Notorious Mont Ventoux awaits Armstrong if he opts to race

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PARIS (AP) -- If he's looking for a reason to skip the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong now has a big one: Mont Ventoux.

In a break with tradition, the notorious mountain ascent will be featured on the race's next-to-last day in a tradition-busting innovation aimed at keeping the suspense going to the very end.

The seven-time champion was notably absent from Wednesday's unveiling in Paris of the 2009 route. Close friend and team manager Johan Bruyneel did attend and said there's only a "50-50" chance Armstrong will take the Tour start on the Fourth of July.

"For him, the goal of a comeback is not linked to an obsession to win an eighth Tour," Bruyneel said.

This new route for cycling's 106-year-old showcase race will make any victory especially challenging -- even for cyclists such as Armstrong who excel in the mountains.

Ordinarily, the race finishes with a time trial on the next-to-last day, deciding the overall results before what is largely a ceremonial ride into Paris on the last day. Next year, Mont Ventoux will be the 20th of the 21 stages. After 19 days of racing, the punishing climb on which British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967 promises to test tired legs and minds, and could possibly decide the winner.

"It's a lot different to previous years," British rider David Millar said. "It's a lot more spectacular, changing all the time."

Organizers insisted the selection of Ventoux for 2009 was made long before Armstrong announced his comeback last month. If he races, Armstrong's vast experience could give him an edge on what could be a winner-take-all high-pressure penultimate day. But it may also be that the ascent and toughness of Ventoux -- "there is no air, perhaps because there is no vegetation. It is a strange place," Armstrong said in 2000 -- prove too much for his 37-year-old frame after three weeks of hard slog across France, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland and Italy.

Ventoux is a huge moonscape of rock in Provence with little shade or grass. French philosopher Roland Barthes called it "a god of Evil." Armstrong has described it as "the hardest climb on the Tour, bar none."

In 2000, Armstrong allowed Marco Pantani to pass him at the finish line. Armstrong said it was more important to win the Tour than the stage but just days later regretted giving away victory, saying Pantani was not the best on Ventoux.

In 2002, he placed third on Ventoux behind French favorite Richard Virenque, and then lashed out at fans along the route who branded him a drug user -- the same sort of criticism that is again angering Armstrong. "If I had a dollar for every time somebody yelled 'Dope! Dope!' I'd be a rich man," Armstrong said then.

In an Associated Press interview on Tuesday, Bruyneel called the 2009 route "a little bit strange, a little different" and said that "with the Mont Ventoux on the second-last day, anything can happen." But he also said the rider, not the route, is decisive.

"There's always a whole lot of comments on the course, it's good for this guy or it's good for that guy, ultimately it doesn't matter," Bruyneel said. "Ultimately the guy who wins the Tour -- and I think any stage race -- is the guy who is the best prepared and has the best support team, and is the most consistent. It's as simple as that."

When Armstrong announced his comeback, he said he would aim for an eighth Tour victory, after a three-year retirement. But a less-than-enthusiastic response from organizers and renewed discussion in France about whether Armstrong doped while building his record string of wins from 1999-2005 -- he insists he did not -- have given the rider pause. Armstrong has said he will race the Giro d'Italia in May but is sounding less certain for the Tour in July.

Race director Christian Prudhomme remained guarded Wednesday, saying an Armstrong return would be "neither a good nor bad thing" for the Tour.

There's no doubt the route changes will shake up the 2009 Tour, with or without Armstrong.

Defending champion Carlos Sastre said the climb "can give us big, big surprises." And Jean-Francois Pescheux, who helped design the route as director of competitions for ASO, the company that organizes the Tour, said: "The Ventoux will blow things up."

The innovative course comes as the Tour is still reeling from doping scandals. Seven competitors in this year's race were caught by doping testers -- four for using a new advanced form of the banned endurance-boosting drug EPO. They included third-place finisher Bernhard Kohl, and three others -- Italians Leonardo Piepoli and Riccardo Ricco and German Stefan Schumacher -- who combined won five of the 21 stages.

On Wednesday, they were not included in the 2008 highlight reel.

"This is not a mistake nor an oversight. They have no place in the anthology of the Tour de France," Prudhomme told the packed amphitheater, to applause.

On paper, the 2009 course should suit climbers such as Sastre and fellow Spaniard Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion and Armstrong teammate. That's because the time trials -- which tend to suit more powerful riders, not climbers -- will not be hugely long.

The first comes on Day 1 in the Mediterranean principality of Monaco, on a snaking 9.3-mile route with climbs, tricky hairpin bends and some of the same fast curves and straights used by Formula One at the fabled Monte Carlo Grand Prix.

It should offer an immediate gauge of the favorites' form. From that point on, there will be little respite on the 2,141-mile route. The 20 major mountain climbs -- which compare to 17 in 2008 and an average of 22-23 in the four years before that -- are spread over much of the race. Organizers also revived the team time trial, which comes on Day 4.

"The classification is going to be fought from the start right to the finish," said Australian Cadel Evans, runner-up in 2007 and 2008.