, 34, Sylvain Chavanel, 34, Samuel Dumoulin, 32, Jérôme Pineau, 33, and Thomas Voeckler, 34; Spaniards Juan Antonio Flecha, 35, Pablo Lastras, 37, Xabier Zandio, 36, and Haimar Zubeldia, 36; Australians Baden Cooke, 34, and Michael Rogers, 33; and Dane Nicki Sørensen, 38.
Perhaps half of this veteran group will be in the line up of 198 riders on stage one of this year’s Tour on June 29, while the majority of the field will be those who have joined the pro ranks in the past five or so years. That means their health (and any abnormalities) have been closely monitored in the UCI’s biological passport program, which was inaugurated in 2008. And that’s why we can believe in them, and why the racing at this 100th Tour will be far more authentic than what materialized 10 years ago.
Turning to the race, this year’s Tour will stay within the confines of France for the first time since that Centennial race in 2003. It will also have stage finishes in six of the same places: Marseille, Ax-3 Domaines, Lyon, Gap, L’Alpe d’Huez and Paris. And it’s going to be one of the toughest Tours of the past decade, with six major mountain stages, a couple of stages in Corsica (and another in the pre-Alps) that feature shorter, difficult climbs and tricky descents, a team time trial, and two individual time trials—including one in the third week that is equivalent to a short mountain stage. And that still leaves room for nine stages favorable to the sprinters.
The hope is that this testing course will produce a race of mounting drama and genuine athleticism—not results polluted by doping—giving constant excitement to the Tour’s millions of fans and true pleasure for the organizers. Among the moments we can look forward to are the geographic highlights the race will visit, including the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Calanques de Piana on stage three in Corsica; the Mont Saint-Michel, where the stage 11 time trial finishes in Normandy; and the Château de Versailles, where the final stage begins.
This 100th Tour de France will also have a very special conclusion. Not only will the last stage into the Paris finish at dusk, there will be a spectacular son-et-lumière presentation based on a floodlit Arc de Triomphe; and one of the tribunes at the finish line will be reserved for those men who have finished the Tour and are still alive. In the 99 Tours to date, some 15,000 cyclists have started the race. About 3,900 have finished at least one Tour. And of the estimated 1,400 of those still living, about 500 are expected to be on the Champs-Élysées on July 21.
Their presence has been arranged by the Amicale du Cyclisme group and its president Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour’s retired race director. Talking about the men he calls Les Géants du Tour, Leblanc said, “Even in the definition of a Giant of the Tour, there is something very noble, almost brotherly, because these three-thousand or so riders are symbolically equal. If the Tour de France is celebrating its 100th edition, it’s also thanks to them. They have earned the right to be at this great party.”
Assuming everything goes according to plan, then this year’s Tour will be a huge celebration of cycling, the country of France, and the history of the Tour. And it all starts at the end of June.
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