Stage 1 preview: Watch out for the sprinters!

If Mario Cipollini were riding this Tour de France -- as he and his Saeco team should have been -- he would be rubbing his hands with glee right now. He would have done well in Saturday’s prologue, as it was just the type of time trial he likes: enough turns to make use of his turn of speed, and long straightaways where a big rider like him could churn a big gear with great effect. Indeed, going into Sunday’s second stage, the Lion King would have been within a few seconds of race leader Christophe Moreau, and ready to take over the yellow jersey with a 20-second stage-win bonus. Cipollini

John Wilcockson, VeloNews Editorial Director in Dunkirk

If Mario Cipollini were riding this Tour de France — as he and his Saeco team should have been — he would be rubbing his hands with glee right now.

He would have done well in Saturday’s prologue, as it was just the type of time trial he likes: enough turns to make use of his turn of speed, and long straightaways where a big rider like him could churn a big gear with great effect. Indeed, going into Sunday’s second stage, the Lion King would have been within a few seconds of race leader Christophe Moreau, and ready to take over the yellow jersey with a 20-second stage-win bonus. Cipollini isn’t here, but there are three pretty useful sprinters sitting within 20 seconds of Festina’s Moreau: Australian Stuart O’Grady (13 seconds back); Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu of AG2R (at 15 seconds) and American George Hincapie of the U.S. Postal Service (at 19 seconds).

Hincapie of course will not be going for the yellow jersey; his job is to be Lance Armstrong’s guardian angel, particularly on a stage like Sunday’s. Or as Armstrong said after finishing third Sunday: “Every stage is dangerous.”

Kirsipuu has lost a little of his sprinting speed recently, but he will still be planning to pick up time bonuses at both the intermediate sprints (worth six, four and two seconds at each of the three daily sprints) and the stage end. Two years ago, this strategy earned him the yellow jersey for six days. As for O’Grady, he too has worn the Tour leader’s jersey (in 1998), and he is highly motivated to wear it again. Before the prologue, he said he would like to be within 10 seconds of the leader, or, at the worst, 20 seconds. He has his wish.

Sunday’s tricky stage should suit both O’Grady and Kirsipuu, rather than fellow sprinters Erik Zabel of Telekom (who is 45 seconds back), Tom Steels of Mapei-Quick Step (51 seconds back). But also in the finish mix could be fast finishers like world champion Romans Vainsteins of Domo-Farm Frites (at 36 seconds) and Alessandro Petacchi of Fassa Bortolo (at 37 seconds). With rain forecast and strong winds blowing from the English Channel, conditions will be demanding on Sunday. And along with the two Cat. 4 climbs that await the race in the final 40km of the 194.5km stage there are another half-dozen short hills to help split the field. The last of these hills crests less than a mile from the stage finish in Boulogne, and its steep 10-percent descent leads straight into a traffic circle and the final curving, kilometer.

Such a finish, especially in the rain, looks like a recipe for excitement: crashes maybe, late attacks certainly, and a dramatic sprint finish for sure. Cipollini won’t be there, so look for a rider like Vainsteins to be raising his arms in victory.

DETAILS OF STAGE 1: St. Omer to Boulogne-sur-Mer, 194.5km. Intermediate sprints at Burbure (10km), Montreuil-sur-Mer (91km) and Camiers (126.5km). Cat. 4 climbs at Desvres (155km) and Cap Gris-Nez (176.5km).