|Organisers have added tough mountain climbs to the 2012 Tour de France in order to keep the race fresh [EPA]
Tour de France competitors will face new and steeper mountain climbs and longer time trials next year, making for a wide-open race that will give stars like defending champion Cadel Evans and three-time winner Alberto Contador plenty of challengers.
At Tuesday's presentation of the 2012 course, Tour director Christian Prudhomme said "more favourites can potentially be in the mix" in the quest for the leader's yellow jersey over the 3,479-kilometer route.
The Tour's 99th edition, which starts June 30 in Liege, Belgium, will feature nearly 100 kilometers of individual time trials and 25 tough mountain climbs. The super-steep Planche des Belles Filles in eastern France will make its Tour debut in Stage 7.
"The route has been made so more favourites can potentially be in it (the title hunt)"
Tour director Christian Prudhomme
"The route has been made so more favourites can potentially be in it (the title hunt),'' Prudhomme told reporters before welcoming hundreds of riders, cycling personnel, sponsors and fans for the presentation at a Paris convention center.
"So a guy who is good in time trials can say 'Ah, I might have a chance,' and others will say, 'Since there are fewer summit finishes, I have to attack from farther out," he said.
"And there's precisely the layout to allow attacks from farther out."
This year's Tour was one of the most exciting in years, with the yellow jersey up for grabs until the next to last stage.
Prudhomme said organisers could not rest on their laurels and needed to continue to shake things up.
"There is nothing worse than old routines," Prudhomme said.
"And teams adapt at an incredible speed. We have to try to bring new things each time so that they have to change.''
Mounting new challenge
The Planche des Belles Filles, with a patch of a staggering 20-degree gradient, is but one of nearly a half-dozen new mountain climbs for the Tour.
Riders will also struggle up the Col de la Croix in the Jura mountains of Switzerland - a 3.7 kilometer climb with an average gradient of 9.2 percent.
"On the Col de la Croix, even without attacking, you have to be in it. It can't be otherwise, it's too steep for there not to be a shakeup," said Prudhomme of a climb that comes just 15 kilometers from the finish line of Stage 8.
A group of cycling stars lined the front row for Tuesday's glitzy presentation at a top-grade Paris hotel: Evans, new world champion Mark Cavendish of Britain, brothers Andy and Frank Schleck - who finished this year second and third behind Evans - and Belgium's Philippe Gilbert, the top-ranked rider this year in the International Cycling Union scale.
Major centerpieces for the Tour's last two editions were the centennial celebrations of the race's debut in the Pyrenees mountains - in 1909 - and the Alps the following year. For 2012, the theme will be novelty, Prudhomme said.
"This year we're in the year of new things, with half a dozen new climbs, some of which are really hard,'' he said.
| Andy Schleck (L) says the changes mean riders will race more aggressively [GALLO/GETTY]
Competitors quickly analysed the route, and tried to gauge their chances.
"Riders and fans don't like when the races turn into waiting games," said Andy Schleck, a three-time Tour runner-up, whose Leopard Trek team is merging with RadioShack.
"Next year if you wait, you will lose. We have to be on the offensive from the first stage."
Contador said the route could favour Australia's Evans.
"Maybe it is better for Cadel Evans, it is more for the rider that goes very very strong in the time trials and, maybe for me, I need to attack before the time trial and not for the other riders," the 28-year-old Spaniard said.
Contador said Sunday he would likely skip next year's Giro d'Italia to focus on regaining the Tour title after following up his victory in the Italian classic with a fifth-place finish at the Tour.
Still, Contador has a November date with the Court of Arbitration for Sport hanging over him and his last two big wins.
Contador continues to compete despite failing a drug test on his way to winning a third Tour in 2010. He won this year's Giro after the Spanish cycling federation cleared him of doping for successfully arguing that he tested positive for clenbuterol because of contaminated meat, a decision being appealed.
Evans expected the variety of terrain to spark a different style of racing.
"On paper it looks like a mix of everything,'' the Australian rider said.
Thomas Voeckler, who wore the yellow jersey 10 days last summer before finally losing it to Schleck on the infamous Alpe d'Huez climb, said next year's Tour "is very hilly."
"Like in the past few years, the suspense will keep everyone breathless until the end," Voeckler said.