Amaury Sports Organization(ASO), the group which owns and runs the Tour de France announced 20 of the teams participating in the 2009 edition of the race. The biggest news is, as expected, Team Astana, the squad that includes four riders who have been on the podium at the Tour, is back after a much-publicized one-year absence. That means that Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden will most likely be toeing the starting line when the race commences in Monaco (that's not France) in about four months.
The other big news, which was also kind of expected, is that the Fuji-Servetto team was not invited. Fuji-Servetto was the only Pro Tour team left off the start list, supposedly, the UCI had signed an agreement with ASO that all Pro Tour teams would get starting slots. However, you might remember that last year, Fuji-Servetto was named Saunier-Duval when they left their mark on the 2008 Tour. They won three stages with Ricardo Ricco(2) and Leonardo Piepoli only to have everything come crashing down when it was revealed that Ricco had tested positive for CERA, a new slow-release version of the blood-cell-boosting EPO. Piepoli later admitted that he used CERA as well.
After the revelation, Saunier-Duval supposedly left on its own accord, but all information point to ASO giving them the boot. Fuji-Servetto has been denied starting slots in a number of races so far this season. The UCI needs to send a very clear message, instead of the muddy one they are dishing out now. If there are big questions surrounding Fuji-Servetto then the UCI should not have issued them a Pro Tour license. Now that the UCI has issued them a license, they need to show some solidarity and stand behind all the Pro Tour teams. Not good.
The good news for Americans besides, Lance, Levi and Chris being back in the Tour is that both American Pro Tour team Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-High Road are both in the big show. The other Pro Tour teams include Milram, Quick Step, Silence-Lotto, Saxo Bank, Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel-Euskadi, AG2R La Mondiale, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Française des Jeux, Lampre-NGC, Liquigas, Rabobank and Katusha.
The three wild-card teams are Cervelo Test Team, the squad of defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre; Agritubel which rode very aggressively in last year's Tour and Skil-Shimano a mostly Benelux squad whose roster doesn't include any big names.
The route for the 2009 Tour de France was unveiled yesterday in Paris and all the stars were there including the past two winners Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. At first glance, the route is a huge break from tradition. Normally, the race alternates each year with either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around France. That means in one year, the first mountains are the Pyrenees and then the Alps follow. The next year the Alps come first, then the Pyrenees.
For 2009, the Pyrenees come first, as they did in 2008, then the Alps follow. Hmm. That's probably no big deal except that it is a break from tradition. Another major change, which was also the case in 2008, is that there will be no time bonuses for any stage finishes. That means that the sprinters will have to earn the yellow jersey from a breakaway and not just by winning the first three or four stages. I wouldn't put any money on seeing Mark Cavendish in yellow even though he will probably win another two or three stages.
What about the critical stages, the mountains and the time trials? On paper the mountains look pretty tame with only three real mountain top finishes. In the Pyrenees there is the uphill finish to Arcalis in Andorra, but on the other two stages it is 20 miles from the bottom of the last climb to St. Girons and the next day it is 30 miles from the bottom of the Tourmalet to Tarbes. It will be very interesting to see how these two stages play out.
In the Alps there is an uphill finish on an up-and-down day to Verbier in Switzerland then after the Tour's second rest day, a big stage over both St. Bernard passes(first the big then the small one, but both are pretty big) followed by potentially the Tour's hardest day which ascends five medium-sized summit before the fast downhill to Le Grand Bornand.
Perhaps the most anticipated stage is the penultimate day when four small climbs soften up the field before attacking the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Fireworks will most certainly go off, similar to the race up l'Alpe d'Huez in 2008. If Lance does ride the 2009 Tour, look for him to be gunning for a stage win here, basically the only major French summit where he has never been victorious.
The three time trial, including the 15km prologue in Monaco, are relatively short at 38 and 40km and will definitely play to the advantage of the pure climbers like Contador and Sastre.
So, there you have it in a nutshell. A very different, non-traditional route that, on paper, looks moderate. But, we all know that the Tour always produces a worthy winner and there will be nothing moderate about the racing. About the only question that has yet to be answered is whether we will be yelling "Go Big Tex" on the tortuous slopes of Mont Ventoux.