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Tour de France route has new climbs, time trials

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PARIS (AP) — Tour de France riders will face steeper mountain climbs and longer time trials, making for a wide-open race aimed to give stars like defending champion Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador plenty of challengers.

At Tuesday's presentation of the 2012 course, Tour director Christian Prudhomme said "more favorites can potentially be in the mix" in the quest for the leader's yellow jersey over the 2,162-mile route.

The Tour's 99th edition starts June 30 in Liege, Belgium. It will feature nearly 62 miles of individual time trials and 25 tough mountain climbs. The super-steep stretch in eastern France will make its Tour debut in Stage 7.

This summer's Tour winner wasn't decided until the next to last stage. Prudhomme said organizers needed to keep shaking things up.

"The route has been made so more favorites can potentially be in it," Prudhomme said 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."

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 also will struggle up the Col de la Croix in the Jura mountains of Switzerland — a 2-mile 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," Prudhomme said. The climb comes just 9 miles 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.

Gilbert will join Evans' BMC Racing team next year.

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.

Competitors quickly analyzed the route, and tried to gauge their chances.

"Riders and fans don't like it 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."

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 the upcoming Tour "is very hilly."

"Like in the past few years, the suspense will keep everyone breathless until the end," Voeckler said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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