Tour de France preview: Stage 1

Stage 1: Liege to Seraing, 198km, rolling

If ever there was a stage tailor-made for Philippe Gilbert, this is it. With five short Cat 4 climbs, this is a stage for puncheurs, not pure sprinters, and it rolls over the Belgian roads that Gilbert cut his teeth on. The approach to the finish contains several twists and turns, meaning a crash is highly likely. The final 2.4km is uphill with the contenders for the stage win having to negotiate a 5.8% gradient for 1.4km – although it exceeds 10% in places – before passing under the flamme rouge, where the gradient settles down to 2.9%. While a win here would help rescue a filthy season for the King of Belgium, he needs to watch that the Slovakian meteor, Peter Sagan, doesn’t blaze past him to take the stage. It is also the sort of finish where defending champion Cadel Evans might just fancy a go too.

Look for the inevitable breakaway to be packed with riders seeking a few brief days of glory for themselves and their team in the King of the Mountains competition. In particular, expect the wild-card teams to be well represented as they seek to justify their inclusion. Don’t be surprised if Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun in particular place at least one man in the escape group. The wearer of the polka dot jersey at the end of this stage should retain it for at least two days, and possibly longer. Also, expect the group to contain at least a couple of Belgian riders as they race on home soil, perhaps one of the Cofidis pair of Jan Ghyselinck and Romain Zingle, Vacansoleil-DCM’s Kris Boeckmans, Rabobank’s Maarten Wynants, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Dries Devenyns or Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Nick Nuyens.

Cycling the Alps’ interactive videos of the route can be found here.

Link: Official website

Tour de France: Prologue review

Prologue: Liege, 6.4km individual time trial

The 2012 Tour opened with a 6.4km individual time trial prologue around Liege, tailor-made for time trial specialists. Although the last few days had been rainy, the weather was clear and sunny. French TT champion Sylvain Chavanel‘s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) time of 7:20 stood for much of the day – his 33rd birthday – until Bradley Wiggins (Sky) pipped him by less than half a second. Tony Martin (OPQS), the current TT World Champion, was also a danger but he punctured halfway through the course and came in a disappointing 45th, 23 seconds off the pace.

That just left penultimate rider Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) as the last credible threats to Wiggins claiming the race’s first yellow jersey. And Cancellara showed that he was back on form by storming the course, shaving off seven seconds and taking the maillot jaune. Evans finished a respectable 13th, just ten seconds down on Wiggins.

VeloVoices rider of the day

It can only be Spartacus and not just because he won and therefore dons the yellow jersey. This win was Cancellara’s fifth consecutive prologue win at the Tour [technically his 2009 win was a 15km ITT rather than a prologue, but let’s not quibble – Ed]. He has never lost a prologue since his first win in Liege in 2004. He also equalled Bernard Hinault’s record of wearing the maillot jaune on opening day for a fifth time.

If that isn’t enough, Cancellara is also the active rider who has worn the yellow jersey the most – this is now the 22nd yellow jersey to grace his shoulders. And of all the riders in this year’s race, only Mark Cavendish (20) has won more stages than his eight. All things going well, Cancellara might well be in yellow for most of the first week.

Observations

Chavanel wasn’t the only birthday boy today, as BMC’s Marcus Burghardt was quick to remind viewers. He revealed his under-shirt in the start-house, which bore the message: “Thanks for coming out on my birthday.”

Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Gorka Verdugo was taken to hospital after falling on the course, although he did complete the stage 191st out of the 198 riders.

Tactical analysis

Cancellara‘s victory came as little surprise, particularly after Tony Martin‘s mishap, with the only seed of doubt being whether he had fully recovered from his Tour of Flanders injuries. As far as the GC contenders are concerned, time gaps are largely trivial over such a short distance – but a good showing carries psychological weight. In that respect, Bradley Wiggins landed an expected early blow, although Cadel Evans will be pleased to have limited his losses in finishing a respectable 13th.

Among the other top contenders Frank Schleck showed he still can’t time trial for toffee (136th at +0:38). But Denis Menchov (eighth at +0:13), Vincenzo Nibali and Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (14th and 15th respectively, both at +0:18) will all be delighted with their form, while climbers Robert Gesink, Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez will not be overly upset by their losses.

Having won the Tour de Suisse prologue over a similar distance (but on a hillier course) just three weeks ago against a quality field which included Cancellara, Peter Sagan will have been disappointed that an error cost him valuable momentum and left him down in 53rd, 24 seconds off the yellow jersey. Not so much because he was a likely stage winner, but because a place in the top 15 would have earned him useful points in the green jersey competition on a day when none of his sprint rivals were ever going to trouble the scorers. A six-second improvement on his time would have seen him finish in the points – ten seconds would have netted him six points for 10th spot. Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Matt Goss and company will have breathed a small sigh of relief at this.

Overall, it’s still early days, with just 6.4 out of 3,497km raced so far [that’s 0.2%, stat fans – Ed], and it would be foolhardy to read too much into today’s results. No one ever won the Tour de France in a prologue – most importantly today, nobody lost it either.

Look out for our stage one preview tomorrow morning. VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Tour de France official website

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Tour Hosts: Liege – haven’t we been here before?

Liege, in French-speaking Belgium, has the proud distinction of being the only city to have played host to all three of the Grand Tours. Fitting really, given the Belgian’s deep love and appreciation of the noble art of cycling.

In the post-war 1948 Tour de France, Liege hosted the finish of stage 19 and the start of the following day’s stage 20. The Metz into Liege stage was won by Gino Bartali, his seventh of this Tour, who went on to win the overall by a massive 26 minutes. Impressive given that on stage 13 he was in eighth place and nearly 20 minutes down on the leader. Bartali had taken part only at the specific behest of the Italian government in the hopes that his overall victory would quell civil unrest. It didn’t, but it did halt a national strike in Italy.

Liege made its second appearance as a staging town two years later in 1950. Stage two was won by Adolfo Leoni, better known as a Classics rider than a stage racer, who withdrew before the start of stage 12, along with all the other Italians, after French fans in the Pyrenees – sick with Italian domination of their beloved stage race – hurled sticks, stones and bottles at them. The withdrawal of the yellow jersey Fiorenzo Magni paved the way for the first of two consecutive Swiss wins – this edition belonged to Ferdi Kuebler.

Liege popped up again on stage two in the 50th anniversary Tour of 1953. It was won by Switzerland’s Fritz Schaer, who’d also taken stage one and went on to become the first ever winner of the points competition. The French were mollified as victory in that year’s Tour went to Louison Bobet, whom many felt should have won a Tour before then.

Andre Darrigade (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Andre Darrigade (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Three years later the Tour was back in Liege for the first stage, which was won by Andre Darrigade, the Tour’s star sprinter in the 1950s, who made a point of winning the first stage and, more importantly, the maillot jaune leader’s jersey – a feat he was to repeat an unequalled record-breaking five times. In all, he won 16 yellow jerseys and 22 stages. The overall was won by the relatively unknown and unfancied Roger Walkowiak. Critics panned his victory for its lack of panache.

In 1965 Liege hosted the finish of stage 1a in the morning, then the stage 1b team time-trial in the afternoon, and provided the start of the following day’s stage. Rik Van Looy, another noted Belgian Classics rider, won the first of these – only the Tour’s third start outside of France and its first in Germany. But the 1965 edition of the Tour was memorable for a couple of other reasons. In his rookie year, Italian Felice Gimondi, a last-minute replacement on the Salvarani team, captured the overall ahead of eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Gimondi would go on to become only one of five riders, along with Alberto Contador, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, who have won all three Grand Tours. It was also the first time a start ramp was used in time trials.

There followed a bit of a lull until the 1980 Tour, when Liege was once again the finish town for a sprint stage from Metz. The winner was Dutchman Henk Lubberding, enjoying what was to be his most successful year as a professional. The following day’s stage from Liege to Lille was the longest of that year’s Tour. After Bernard Hinault did a disappearing act in the Pyrenees, on account of his injured knee, race leadership was assumed and retained by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk who shares with George Hincapie the record for the most Tour starts (16). George is set to break that record today and make it his own.

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Laurent Fignon (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

The Tour returned to Liege again in 1989 after starting in Luxembourg, where it hosted the start of stage four to Warquehal. The flat stage was won by Dutchman Jelle Nijdam, who later also won stage 14. This edition of the Tour is best remembered for the epic battle between Greg LeMond and the late Laurent Fignon, with the latter losing by the smallest margin ever, eight seconds, on the final day in Paris in an individual time trial.

In the 1995 Tour, the undulating stage seven from Charleroi to Liege was won by Johan Bruyneel in what was to be Miguel Indurain’s fifth consecutive and final victory in the Tour. Indeed, he’d beaten the great man himself on that very stage having sat on his wheel for most of it, an experience he likened to riding behind a motorbike. Sadly on stage 15 Italian Fabio Casartelli died after a fall on the Col de Portet d’Aspet.

In 2004, Liege finally got to host Le Grand Départ. It was my first Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s sixth consecutive victory and, having overhauled Indurain, he was now firmly going down in history as the greatest Tour rider ever. The 6.1km prologue was won by Fabian Cancellara, then riding as Alessandro Petacchi’s lead-out man, in what was to be his break-out season. Here’s how he did it.

So who’s going to win this afternoon? Will it launch someone’s career as it did Cancellara’s back in 2004, will it be won by a sprinter intent on spending his day in the leader’s yellow jersey or will it be won by one of the GC contenders sending out a strong message to the rest? We’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of the route.