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By John Wilcockson
Lance Armstrong is the odds-on favorite to take a fifth Tour de France, but he’s not expected to win Saturday’s opening time trial. He did win the prologue last year and in 1999, but both of those stages were on hilly courses that suited the Texan’s power-based strengths. That won’t be the case in Paris, where most of the 6.5km course is on long, straight, flat city streets. The only hill is just half-a-kilometer long, and comes right at the start.
Armstrong will be trying to win, of course. He knows that even more than being a race between specialists, the prologue is a battle of prestige between the overall race favorites — and the fastest of the favorites can deal a solid psychological blow to his rivals. Recent history confirms that view.
Looking at the four Tours Armstrong has won, here is how the eventual podium finishers each year performed in the opening time trial:
1999 (Puy-du-Fou): 1. Armstrong; 2. Zülle; 107. Escartin
2000 (Futuroscope): 2. Armstrong; 4. Ullrich; 12. Beloki
2001 (Dunkirk): 3. Armstrong; 4.Ullrich; 7. Beloki
2002 (Luxembourg): 1. Armstrong; 3. Rumsas; 9. BelokiAs can be seen, Armstrong was the best of the favorites each time, while the only podium finisher not do well in the prologue was the Spanish climber Fernando Escartin in 1999. Escartin wasn’t discouraged by his poor time trial because he knew that the only way he would challenge the top favorites was in his terrain: the mountains.
Like Escartin, the 2003 Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni knows he won’t be close to Armstrong in the prologue — but he will be hoping to be closer than the 51 seconds that Escartin conceded to the Texan in 1999. For the Italian climber, the prologue will give him a first assessment of his ability to be a contender at the Tour.
It has been five weeks since Simoni won the Giro for a second time, and but for an easy victory in a time trial up the Mottarone mountain in the Italian Lake District, he barely raced in June. But he has been totally focused on the Tour, and preparing himself to challenge Armstrong. He told the French newspaper L’Équipe on Friday: “I won the Giro and I know that few riders have gone on to win the Tour. But I’ve already said that I believe in the impossible.”
If Simoni should lose less than 30 seconds to Armstrong in the prologue he can feel satisfied. If it’s less than 20 seconds, then he’ll know that he’s ahead of target — and that could be a huge psychological boost for the Italian.
So, if Armstrong doesn’t win on Saturday, who will? The 6.5km course is perfectly suited to riders like Santiago Botero, David Millar, Brad McGee, Michael Rogers, Philippe Gaumont and Rik Verbrugghe — all of whom have a background in track racing. Others to look for are the GC contenders Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer, Iban Mayo and Aitor Gonzalez; the time-trial specialists Uwe Peschel, Michael Rich and Laszlo Bodrogi; and the sprinters Thor Hushovd, Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen, all of whom want to be in range of taking the yellow jersey in next week’s flat stages.
The 6.5km long course starts at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, crosses the Seine River and immediately climbs a 500-meter-long cobblestone hill to the Place du Costa Rica (0.7km), before making the tightest turn on the course, to double back around the Chaillot Palace through the Place du Trocadéro (1.2km). It then drops back to the riverside at the Place de l’Alma (2.3km), and continues parallel to the river via the Cours la Reine (3.3km, where time checks will be taken) as far as the Place de la Concorde (3.6km). The course then re-crosses the river and heads back on the Left Bank via the Quai d’Orsay to the place de la Résistance (5.1km), before heading south to the finish at the imposing École Militaire (6.5km) on the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet — across the Champ de Mars Park from the Eiffel Tower.
This is the first time that the Tour has started in the French capital since the 50th edition in 1963, and the first time that a prologue has been staged here. The only similar stage was in 1976, on the final day prior to the traditional circuit race around the Champs-Élysées. That 6km time trial was the won by the Belgian Freddy Maertens, who beat runner-up Joop Zoetemelk by 11 seconds.
The time gaps will be much closer on Saturday. Eleven seconds will probably cover the first 10 finishers. Australia’s reigning world pursuit champion McGee of fdjeux.com is the likely winner, although he will be pushed to the limit by his fellow Aussie Rogers of Quick Step-Davitamon, Britain’s Millar of Cofidis, Germany’s Peschel of Gerolsteiner … and Armstrong of U.S. Postal-Berry Floor.
Here are the start times of the principal favorites along with the Americans and Commonwealth riders (Paris time):
3:57 p.m. Nick Gates (Aus)
4:05 p.m. Philippe Gaumont (F)
4:33 p.m. George Hincapie (USA)
4:55 p.m. Floyd Landis (USA)
4:58 p.m. Michael Rich (G)
5:30 p.m. Robbie Hunter (SA)
5:28 p.m. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun)
5:47 p.m. Robbie McEwen (Aus)
5:49 p.m. Thor Hushovd (N)
5:52 p.m. Matt Wilson (Aus)
6:07 p.m. Fred Rodriguez (USA)
6:12 p.m. Michael Rogers (Aus)
6:14 p.m. Baden Cooke (Aus)
6:26 p.m. Uwe Peschel (G)
6:33 p.m. Stuart O’Grady (Aus)
6:37 p.m. Aitor Gonzalez (Sp)
6:50 p.m. Iban Mayo (Sp)
6:53 p.m. Rik Verbrugghe (B)
6:54 p.m. Jan Ullrich (G)
6:55 p.m. Christophe Moreau (F)
6:58 p.m. Brad McGee (Aus)
7:00 p.m. Tyler Hamilton (USA)
7:01 p.m. David Millar (GB)
7:02 p.m. Gilberto Simoni (I)
7:03 p.m. Levi Leipheimer (USA)
7:05 p.m. Santiago Botero (Col)
7:06 p.m. Joseba Beloki (Sp)
7:07 p.m. Lance Armstrong (USA)