The 2012 Tour de France starts a week early as a concession to the upcoming Olympics, wheeling out in Liege, Belgium, on June 30 as opposed to its usual blast-off on the first Saturday of July. From there, the race seems in an unusual hurry to get to the traditional loops around the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 22.
Yes, the overall length of the race (2,160 miles) is on a par with recent editions, but there's more individual time trial mileage (just shy of 60 miles) than the Tour peloton has seen since 2007, and only two uphill finishes in the high Alps and Pyrenees. The opening prologue has been restored, and the team time trial, which penalizes great riders on so-so teams, was left out in this year's game of musical chairs.
Much was made at Tuesday's route unveiling in Paris of the new climbs and unpredictable "medium mountain" stages that punctuate the first half of the 99th Tour, and the time trial slice of the pie may still seem relatively thin. But make no mistake: Both of the longer individual time trials are crucially positioned, and there's little doubt they'll decide the race, whether the eventual winner dominates or manages to limit his losses. The first ITT caps the initial 10 days of racing and comes on the eve of a rest day. The second, a 32-mile dash on the second-to-last day of the Tour, is in and of itself longer than the total time trial mileage in 2011.
The Tour is supposed to go clockwise in even years, but in fact meanders the other direction around northern France into Normandy in the first few days before sprinting east almost to the German border. That should make for some interesting, windblown racing right up until an abrupt uphill stage finish at La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges mountain range that will require vigilance by the overall contenders.
From there, the Tour peloton dips into Switzerland, lines up for a time trial ending in Besancon, then heads into the Alps, takes a breather in Provence, hits the Mediterranean coast and continues into the Pyrenees. In a departure from recent history, the final individual time trial will take place commuting distance from Paris, ending in the shadow of the grand cathedral of Chartres.
As usual, the complete blow-by-blow details of the roads to be taken won't be released until next spring, yet much is already clear. This course may not be as demanding or tactically challenging as the past few. Instead, it rewards balance.
On its face, that puts defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia in the catbird seat. Criticized in previous years for being too passive in the mountains, Evans showed last summer that he can attack when threatened, and he will bring a stacked supporting cast from the high-rolling BMC superteam. At 34 going on 35, he remains one of the world's premier time trialists.
The shrinking time trial distances of recent years didn't provide enough incentive for riders with lopsided skill sets, like Andy and Frank Schleck, to get really serious about damage control in those specialty stages, despite their protestations to the contrary. That's a large part of why Andy Schleck has fallen one podium step short of the title three straight times now. We'll see if the message has any effect this time.
Aside from Evans, the rider best suited to make headway in the mountains and consolidate (or more) in the time trials is three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, who continues to float in the interminable limbo of his doping case appeal. His hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a positive clenbuterol test during the 2010 Tour is slated for early November.
Contador, exonerated by a Spanish hearing panel whose decision has been challenged by international cycling and anti-doping authorities, won't miss next year's race unless CAS imposes the maximum two-year sanction. The chances of that are murkier than ever, given the current confused state of the science and jurisprudence around contamination in clenbuterol cases.
If CAS decides on a lesser suspension, Contador would still lose his 2010 Tour title to Andy Schleck, who rode that race seemingly a million years and two team jerseys ago.
The other rider with the most to gain in next year's big spin is Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins, a six-time Olympic track cycling medalist and the 2011 world championship time trial silver medalist whose dreams and collarbone were shattered in an early crash in this year's Tour.
Wiggins has said he aims to excel at both the Tour and London 2012, where cycling competition begins less than a week after the finish in Paris. That ambition seems more achievable now than ever. Wiggins finished third in the Vuelta a Espana last month, holding the overall lead for several days and reaching his first Grand Tour podium in what many riders called the toughest course ever in that race.
With that confidence-builder and a course that caters to his strength, Wiggins could be a real threat to Evans, if the Englishman can survive the crosswinds and nerves of the first week . The chief question facing Wiggins' Sky team is how to have enough fresh legs to help him hold his own or better in the mountains while giving Mark Cavendish his customary escort in the sprint stages and a shot at the green jersey.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.