By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
Reigning champion Lance Armstrong will begin his bid for a seventh consecutive Tour de France crown on Saturday when he starts last off the ramp for the opening stage, a 19km time trial through western France.
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Armstrong, who begins his race at 18:48 local time (16:48 GMT), is among the favorites to pull on the race’s yellow jersey along with Italian Ivan Basso, Germany’s Jan Ullrich and Colombia’s Santiago Botero.
Organizers have made the opening stage more difficult, compared to the traditional prologues of around 6-8km in recent years, by tripling the distance.
Adding insult to injury for the 189 starters, a strong headwind is likely to make their efforts to reach the island of Noirmoutier in the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside resort of Fromentine even more difficult. It means the time gaps between the race’s main contenders, which would normally be only a few seconds, are likely to be more significant.
“For a start it doesn’t feel like a race of 19km. It’s point to point but the entire race is (into a) headwind,” said Armstrong, who will start the race one minute after his main rival, Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
“You have one bridge, five roundabouts, and then headwind. There could be some important time differences. We have to look at it as a difficult stage, not just a prologue.”
Basso, who has vastly improved his time-trialing ability ever since his efforts on the penultimate stage of the Tour last year left him in third place instead of second, also wants to keep the damage to a minimum.
“Tomorrow I’ll be going out to win also. I don’t know by how much, but I know I’m a lot faster than last year,” said Basso.
Other contenders to claim the first yellow jersey of the race include Swiss racer Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo), Australian Brad McGee (Française des Jeux) and Americans Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner).
The first racer off the ramp will be Frenchman Ludovic Turpin, who will begin at 15:40 local time (13:40 GMT).