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Tour de France to add new mountain pass

PARIS – The Tour de France will have revamped rules and a slightly less mountainous but hopefully more exciting course in 2008, organizers announced yesterday, looking to inject fresh enthusiasm into cycling’s doping-battered showcase race.

After the drug problems of the past two Tours, riders will cross a geographical high in 2008, scaling Europe’s highest mountain pass – the 9,193-foot Col de la Bonette-Restefond. Last climbed by the Tour in 1993, it is one of 19 major mountain passes that riders will face, two fewer than in this year’s race.

And for the first time since 1966, the race will start with a full road stage – 121 miles from Brest to Plumelec in Brittany – instead of an opening individual time-trial race against the clock that had become traditional. The goal is to give more riders, and not just time-trial experts, the chance to compete for the race lead and its coveted yellow jersey from the very start.

Adding further unpredictability to the mix, organizers have done away with time bonuses that were awarded to the fastest finishers each day and those who were among the first at other fixed points along the route. That rule change, especially in the high mountains which often open up large time gaps between riders, could lead to a tighter and more suspenseful and open Tour.

The July 5-27 Tour will cover 2,200 miles, with 21 stages and two rest days. The first of two time trials will come on Day 4. The second comes on the penultimate day, to fix the finishing order before the race concludes with its habitual processional final ride to the Champs-Elysees in Paris, when the winner often sips champagne in the saddle as he rides.

“The idea was really to break the classic scenarios,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. “I am convinced that cycling will rediscover its romanticism that made it a legend.”

It needs to. Drug scandals have pushed the sport into crisis, denting sponsors’ enthusiasm and television viewership. The 2006 Tour winner, Floyd Landis, was stripped of the title for failing a doping test. This year’s edition was a doping debacle, with race leader Michael Rasmussen sent home for skipping drug tests and favorite Alexandre Vinokourov testing positive for a banned blood transfusion.

Cycling has responded with new anti-doping measures announced this week.

Prudhomme said it was “inconceivable” that any rider would be allowed to start next year without signing on to perhaps the most important measure – a series of tests that will allow drug-testers to build a blood profile for each athlete. If follow-up tests show significant changes to that profile – which could be caused by drug use – riders could be barred from racing.

Prudhomme called the program “a real progress in the fight against doping.”

“We’re setting off with good hope,” said Jean-Francois Pescheux, another senior Tour official. “We have to because otherwise cycling is heading for catastrophe. If the 2008 season is a repeat of 2007 and 2006 it’s the end of cycling and I think everyone is aware of that.”

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