|Tour Course Preview
The Prologue is a winding, flat 7.1 km individual time trial through the streets of Strasbourg. While the route is flat—as in teenage supermodel flat—there are seven tight corners that will add a level of technical difficulty to the course. There will be many races within the race during the Prologue. First of all, the men hoping for a good showing on General Classification will be trying to keep themselves close to their rivals and show that they've got good form. Second, the sprinters will be trying to keep themselves close to the man who wins the stage. While sprinters rarely win the Prologue, the ensuing stages offer time bonuses at intermediate sprints and the finish line, thus giving the sprinters opportunities to take over the lead in the race. As sprinters lose huge time in the mountains, they must fight like crazy in the first week if they want to have a shot at wearing the Yellow Jersey of overall leader. This means that they must ride a strong prologue and then chase the time bonuses for the rest of the week.
Finally, of course, there are the time trial specialists who will be looking for a stage win and the first Yellow Jersey of the race. Former prologue winner Bradley McGee (FDJeux) is out of the Tour with that back problem, but the field will still be packed with men who can smoke this course. At the top of the list is David "Friskie" Zabriskie (CSC), the man who won the opening time trial last year and wore the Yellow Jersey for three days. Zabriskie also won the Prologue and the Stage 3 time trials at the recent Dauphiné Libéré, so he's on form and the heavy favorite for the stage win. Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich is the monster of time trialing, but he usually needs a longer course to excel. Still, he could pull off a win. George "LL Cool G" Hincapie (Discovery Channel) was 2nd to Zabriskie in the Dauphiné Prologue, and should push the top time.
The most interesting subplot of this Prologue will be the return of "The Scottish Rocket" David Miller, who used to specialize in short time trials like this and has won the opening Tour stage in the past. Miller, of course, has been serving a long suspension for doping, and by coming to this race with the Saunier Duval-Prodir squad, he will be returning to the peloton for the first time. Can Miller find his old time trialing legs? We'll just have to wait and see.
The first road stage of the Tour will be a day for the sprinters. Like the Prologue, the 184.5 km course starts and finishes in the city of Strasbourg. The route is basically a long, flat counter-clockwise loop through the countryside. Expect a major bunch of early attacks as opportunists try to get off the front and spoil the day for the sprinters. While the attackers will be wanting a stage win, that will be unlikely to happen on such a flat course. The big prize that one enterprising attacker will take home is the Polka-Dot Jersey of the mountains competition: there is one lonely, small little Cat 4 climb that comes at about 100 km into the stage, and the man who wins that climb will take the lead in the mountains competition.
Some sprinters may go for the intermediate sprints to pick up points and time bonuses for the Green and Yellow Jerseys (respectively), but the big sprinters will likely save their legs for the finish. Unfortunately, Petacchi (Team Milram) is not in the race, as he is suffering from the after-effects of injury. But we'll still get to see speed merchants like Robbie "Napoleon" McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), "T-Bone" Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Erik "Big E-Z" Zabel (Team Milram), and defending Green Jersey champ Thor "Thunder God" Hushovd (Credit Agricole) cross swords for the first time at the finish line. Other sprinters to keep an eye on are Oscar "The Grouch" Freire (Rabobank), Daniele Bennati (Lampre), Isaac Galvez (Caisse d'Epargne), Samuel "Demolition" Dumoulin (AG2r-Prevoyance), and Robbie Hunter (Phonak). With this many outstanding sprinters gunning for glory, the sprints in this Tour could turn out to be the most entertaining aspect of the race.
Starting in the outskirts of (you guessed it) Strasbourg in a town called Obernai, Stage 2 winds northwest for 228.5 km through some pretty bumpy terrain on the way to the Luxembourg city of Esch-sur-Alzette. With two Cat 3 climbs in the first 50 km and three Cat 4 climbs in the final 40 km, this is not exactly a sprinter-friendly course. Sprinters like Boonen, Hushovd, Zabel, and Freire shouldn't have too many problems with the terrain, but the hills will provide a launch pad for classics-style riders like Italian Champion Paolo "Teeny" Bettini (Quick Step), Chris "C-Ho" Horner (Davitamon-Lotto), Michael "Ultrabrite" Boogerd (Rabobank), Danilo "Nuke" Di Luca (Liquigas), and Fabian "Turn Me Loose" Wegmann (Gerolsteiner). If the sprinters are focused and their leadout trains are diligent, they may get the chance to sprint for the win, but I'm looking for the peloton to explode with attacks in the last 15 km with a solo victor or a sprint from a very small group. And the Yellow Jersey may land in a very surprising place by the end of this stage.
If the sprinters didn't like Stage 2, they definitely will not like Stage 3. The route heads due north from Esch-Sur-Alzette through the heart of Luxembourg to Belgium. Once in the land of great beer and chocolate, the riders will pick up some of the roads covered in the northern classics like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. They will finish in the town of Valkenburg after 216.5 km, and the course will obviously suit the classics specialists who love the vicious little climbs in this part of Europe. In the last half of the stage, riders must tackle two Cat 3 climbs and two Cat 4 climbs before the finishing climb up the Cat 3 Cauberg (which serves as the finish for the Amstel Gold each year). Look once again for men like Bettini, Di Luca, and most especially the homeboy Michael Boogerd to attack like mad for victory on that final climb. If a sprinter is in the Yellow Jersey, they will probably lose it on this stage. The GC riders will also have to be very vigilant on this stage, as it has the potential to blow the field apart and cause guys to lose some important time.