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By John Wilcockson
“Die Tour Kommt!” (The Tour is coming!) is the message that has been plastered across billboards in the German city of Karlsruhe for the past several months. Expect most of the city’s 300,000 people to be at the roadside Friday afternoon, along with perhaps three times that number from neighboring cities in the heavily populated valley of the Rhine.
The last two times that a Tour de France stage finished in Germany (Saarbrücken in 2003 and Freiburg in 2000), crowd numbers were astronomical. They will be just as big on Friday when the final 40km of the stage are run on German roads, with the last 12km within Karlsruhe itself. Most of them will be packed along both sides of the 1.4km-long finishing straight, hoping that a German cyclist wins.
Unfortunately, the locals won’t have the absent Erik Zabel to cheer for. Instead, in the likely event of a mass finish, their only real candidate for victory is Robert Förster of Gerolsteiner. He will go into the stage with great morale because on Thursday he took the field sprint for third place in Nancy — but only after the major sprinters either crashed or were delayed (among scores of other riders) in the rain-induced pileup in the final kilometer.
Should Förster not come through (he has won only a single race this year, and that was in a four-man breakaway) then the German fans have to pray that a battler like Jens Voigt of CSC or Patrik Sinkewitz of Quick Step (who is joining T-Mobile next year) can be successful in a long breakaway.
After a start in the French town of Gérardmer — where the Tour will honor victims of Thursday’s London bombings with a minute of silence — the two short climbs in the first 75km may encourage some attacks. But the flat final half of this 228.5km stage virtually guarantees a bunch finish in Karlsruhe. That probably means a fourth round in the battle being waged between Robbie McEwen of Davitamon-Lotto and Tom Boonen of Quick Step; the Aussie now has the measure of his Belgian opponent and is the likely winner on Friday.
Temperatures are again forecast to be cool (mid-50s in the hills to mid-60s at the finish), but only scattered rain showers are expected. And everyone will be relieved that there are no sharp turns in the final kilometer.