Paris: Defending champion Alberto Contador will be conspicuous by his absence in Paris Tuesday when Tour de France chiefs unveil the route for 2011`s 98th edition of the epic bike race.
However his world came crashing down in spectacular fashion several weeks ago when it was revealed he had tested positive for trace elements of the banned substance Clenbuterol.
Contador claimed the weight-loss/muscle-building product found its way into his urine after he ate contaminated meat. It has been known for cattle to be fed Clenbuterol to boost their yield.
While the Spaniard awaits word on a possible ban from the sport, the presentation of the world`s biggest bike race will go on unabated in the presence of Australia`s Cadel Evans, fellow two-time runner-up Andy Schleck and British sprint king Mark Cavendish.
Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, who capped his final appearance in 2010 with a spectacular collapse on the first day in the mountains, is not expected to make another comeback, and so too will be absent.
After Contador virtually secured victory in 2010 with an epic ride up a rain-soaked Col du Tourmalet with Luxembourg rival Schleck, the 2011 edition is expected to offer fans another thrilling climb-fest.
Ahead of Tuesday`s official unveiling, only the opening days of the race to be held in the Vendee region in the west of France have been revealed.
Race officials have decided to dispense with the traditional opening prologue time trial for a full-on opening stage on July 2 from the Passage du Gois, a paved-over tidal causeway which links the island of Noirmoutier to the mainland.
Ending on the Mont des Alouettes near Herbiers, the stage should loosely resemble 2008`s opener when Spaniard Alejandro Valverde took out the win on an uphill sprint.
A team time trial will be held on the second stage, although the inevitable time losses suffered by some of the weaker teams will be limited by the fact it is only 23km long.
From there, the race leaves Olonne-sur-Mer heading north to Brittany where the towns of Redon, Mur-de-Bretagne and Cap Frehel are said to feature. Local whispers also suggest a stage will be held in the Normandy town of Lisieux.
The first major difficulties to be encountered by the peloton will be the Pyrenees mountains which border France and Spain.
In keeping with the tradition of alternating the importance of both key mountain ranges, the Alps will play a bigger role next year.
Still, the Depeche du Midi newspaper has reported that two stages will finish on the summits of Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille, both in the Pyrenees.
Before either the Pyrenees or Alps, however, the peloton is likely to be shaken up by riding through the Massif Central.
It is not the high mountains, but the roads leading through volcano country are notoriously undulating, and will provide plenty of opportunity for breakaways and audacious attacks.
After the Pyrenees, the Alps loom on the horizon although so far few details of the stages concerned have filtered through, except local reports of a stage into the Italian town of Pinerolo.
The formidable Alpe d`Huez and it`s legendary 21 hairpin bends over 14km is expected to feature after an absence of two years. As usual, a penultimate stage time trial will be held before the race finish in Paris.