Hushovd, Goss, Gilbert the yellow jersey favourites in first stage
Norwegian Thor Hushovd and Matt Goss, of Australia, are among the favourites to take possession of the Tour de France yellow jersey today when the first of 21 stages opens the race.
Dispensing with the opening prologue which, in recent years, has opened the Tour and handed the lead to a time-trial specialist, organisers this year have opted to “shake up” the race in the first week.
That means there will be fewer flatter stages that are suited to bunch sprints.
Stage one, held over 191.5 km from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes, is flat for the first 120 km but from then on it starts to get more complicated.
It becomes rolling, and then a series of five roundabouts in the last 5km is likely to split the field, which will be reduced further on the way towards the steady climb towards the finish.
It is designed to reward a sprinter who can climb, or a climber who has a good finishing sprint, ruling out most but only a select few.
Reigning world champion Hushovd, of Garmin, HTC-Highroad sprinter Goss and Belgian classics specialist Philippe Gilbert are the main favourites.
“It’s a hard final, it’s a nice finish for a climber who’s still got some punch like Gilbert. But I’ll do my best to follow,” said Hushovd, who took his first win of 2011 – and first as world champion – two weeks ago at the Tour of Switzerland on a stage with a similar finish.
Goss, a sprinter who is also known for his climbing abilities, won the opening major classic of the season at Milan-SanRemo in March. His sporting director Allan Peiper said: “Stage one could suit him and even, if he’s close enough, the Mur de Bretagne (on stage four).”
Gilbert’s domination of the hilly Ardennes Classics earlier this season, winning the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege inside eight days, means he is the main threat. But Garmin team chief Jonathan Vaughters is hoping his squad keeps Hushovd in the mix in a final which rises 128 metres vertically in the final 3.6 km.
“It’s a hard climb, harder than most of us thought, because of the run-in,” Vaughters said.
“We’ve all seen how Philippe Gilbert’s been riding, and he’ll be the race (stage) favourite – but of course we’re going to do everything we can.”
Reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador is aiming to complete a rare double when he saddles up for the epic three-week race today.
Only seven riders in history have won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same year with Italian climbing specialist Marco Pantani the last to do so, in 1998.
Some riders have won the two biggest stage races on the calendar several times, with Belgian legend Eddy Merckx coming out on top doing the double three times.
F. Coppi (Italy): 1949, 1952.
J. Anquetil (France): 1964.
E. Merckx (Belgium): 1970, 1972, 1974.
B. Hinault (France): 1982, 1985.
S. Roche (Ireland): 1987.
M. Indurain (Spain): 1992, 1993.
M. Pantani (Italy): 1998.