Lance Armstrong's bid for a record sixth Tour de France victory next year could be decided by a gruelling time trial near the end of the race.
A solo climb up the Alpe d'Huez, which is normally part of a longer mountain stage, has been included at the end of next year's anti-clockwise race as a gruelling 15km test against the watch.
It will be the first time trial of next year's Tour, apart from the short prologue, and race organisers hope the idea will keep the race alive until the latest possible date.
The first individual time trial is normally held at the end of the first week, but next year the climb to Alpe d'Huez will take place only four days before the finish in Paris.
The 13.5km time trial from Bourg d'Oisans to the Tour's most famous summit is likely to be the highlight of
To make the finish even more exciting, another 56km individual time trial will take place on the penultimate day, on a course around Besancon.
"On the evening at the end of this year's Tour, we asked ourselves what we could do to make the next one as exciting," Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said.
"This one should be highly interesting but riders and team managers will have to be good tacticians because upsets will be possible until the very last day."
The route will certainly make it challenging for Lance Armstrong, who is chasing a record sixth Tour de France victory.
For the past five years, the American has beaten his rivals more often than not in the long individual time trials.
But, with the solitary efforts happening so late in next year's event, he will have less chance to make a decisive move early on.
Credit Agricole manager Roger
Legeay said of the Alpe d'Huez stage: "It will be the day of reckoning on next year's race. That is where the Tour will be won and lost."
But Armstrong was delighted with the schedule.
"It's funny; I was holding out hope for that," he said.
The strongest teams will also be less favoured in the team time trial held between Cambrai and Arras along the First World War battlefields, since time differences will be limited to two minutes and 30 seconds.
Overall, climbers should be have a better chance, even though the big mountain stages look less demanding than in 2003.
Last year's centenary race involved all the big summits in Tour history but the Col de Galibier, Col du Tourmalet and Col d'Isoard
will not feature in the 2004 event.
Riders will first tackle the Pyrenees with a similar programme to 2002.
The first serious mountain stage will take the race to la Mongie via the Aspin pass on 16 July, while the big stage in the Alps will be from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand, with the Madeleine pass the highest summit at 2,000m.
The first half of the race will favour sprinters, although one stage will be familiar to fans of the spring classics.
Riders will tackle the Mur de Grammont, as in the Tour of Flanders, and cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix.
The 2004 Tour de France itinerary
- 3 July:: Prologue in Liege (6 km)
- 4 July: First stage Liege-Charleroi (195 km)
- 5 July: Second stage Charleroi-Namur (195 km)
- 6 July: Third stage Waterloo-Wasquehal (195 km)
- 7 July: Fourth stage Cambrai-Arras (65 km, team time
- 8 July: Fifth stage Amiens-Chartres (195 km)
- 9 July: Sixth stage Bonneval-Angers (190 km)
- 10 July: Seventh stage: Chateaubriant-Saint Brieuc
- 11 July: Eighth stage Lamballe-Quimper (172 km)
- 12 July: Rest day in Limoges
- 13 July: Ninth stage St Leonard de Noblat-Gueret (160
- 14 July: 10th stage Limoges-Saint Flour (237 km)
- 15 July: 11th stage Saint Flour-Figeac (164 km)
- 16 July: 12th stage Castelsarrazin-La Mongie (199 km)
- 17 July: 13th stage Lannemezan-Plateau de Beille (217
- 18 July: 14th stage Carcassonne-Nimes (200 km)
- 19 July: Rest day in Nimes
- 20 July: 15th stage Valreas-Villard de Lans (179 km)
- 21 July: 16th stage Bourg d'Oisans-L'Alpe d'Huez (15
km individual time trial)
- 22 July: 17th stage Bourg d'Oisans-Le Grand Bornand
- 23 July: 18th stage Annemasse-Lons le Saunier (166 km)
- 24 July: 19th stage Besancon-Besancon (56 km
individual time trial)
- 25 July: 20th stage Montereau-Paris-Champs-Elysees (165