Tour de France sets 2011 route

PARIS -- With six high mountain stages and four hilltop finishes, the 2011 Tour de France route is tailor-made for three-time champion Alberto Contador -- if he's not banned for doping.

Arguably the best climber in the world, the 27-year-old Spaniard is unsure whether he will be allowed to race after being provisionally suspended for a positive doping test at the 2010 Tour, which he won. If he is cleared, Contador will once again be the huge favorite when the race sets off next July.

Tour organizers unveiled the 2011 course on Tuesday, with Contador skipping the presentation at the Palais des Congres. Andy Schleck, the 2010 runner-up who would likely inherit the title if Contador is stripped of his win, was in the audience.

International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid said cycling's governing body won't rush the investigation into whether Contador took performance enhancing drugs. He said the UCI is closely working on the case with the World Anti-Doping Agency and that he's unable to say when the investigation will end.

"It's a very important case and we need to be completely sure before a decision is taken," McQuaid said.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said he is reserving judgement on Contador's case until the UCI issues its final ruling.

"Suspicion doesn't mean guilt," Prudhomme told reporters. "We stick by this position for now and we are hoping we won't wait too long."

Contador claims that traces of the banned drug clenbuterol discovered in one of his samples by a laboratory in Cologne, Germany, came from contaminated steak. He denies that tests also found traces of plastic residues indicating he underwent banned blood transfusions.

If found guilty of doping, Contador faces a possible two-year suspension and could become just the second cyclist to be stripped of a Tour crown. American Floyd Landis lost his 2006 Tour title for doping.

Cycling's image has been damaged by doping scandals for over a decade but Prudhomme strongly restated that the sport is a pioneer in the fight against drug cheats.

"With the athletes' whereabouts system, the targeted controls and out-of-competition testing, cycling is doing more than any other sport in the fight against doping," he said. "When police catch a thief, we clap our hands. But in cycling, when dopers are caught, cycling authorities are being assassinated. We can't give up, otherwise cheaters will win the fight."

The 2011 race will start on July 2 in the western region of Vendee with a first stage from Passage du Gois to Mont Des Alouettes that will be followed by a team time trial around Les Essarts.

A final stage on the Champs-Elysees on July 24 wraps up a 2,157-mile ride.

Last year, organizers celebrated the first crossing of the Pyrenees with four stages in the mountains that form the border between France and Spain but offered less difficult stages in the Alps.

"This year we wanted a more balanced route, with three stages in the Pyrenees and three in the Alps during the last week," Prudhomme said. "We will maintain suspense right up until the end."

The Pyrenean stages are scheduled during the race's second week, with two new mountain passes -- the Perthus and the Hourquette d'Ancizan -- on the Luz-Ardiden road.

The third week promises to be crucial with the Col du Galibier climbed twice before a stage finish at the legendary Alpe d'Huez ski resort and its 21 hairpin bends on July 22.

In case the Alpine stages don't settle the battle for the yellow jersey, a 24-mile mainly flat time trial on a circuit around Grenoble will cap the race on the eve of the Champs-Elysees finish.

Tour riders first climbed the Galibier -- the most visited mountain pass in race history -- 100 years ago. To celebrate the centenary, the finish of the 18th stage will be at the summit, which will be the highest finish in the Tour's history, at an altitude of 8,678 feet.

Prudhomme promised that the first week of the race will also be action-packed, with the finish of the fourth stage at the top of the Mur de Bretagne, following a climb of 1.2 miles with an average gradient of 6.9 percent and some sections with a 15-percent gradient.

"Last summer's first week was thrilling and this year it will offer the riders a difficult route as well," Pruhomme said. "We wanted to provide a vast array of challenges for all kind of riders, roads exposed to winds, a team time trial and a finish at the Mur de Bretagne. With this stage, we make sure that all Tour contenders will be fighting up front."

The course will include a total of 23 mountain passes in the Alps, Pyrenees and Massif Central, two less than this year.

Riders will also visit Italy during the 17th and 18th stages in Pinerolo.

Prize money will total $4.45 million, with $626,000 for the winner.

Prudhomme said that despite the rash of recent doping cases, interest for the Tour remains huge in France and abroad.

"The Tour is a giant and we receive requests from everywhere from cities interested in organizing a start," Prudhomme said. "Last week it was Krakow [in Poland]. I also went to Shanghai at the World Expo and I was amazed by the Chinese people's interest for the race. We also received about 250 other requests from cities interested in hosting a stage."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.