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By John Wilcockson
Judging by the results of Saturday’s prologue time trial, this centennial Tour de France is going to be full of surprises. And a race of surprises is a race of excitement. That should be the case on Sunday, when half-a-dozen sprinters have a great chance of taking over the yellow jersey from prologue winner Brad McGee.
With time bonuses of 20, 12 and eight seconds at the Stage 1 finish in Meaux, and six, four and two seconds on offer at the day’s three intermediate sprints, the stage winner could pick up a minimum of 20 seconds and a maximum of 38 seconds.
The chief candidates to take the top bonuses all finished within 20 seconds of McGee on Saturday: Crédit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd (at 13 seconds); Gerolsteiner’s Olaf Pollack (17 seconds); Rabobank’s Oscar Freire and Jean Delatour’s Jean-Patrick Nazon (both 18 seconds); AG2R’s Jaan Kirsipuu (19 seconds); and McGee’s fdjeux.com teammate Baden Cooke (20 seconds).
In with a lesser chance of taking the race lead are Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini (at 21 seconds), Crédit Agricole’s Stuart O’Grady (22 seconds) and Vini Caldirola’s Romans Vainsteins (24 seconds), while the sprinters that don’t have as strong a chance are Vini Caldirola’s Fred Rodriguez (25 seconds), Lotto-Domo’s Robbie McEwen (32 seconds) and Telekom’s Erik Zabel (34 seconds).
With so many sprinters in contention after the closest prologue finish in more than 10 years, Sunday’s relatively short stage is certain to end in a field sprint. It will also be very fast, especially with the intermediate sprints being evenly spaced through the stage — at 19km, on a short climb out of the riverside town of Corbeil-Essonnes; at 72km, on a flat road just after the town of Fontainebleau; and at 132.5km, on a slight uphill in the village of Mauperthuis.
This last intermediate sprint comes just 35.5km from the finish in Meaux, which will ensure one of the fastest finales imaginable. In fact, the average speed on the Montgeron-Meaux could break the Tour de France road stage record of 50.355 kph set by Mario Cipollini in 1999. And given the nature of the last 6km, the speed could lead to a number of crashes.
From a plateau at 550 feet elevation, the course drops on a twisting downhill to the valley of the Marne at 250 feet, and then turns sharp right after crossing the river 2.4km from the line. There’s a short ramp up as the final kilometer begins, with a tricky, curving right and left swing between 500 meters and 300 meters of the finish.
It’s a finish that most suits McEwen, being similar, if not quite as dangerous as the finish that gave the Australian the second of his two stage wins at this year’s Giro d’Italia. McEwen’s closest rival in the sprint is likely to be Cooke, who has a daredevil reputation and great form, after winning a stage of the recent Tour of Switzerland.
If either of these two Aussies takes the win, along with a few extra bonus seconds from the intermediate sprints, one of them would almost certainly take the yellow jersey. We couldn’t have a more appropriate start to a race than to have riders from a new generation and from a faraway land kicking off the Tour’s second century.