2010 Tour route unveiled

PARIS -- The next chapter in the rivalry between seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and defending champion Alberto Contador will take place in a majestic landscape next July -- the Pyrenees.

Riders of the most prestigious three-week cycling race will celebrate the first crossing of the Pyrenees 100 years ago with as many as four stages in the daunting mountains that form the border between France and Spain.

Tour organizers unveiled the 2010 course on Wednesday, with Armstrong and Contador attending the ceremony in Paris. The pair worked together as Astana teammates during this year's race, and the Spaniard won the Tour for a second time while Armstrong finished third.

The 38-year-old Armstrong has since left the Kazakh-funded team to launch his own outfit, RadioShack, which has yet to be granted a ProTour license.

"I think it will be much more open than last year because the TTT [team time trial] really eliminated some people last year and you won't have that again," Armstrong said Wednesday after next year's route was announced. "Whereas this year you had three or four guys who could win the Tour, this year you'll go into the tough sections with 10 guys."

In 1910, Tour riders climbed the four legendary Pyrenean passes -- Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque -- a feat their modern heirs will repeat next July. The Tourmalet, one of the toughest climbs in cycling, will be scaled twice.

Tourmalet is a peak of nearly 7,000 feet that has been climbed more times (73) than any other in Tour history. But only once has it hosted a stage finish -- in 1974, when French rider Jean-Pierre Danguillaume beat a field that included Eddy Merckx to the top. That year was also the last time Tourmalet was climbed twice in one Tour.

It has been nearly 41 years since the Tour sent riders over all four of the Pyrenees' most punishing ascents in one day, in the 1969 Tour's 17th stage.

That epic race saw Merckx take off on an 87-mile solo breakaway, finishing first at Mourenx after crossing the peaks of Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque on his way to the first of his five yellow jerseys.

In 1910, the 10th stage was a 203-mile epic journey over the same four peaks that riders will climb this year. Like Merckx in 1974, the winner of this stage, French rider Octave Lapize, went on to win the coveted yellow jersey. Lapize's judgment of the course's designers has become part of Tour legend: "You are assassins, yes, assassins."

Nicknamed "The Circle of Death," the combination of the four big mountain passes was also crossed in the 1926 Tour. Like in 1910 and 1969, the winner of that stage, Lucien Buysse, went on to win the Tour.

"We will follow in the wake of Eddy Merckx on this arduous succession of mountain climbs," race director Christian Prudhomme said. "With the celebration of the first crossing of the Pyrenees, it's logical that the Pyrenees will be harder than the Alps on this Tour."

The new course will include a total of 23 mountain passes in the Alps, Pyrenees, Jura and Massif Central, three more than this year.

The 2010 Tour will start with a 5-mile prologue in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on July 3 with a final stage on the Champs-Elysees after a 2,234.5-mile clockwise ride. In between, riders will go through Belgium and tackle six mountain stages including three hilltop finishes, four medium mountain stages and only one individual time trial after organizers decided to scratch the team time trial from the program.

"We wanted to make sure that anything could happen anywhere," said Prudhomme, who was disappointed by this year's scenario, when all the favorites neutralized themselves for the biggest part of the race.

The first stages of next year's race will pay tribute to two of the most prestigious classics -- Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Paris-Roubaix -- with riders going through seven cobblestone sectors over a total distance of 8.2 miles in the third stage between Wanze, Belgium, and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France, on July 6. It will be the first time since 2004 that riders will have to handle cobblestones, a difficult task that dashed Spanish rider Iban Mayo's hopes of defeating Armstrong that year.

"We don't put cobblestones for riders to fall, but to make a selection," Prudhomme said. "There will be 11 kilometers of cobblestones in the last 30 kilometers. There will be some damage."

The cobblestones will weigh heavily on Armstrong's decision on which races to include in his pre-Tour preparations, he said. The Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium are races he is considering entering, Armstrong said.

"I think you have to plan your season according to what you see here, too," Armstrong said. "I think even a race like the Tour of Flanders is interesting now because you don't want your only cobblestone experience to be the day you show up here. You need to practice that so we'll build the season around this, too."

Armstrong, who came back to competition this year following a 3½-year retirement, said Luxembourg brothers Andy and Frank Schleck and British rider Bradley Wiggins, as well as Contador, were among his toughest potential rivals next year.

Armstrong, who had lunch with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, said he is still considering whether to compete in the Tour of California or the Giro d'Italia, races that conflict on the calendar in May.

"I still don't know. There's more things that factor in there, too, RadioShack being an American company and California obviously being an American race," Armstrong said, referring to his new team.

Following a new feud between the International cycling union and the French anti-doping agency, Prudhomme restated that the fight against doping was his priority.

"This is an absolute necessity," Prudhomme said. "And authorities in charge of this fight need to work together in good terms."

Earlier this month, the French anti-doping agency released a report concluding that teams including Astana had received advance notice of doping tests during the Tour, and that some blood and urine samples were not handled correctly by UCI inspectors. The UCI responded by saying it scrupulously respected the obligations imposed by the World Anti-Doping Code.

On Tuesday, French prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation to examine syringes found during this year's race in a container given by organizers to all the teams in order to collect medical waste.

Asked to comment on the case, Prudhomme said he knew nothing about it.

"We learned it from the press," he said.

While there were no positive tests at this year's Tour, authorities did seize drugs that the French anti-doping agency said raised questions. The drugs included treatments for diabetes, high blood pressure and convulsions suffered by manic-depressives.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.