By Bryan JewVeloNews Senior Writer
Lance Armstrong and Roberto Heras arrived on scene in a special Postal team car, rear windows tinted black, and the two stars were quickly ushered out, past the crowds, and into the Postal team bus parked at the prologue start in Dunkirk. A classic, rock-star arrival. Meanwhile, just a few meters away, Fassa Bortolo’s former world No. 1 rider, Francesco Casagrande, would later warm up for the race practically unnoticed, just one young fan poised against the Italian outfit’s taped-off team area. That was all just part of the curious scene in front of the Piscine Municipale Paul Asseman, the municipal swimming pool in Dunkirk.
The prologue is unlike any other day in the Tour. The race sets the early tone of the Tour, yet at the same time, the results are usually fairly meaningless in the grand scheme of the three-week event. The race prologue itself looks like any other time trial stage, with huge crowds lining the streets and a parade of aerodynamic technology whizzing by, but back at the Piscine parking lot, things are quite different.
The race itself is less than 10 minutes long, yet teams and riders are there on site for hours. Most riders will spend almost an hour warming up for the short sprint. Aside from that, they hang out in the team camper or bus, talk to visitors or the media, and then look for the first ride back to the hotel once their turn is up.
As usual, the biggest crowds are assembled around the Postal and Telekom camps. But aside from that, some big names warm up in virtual anonymity. Casagrande, Christophe Moreau, Joseba Beloki — all draw only a trickle of spectators, compared with the flood that crushes around to be near Armstrong or Ullrich.
When they’ve finished, after their 10 minutes of actual competition, the riders are shuttled back to their hotels, where they’ve likely been staying for the past three days straight, another rarity during the Tour.
For most, it’s just a casual walk from the team bus into the next team car going home. For Armstrong? Negotiating the gauntlet of fans and media pressing up against his bodyguards, giving a few brief quotes, and then being whisked away in the team car. Well, at least some things won’t change as the race goes on.