One quick look at the 2010 Tour de France route reveals the severity facing riders hoping to win the top places - and in particular the very top place. The cycling Gods appear to have been very kind to reigning champion, Alberto Contador, who will not have a team time trial to face up to in whatever squad he ends up racing for. Contador will also enjoy and reap the benefits of three mountain-top finishes, the most important and destructive one, being up the southern side of the Col du Tourmalet where he could put minutes into his nearest challengers... Andy Schleck, runner-up in 2009, probably cannot make his mind up yet as to whether the next Tour suits him more than the last - his Saxo Bank team would have made a gain for him in a TTT of any length, but instead the Luxemburger faces racing against a Contador quite capable of inflicting damage in the mountains as well as in that monster TT on the penultimate day in Bordeaux. If we can assume Lance Armstrong will be stronger, faster and more dynamic with another year's racing in his 38-year-old body, the American might well jump over Schleck and get a lot closer to Contador than he managed in this last comeback Tour. Armstrong and his advisors will be studying the route announced in Paris today for any stages where they believe they can isolate Contador - the little Spaniard is probably unbeatable in the mountains, but every Tour route holds the capacity to unseat even the greatest champions if they or their team take their eye of the ball for one single moment.
No doubt Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel are already planning a thorough reconnaissance of the first few stages in the Netherlands and Belgium. Recalling how uncomfortable Contador was on the windswept stage to Le Grande Motte a few months ago, the Radio Shack duo will be keen to inflict an early and very nasty pre-retaliation on Contador as the Tour races across the North Sea bridges on stage one and then crosses about 20-kilometres of cobblestones on stage three. It is hard to imagine that such a tough Tour will become tough so early - but surely Contador's luck at having so much mountain territory to enjoy will be tempered by the threat he faces up in the north. Whether he races with Astana, Garmin, Quick-Step or Caisse d'Epargne, Contador's rivals will be out to shake his confidence before the Tour has really begun.
For the second year in a row, the Tour has given the north-west of France a complete miss, with no stages in Brittany, Normandy or Aquitaine to savour. The Alps arrive almost as early as the Pyrenees did in 2009, and it is likely those first ascents will change little overall with the finish at Morzine-Avoriaz looking ever-so slightly like Arcalis, where Contador jumped a 20-second attack on his rivals a few minutes after a lucky escape group fought out the stage-finish. If Contador has been shaken by the two opening stages - and lost time - this second Alpine stage gives him a chance to take a quick revenge. It is the Pyrenees that provide the sting-in-the-tail in 2010, an area of France so close to Spain where Contador will save his very best form for the last week. Of course, by this time his team will have been tested and perhaps tired out by their rivalry with Armstrong and Schleck, who are led by two of the shrewdest managers in the business, Bruyneel and Bjarne Riis. As tough as the last week of the 2010 Tour is, Contador's greatest threat might well be his choice of team and team manager - one wrong move this winter and he's liable to expose himself to all kinds of tactical prowess and guile next July.
I like the look of this new Tour, and I like the potential which it offers for great racing on all kinds of terrain. Regardless of who wins and who loses, the Tour is the pinnacle of the cycling season and we just know the best racing happens there. Just a few months after the 2009 Tour, the sporting world is already in a vice-like grip of fever about the prospects in 2010 - the will-he, won't-he speculation as to who will win each day and who will win overall. I've spent the last few hours in my Paris hotel room booking hotels on the Internet - and I've made a complete sweep with no gaps at all. I've already spotted eating places where the gentle fall of summery nights will spur on post-stage debate and gossip and hype, and where vast quantities of wine will wash down succulent meals and solidify friendships for a lifetime to come. Yes, there is nothing quite like the Tour to lift our hearts just as we slip ever-closer to winter - besides the 2010 Tour is only nine months away now..!
- Graham Watson