A very public leak of the 2012 Tour de France route didn’t stop a bigger crowd than last year – including road.cc – from turning up for the official presentation of the race in Paris on Tuesday, with some of the sport’s biggest names caught up in a scrum of photographers and film crews before and after the unveiling of the 99th edition of cycling’s biggest race.
In contrast to last October, this time around there was barely a spare seat to be had in the vast auditorium of the Palais des Congres at Porte Maillot, and that was far from the only difference with the presentation, 12 months ago, of this year’s race.
For a start, Cadel Evans had found himself a peripheral figure last year, when the attention was focused firmly on the Schleck brothers and their new team. This time around, the BMC rider took the seat of honour, front and centre, as the current Tour de France champion.
The attention Evans received even prompted an exchange of tweets with Mark Cavendish, the green jersey winner sitting a couple of places to the Australian’s left but very much out of the media’s glare as the Australian was lit up by a barrage of flashbulbs.
Cavendish wouldn’t have such a relaxed time afterwards, however, as he, like several of the other big names present found himself at the centre of a media melée, with journalists eager to get the new world champion’s first thoughts on the route as well as how the race would fit into his 2012 schedule.
The Manxman identified seven potential sprint stages, and with Matt Goss and Mark Renshaw set to be the designated sprinters at, respectively, GreenEdge and Rabobank, those will be fiercely contested by them as well as the usual suspects in the sprint.
Given some of the tough finishes featuring in this year’s race, one potential green jersey challenger is Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, who won a hat-trick of stages on his grand tour debut in the Vuelta.
The Slovak’s presence in Paris on Tuesday is a pretty sure sign he will line up in Liege on next year’s Tour, and it would surprise no-one who has followed the 21-year-old’s meteoric rise to see him make a big impact on the race.
Even the pre-presentation focus on Evans seemed tame, however, given the reaction that greeted the late arrival of a rider who didn’t even claim one of the jerseys or a podium position at this year’s race, but who did more than most to ensure that it was a edition of the Tour de France that would live long in the memory.
That man was Thomas Voeckler, the Europcar rider, managing to hold on to the maillot jaune for nearly a fortnight, including all the way through the Pyrenees, only to lose it on the final mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez. A French national hero following his exploits in the 2004 Tour when he spent ten days in maillot jaune, Voeckler's performance this year ensured that he was fully in the limelight on Tuesday.
In crude terms, the focus on specific riders at the Tour de France presentation can act as a barometer of who is ‘hot or not’ in the world of professional cycling. As we said earlier, this time last year, Evans, who had been reigning world champion just a couple of weeks before, was pretty much left to his own devices.
This time around, it was his successor in the rainbow jersey, and the man who spent a week in the maillot jaune and won two stages of this year’s Tour, Thor Hushovd, who would find himself less subject to the attentions of the press than some of his peers.
That’s possibly a reflection of the fact that despite being one of the chief animateurs of this year’s Tour, following his switch from Garmin-Cervelo to BMC Racing, Hushovd will instead be acting as a super-domestique for Evans as he begins his defence of the Tour next July. The quid pro quo of that, however, is that Hushovd will benefit from team support earlier in the season as he targets Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.
One BMC rider besides Evans who goes into next year’s race with clear aspirations of getting into the maillot jaune, however, is Philippe Gilbert. The world number one was the first man to wear the yellow jersey during this year’s race after winning an uphill finish in Stage 1 at Mont des Alouettes.
With the race starting in the Belgian cyclist’s home province of Liege, his sights are firmly set on winning the first road stage, a looping parcours from Liege to nearby Seraing, on a day when huge crowds are guaranteed.
With an uphill drag of 2.5 kilometres to the line, the finish could have been almost tailor made for the supreme puncheur, but whether he’ll stand a chance of also getting into yellow may depend on how he fared in the previous day’s Prologue.
Coincidentally, one of the few riders who can challenge both against the clock and in this type of finish, as he did when finishing second to Gilbert on Stage 1 this year, is his new team mate, Evans. Oh, and the man who finished third that day? BMC’s other big signing, Hushovd.
One rider present at the 2012 launch had been noticeably absent last year – Alberto Contador, at the time defending champion, but only recently revealed to have failed that test for clenbuterol during the 2010 edition of the race which he went on to win.
Speaking 12 months ago, race director Christophe Prudhomme expressed his frustration that the situation had not been resolved.
A year on, and what has changed is that Contador has been absolved by his national federation, and raced the 2011 Tour, finishing fifth – but with the World Anti-doping Agency and UCI appealing the decision in a month’s time at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, it’s far from clear whether he’ll be racing next year.
Nevertheless, Contador was in Paris on Tuesday, and while his entrance was far more discreet than on Sunday’s Giro d’Italia launch in Milan, when he was lowered onto the stage in a glitterball cage carrying the trophy he had won in May, Contador was one of the riders besieged by the press afterwards.
Also present was another rider involved in the past in doping controversy in the race, but this time one who had served out a ban as a result – Alexander Vinolkourov.
The Kazakh’s 2011 race took him to Paris, but his destination was the city’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, rather than the Champs-Elysées, after he broke his femur in a crash on Stage 9.
Initially, he announced his retirement – but now it appears Vinokourov will be back next season for another crack at the Tour. News that's bound to please at least one fan who made it into Tuesday's presentation and waited patiently to get his hero to sign a picture.
Other than Cavendish, who in any event is not officially a Team Sky rider until 1 January, the British outfit were conspicuous by their absence, as they were last year, so thoughts on a parcours that with 98 kilometres of time trialling looks very well suited for Bradley Wiggins weren’t immediately available.
Sean Yates has subsequently said it should suit him, as well as Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome, while for his part Cavendish told reporters that he couldn’t see why Team Sky shouldn’t target both the yellow and green jerseys.
Should they succeed in that, it would be impossible for the team to stay away for a third year in a row.
All pictures © Simon MacMichael
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.