Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Armstrong no shoo-in at Saturday’s Tour prologue

A light rain was falling on the smooth tarmac and rough cobblestones of Luxembourg’s streets late Friday night, threatening to make Saturday evening’s prologue time trial of the 89th Tour de France even more challenging than expected. Not since 1995, when the Tour started in the French port city of St. Brieuc, has there been as difficult a prologue course. Straddling a deep river valley, the spectacular course contains more than 25 tricky turns, a mind-chilling downhill, and two climbs in the final third of its 7 kilometers. In the dry, it’s a course that could highlight the inherent power

Don't miss a moment from Paris-Roubaix and Unbound Gravel, to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and everything in between when you join Outside+.

By John Wilcockson

A light rain was falling on the smooth tarmac and rough cobblestones of Luxembourg’s streets late Friday night, threatening to make Saturday evening’s prologue time trial of the 89th Tour de France even more challenging than expected. Not since 1995, when the Tour started in the French port city of St. Brieuc, has there been as difficult a prologue course. Straddling a deep river valley, the spectacular course contains more than 25 tricky turns, a mind-chilling downhill, and two climbs in the final third of its 7 kilometers.

In the dry, it’s a course that could highlight the inherent power of defending champion Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal Service; but the American may well deem its potential dangers too great to warrant gleaning a few seconds from the opposition. In the wet, only a rider who knows that taking risks is his one chance of winning the prologue and wearing the Tour’s yellow jersey would race flat out. That’s what British star Chris Boardman attempted in a torrential downpour at the ’95 prologue — and slid into a guardrail at 40 mph, suffering a double fracture of hip and leg.

With a forecast for variable clouds, high humidity and temperatures in the mid-60s, the 189 starters may avoid such slick conditions, so the strongmen of the peloton should come out on top. The first rider, Frenchman Stéphane Augé of the Jean Delatour team, goes off at 4 p.m. local time (10 a.m. EDT), followed at one-minute intervals for the next three hours until Armstrong starts at 7:08 p.m. (1:08 p.m. EDT).

In the first hour, expect the standard to be set by Danish time trial champion Michael Sandstöd of CSC-Tiscali, Spanish veteran Abraham Olano of ONCE-Eroski, and American dark horses Bobby Julich of Telekom and Jonathan Vaughters of Crédit Agricole. Julich is on his best form since placing third at the 1998 Tour de France and said Friday night that he is excited by his prospects, now that none of the expected Telekom team leaders Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Alex Vinokourov has made it to the start line because of various injuries.

After one reconnaissance of the prologue course, Julich thought that the most difficult aspect of the race could be the two sections of Belgian bricks. “It’s hard to control a time-trial bike on the cobblestones,” he said.

Julich, who finished second on the final time-trial stage of the Tour of Switzerland 10 days ago, could well have the prologue lead until one of the starters in the second hour reaches the finish line in the highest part of Luxembourg City. That rider is Australian Brad McGee of the fdj.com team, who said Friday he would ride chainrings of 54 and 46 teeth — and be hoping to use the bigger ring the whole way. That may be difficult on the steep, switchback climb of the Rue de Prague, 2 kilometers before the finish.

In the third hour, most of the strongest riders will be starting. It will be interesting to see the performances of American Tour rookie Floyd Landis of U.S. Postal, French climber David Moncoutié of Cofidis and Swiss veteran Laurent Dufaux of Alessio, prior to the final wave of team leaders.

Going into the last half-hour, the competition will heat up with the start of CSC’s American Tyler Hamilton — racing for the first time since his second place at the Giro d’Italia in early June and unsure how he’ll perform on the shoulder he broke during the Giro.

Hamilton will be followed out of the start house by three more overall Tour favorites, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev of Cofidis, Colombian Santiago Botero of Kelme-Costa Blanca and Spaniard Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano of ONCE. In the following 10 minutes come four more possible prologue winners: Italian Dario Frigo of Tacconi Sport, Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Latvian Raimondas Rumsas of Lampre-Daikin and Belgian Rik Verbrugghe of Lotto-Adecco.

Then, 10 minutes before Armstrong, comes a second American Tour rookie, but unlike Landis a man who has bigger ambitions, Levi Leipheimer of Rabobank. Appearing to be calm and confident in the lead-up to the Tour, the Montana native may well cause an upset. But the thick crowds that will be lining the challenging figure-eight circuit will by now be craning their necks to see 2001 prologue winner Frenchman Christophe Moreau of Crédit Agricole; the first yellow jersey of the 2000 Tour, Brit David Millar of Cofidis; and the top Spanish hopes, Oscar Sevilla of Kelme and Joseba Beloki of ONCE.

That will leave just two riders to go, with last starter Armstrong fully expected to close his one-minute gap on German sprinter Erik Zabel of Telekom — who is taking the slot that had been reserved for Ullrich. Zabel is ready to begin his quest for a seventh consecutive green points jersey, while Armstrong should be close to retaining the yellow jersey that he will ride in on Saturday.