By Andrew Hood
So much for all of those pre-scripted prognostications about the 2003 Tour de France. If Saturday’s surprising and exciting opening prologue is any indication, maybe Lance Armstrong’s comment that “anybody can win the Tour” might prove true.
Australian Brad McGee (Fdjeux.com) survived a late-race puncture to take the 2003 Tour’s first yellow jersey by less than a tenth of a second ahead of hard-luck rider David Millar (Cofidis).
Tens of thousands of fans lined the 6.5km course as it started under the Eiffel Tower, hit a short, steep climb after crossing the River Seine and then wound past one historical landmark after another in the heart of downtown Paris.
It was a thrilling start to the centenary Tour.
Four-time defending champion Armstrong came to Paris as the hands-down favorite to join the Tour’s five-win club, but Saturday’s Tour kickoff proved that in cycling, nothing can be ever taken for granted.
No need to panic
Armstrong perhaps revealed some chinks in his armor, finishing an uncharacteristic seventh place in what turned out to be the Tour’s third-fastest prologue in history (52.466 kph).
“I feel a little disappointed. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel great,” said Armstrong, who was hustled away from the finish line. “It was a hard course. The cobbles made it difficult. It felt like you were suffering the whole time.”
Since his dramatic comeback from cancer, Armstrong has won two opening prologues, and he’s never finished worse than third in his four consecutive Tour victories.
I feel a little disappointed. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel great.
But Armstrong chose not to preview the partially cobblestoned course, instead opting to ride in a U.S. Postal Service team car behind teammate Victor Hugo Peña.
“It’s my fault I didn’t come to Paris yesterday to ride the course, but that was my decision,” said Armstrong, whose meticulous preparation has been one of the benchmarks to his domination of the Tour.
Armstrong started the prologue wearing the maillot jaune at the insistence of Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc. On Thursday, Armstrong had said he once again would buck Tour tradition and start in U.S Postal Service kit because he wanted to earn the yellow jersey. But Leblanc called Armstrong on Friday and asked him to wear the jersey.
Right off the bat, Armstrong had trouble finding his tempo and was nine seconds behind Millar at the halfway mark. Armstrong lost another two seconds to eventual winner McGee on the final half of the course.
“I probably started too slow, and I was already two-three-four seconds behind in the first kilometer,” he said.
Losing seven seconds to a prologue specialist such as the Australian McGee is not cause for major concern, insisted Armstrong’s longtime coach and trainer, Chris Carmichael. After all, Armstrong’s Tour-winning margins have never been under six minutes.
“There is no panic whatsoever,” Carmichael said. “Losing time is never insignificant, but I am less worried about Armstrong reacting badly about this. The race is under way, and maybe we’ll look back and say we wish we had seven seconds, but I doubt it. A slow start to the key section of the course was the mistake.”
Postal rode well, erasing any doubt as to whether the team is up to the task of helping Armstrong once the real racing begins. Four Postal riders finished in the top 15 – Victor Hugo Peña posted the fifth-fastest time, the always-reliable Viatcheslav Ekimov came in 10th, and George Hincapie posted the fastest early time and hung on to finish 13th at 11 seconds slower.
Millar’s bad luck is McGee’s gain
Cofidis rider Millar has to be one of the cursed riders in modern-day cycling. If he’s not getting run over by cars in the Vuelta a España, he’s crashing out of the prologue in the Four Days of Dunkirk.
Today, Millar seemed to have the prologue in the bag. The Scot was ripping the course, a solid five seconds ahead of McGee at the halfway point, when disaster struck once again – this time, in the final kilometer.
His chain slipped off its chain ring, and Millar had to reach down and pop it back into place. Luckily, he didn’t have to stop or change bikes, but it was enough to cost Millar the victory.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Millar, winner of the 2000 Tour prologue. “My chain popped off and there was nothing I could do.”
He and McGee finished in nearly the same time, but McGee was .08 second faster, good enough to become just the third Australian to wear the maillot jaune and the first to win a Tour opening prologue.
McGee, too, had a spot of bad luck in the final stretch. The 27-year-old punctured just meters from crossing the tape, but had enough to edge Millar.
“When I saw that this prologue was six kilometers long, with some cobbles, largely flat, I knew it was a perfect opportunity for me to win the maillot jaune,” said McGee, who won a time trial in this year’s Tour de Suisse.
“My heart goes out to David. He’s a good mate of mine,” McGee added. “I’ll have to buy him a beer at the end of this Tour.”
Hamilton among strong rides
Millar and McGee weren’t the only riders with the same mark. Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) and the resurgent Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) finished at third and fourth, respectively, at two seconds slower while Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton tied with Postal’s Peña at six seconds slower.
Unlike Armstrong, Hamilton rode the prologue course, and more than once. He didn’t want to make any mistakes, as he did in last year’s Giro d’Italia, where he crashed in the prologue.
“I went all out,” said Hamilton. “I rode the course six times, so I knew it well, but I did brake in the last corner. I probably didn’t have to, but I’d rather lose a second or two than risk crashing.”
Hamilton called the short but fast cobblestone-covered course “hard” and said he was relieved that the 90th Tour is under way.
“It’s nice to get it started,” said Hamilton, who wanted to finish in the top 10. “I’m happy we’ve started. It’s great to start in Paris, but I try to focus on the task at hand. Racing in the Tour is like the Super Bowl, but I try to treat it like another race.”
Ullrich’s strong ride revealed that the 1997 Tour winner is in top form in his Tour comeback, after missing much of the 2002 season with two knee surgeries and a racing ban after testing positive for the party drug ecstasy.
ONCE’s Joseba Beloki was solid at eighth at just two seconds slower than Armstrong, while Rabobank’s Levi Leipheimer rode a good race to finish safely in 12th, 11 seconds slower than McGee.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Gilberto Simoni, who said he rode the best prologue of his life to finish a respectable 21st at 13 seconds off McGee’s time, just six seconds off Armstrong’s pace.
“I’m surprised because this is Lance’s specialty. I will wait to see him in the normal stages to see if it’s just one day or if it’s something else,” Simoni said. “I’m happy. It’s the best prologue of my career.”
Simoni enters the Tour fresh off his impressive victory at the 2003 Giro d’Italia and has openly challenged Armstrong in the fight for the overall.
Sprinters take over
The Tour begins in earnest Sunday with the 104-mile first stage from Saint Denis to Meaux. Riders will roll slowly for 17 miles from Saint Denis, site of the 1998 soccer World Cup, to Montgeron and the Le Reveil Matin bar and restaurant that was the starting point of the first Tour in 1903.
The real racing begins there, and the course then heads south before looping around north of Paris. There are three minor climbs in the rolling stage, and the sprinters will be looking for their chance to shine.
McGee said his Fdjeux.com team will be anxious to defend the jersey.
“To have the maillot jaune is a dream, and I think we’ll defend the jersey. We’re a French team in the Tour,” he said.
If Fdjeux keeps the lid on things, expect a handful of sprinters to start throwing elbows coming into Meaux. Credit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd, a winner of a 2002 Tour stage, was the top sprinter ,coming in at 18th at just 13 seconds back, perhaps opening the door to grab the yellow jersey based on time bonuses.
But if Saturday’s opener is any indication, this Tour likely won’t be going according to script for very long.