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With scattered thunderstorms, a 40-percent chance of rain and a brisk north wind in the forecast for Rotterdam Saturday, the 97th Tour de France could open with some major surprises. But even if the conditions remain the same for all 198 starters the 8.9km prologue around the wide streets of this Dutch city could be decided early.
Teams have been concerned that rain could develop and make the course treacherous after 7 p.m. local time, when pre-race favorites Alberto Contador (Astana), Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo), Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) take to the start house. With a risk of changing conditions, some of the cannier team directors have chosen to start their leaders (or best time trialists) in the first hour of the stage.
Among these very early starters are several potential prologue winners, including Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Edvald Boasson Hagen and Brad Wiggins (both Team Sky), and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana). Also starting in this first wave are the Americans Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie (both Garmin-Transitions) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).
Because of this early/late divide between the strongest riders, early starters Bookwalter, Martin, Leipheimer and Vinokourov will be able to give valuable information on the course to their respective leaders Evans, Rogers, Armstrong and Contador. Flat prologues like this one are usually decided by split seconds, so any tiny tips on lines to take through corners or which gears to use in the crosswinds can make a big difference.
The axe-shaped course is not one that suits defending champion Contador. Riders will fight head winds for the opening 3km, which includes the 60-foot “climb” over the Erasmus Bridge that crosses the Maas River in the center of Rotterdam. Then comes the trickiest part of the circuit, with eight turns in 2km and a short steep little climb over a second bridge. The final 3km back to the finish outside the Ahoy stadium and expo center will be fast and flat.
The main favorite to win, of course, is the world and Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), who starts between Armstrong and Contador right at the end of the day. With a risk of stronger winds and rain, the big Swiss may not be able to repeat his opening Tour TT wins in Monaco (2009), London (2007) and Liège (2004). He did win the prologue at last month’s Tour of Switzerland over Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) and Martin, but rain affected the event, with men like Armstrong reluctant to risk crashing on a dicey descent.
There are no such dangers Sunday, when we may see the best Armstrong, even if he is 38, who could once challenge the likes of Cancellara in a flat prologue, but more important is how the overall contenders fare. Historically, the pre-race favorite who does best in the opening TT comes out on top three weeks later, so even though there will be only seconds in it, the prologue counts for much more than bragging rights.
And this is just the first barrage in what look like being an exciting, tension-filled 23 days.