A couple days ago the organizers of the Tour presented the world with the route of the 2008 Tour de France. I haven't had my ear to the ground and I didn't hear of any "leaks" on potential host cities and stuff - I guess with all the doping in the news, no one needed any extra excuses for a cycling story. Because of that I was blindsided by the actual route.
There are a few things biggies which pop out at me.
1. Very short time trials - no prologue, a 29km first TT, and a final of about 52 km.
2. No time bonuses for any stage, climbing or otherwise.
3. Five mountain stages.
So here are a few reasonable assumptions (barring, of course, what the word assume means).
1. Whoever wins the first stage (probably a sprint finish, may be a very, very hard fought finish due to a 2.3 km climb) will wear the yellow jersey until the first TT. This is because normally the Yellow changes hands due to time bonuses (or crashes or weird breakaways). Without time bonuses, crashes and breaks will determine who holds the Yellow. Basically whoever wins the first stage will both be very strong as well as have to have a team determined to hang on to it (unless they are a GC team - in which case they probably wouldn't go for the first stage because they know the non GC teams will be dying to get the Yellow). Figure pretty much everyone will finish with the same time so the only ones allowed freedom will be those wearing bandages from a crash which caused them to lose massive time.
"And in the break is poor old So-and-So, his crash on stage one put him 30 minutes down on the field. With the field hovering at 20 minutes, he may win the stage but the Yellow will stay on Sprinter's jersey."
In that particular scenario, unless the bandaged racer is a French idol, the teams looking for a stage win will be chasing him down. Or, if one of my other ideas (described below) pans out, teams with second tier climbers will be whipping up the pace.
2. No chance for TT boys to shine unless they try and TT away from the field. A somewhat predictable pattern would have been to have a prologue specialist win the prologue, lose the jersey to a sprinter (who then trades it with other sprinters), then a big, heavy TT guy takes it, then the mountain guys who TT play a tug-a-war with it. This time, no real chance for the heavy TT guys to take the jersey. They'll be tired from dragging their sprinters to the line (or chasing some break for a hundred clicks or so) and preparing to deliver their climbers to the base of the mountains.
3. The climbers will probably have a relatively easy ride to the mountains. I guess because I can't climb, I'm not thrilled with tons of climbing stages, especially when any racer that does well for more than a day or two will be looked on with suspicion (from me anyway). I'd like to see everyone have at least one off day because that would make for a very interesting race. When one guy dominates the others, it's no fun to watch. But when there's struggle and revival, well, it's a great Tour to watch. Just think 1989.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of big TTs and no time bonuses, the climbers will start the climbs without too much of a handicap (normally they'd lose gobs of time in the prologue, the first time trial, and if there was a team time trial, there too). This lack of a handicap will let them quickly distance themselves from the flat landers and make for a small, select group vying for the overall.
Even the "standard" equation is nice. The sprinter guys go for it in the sprints for the yellow, for the green. Then the big power rouleurs on the TT to get the yellow for however long they can hold it. Finally the climbers go out and annihilate guys who are perhaps 5-10 minutes ahead of them - and try and get enough of a gap to hold out through the last TT.
The 2008 Fitchburg stage race, in the 3s anyway, was essentially unchanged from start to finish. The uphill TT mirrored the uphill finish of the Circuit race which mirrored the uphill finish of the road race. The top four in the TT finished the overall in the same order.
If Fitchburg opened with a crit, then the flat TT, then the Road Race, with the Circuit race at the end, it would be a much more dynamic race. A sprinter would take the lead on the Crit, lose the jersey to the pesky TT guys in the TT, who would then lose the jersey to the flyweights on Stage 3. The Circuit Race is probably the most even of them all (hard enough climb but sprinters can make it to the finish, plus breaks do work there) so it would be a fitting finish for the final smackdown. Heck I'd even enter to try and get up there on the first day.
Anyone listening up there in Massachusetts?
So the question is, how to alter the scenario in the '08 Tour? How do you defeat the climbers (because, really, that's what you need to do if you're not one of the leading featherweights out there).
The only way to change my overall "how-the-race-is-going-to-turn-out opinion" is to toughen the race on the flats. Kind of like the way Astana or CSC sometimes puts the hammer down, or in the days of past, Raleigh or Renault/Elf. Use the big guys up and really hammer the lighter riders on the flats. When the super light Columbians showed up in their first Tour, they danced all over the stodgy pros. The next year the pros knew what to do and they really worked over the (amateur) Columbians. The pace was so fast on the flats that the tiny climbers, with their limited natural reserves, arrived in the mountains totally and completely spent. They were so weakened they never played a role in the mountains.
If I were a team director with a slightly heavier-than-a-feather climber who can time trial, when the roads get narrow, there's a strong crosswind, or there are lots of turns (accordion effect), I'd put my team on the front to pour on the pressure and try and sap those rival featherweights' reserves. Yes it takes days to do this but that's why the Tour is 21 days, not just a couple TTs and five mountain stages.
Alternately, the really tiny climbers have to really put the hurt down on the climbs, they need to get rid of those who can't perhaps climb as well but can TT (like, say, Evans or Leipheimer, both of whom can TT for 50 km). It'll be payback for those hundreds of kilometers suffering in the gutter when the super light climbers go rocketing up the mountains. Those first couple days in the mountains will be hard, at least until everyone's legs are numb with lactic acid.
Then we'll see who's left.
Here's hoping for some strong crosswinds.