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The Lion King: Can he still rule the pride?

Former Italian sprint king Mario Cipollini will be one of the big names expected to get into the sprint action when the first stage of the Tour de France (July 3-25) gets under way here on Sunday. However, the 37-year-old admits that his long-anticipated roar back to the front line could be kept in check by a number of heirs apparent. Following Saturday's 6.1km prologue around Liege, the peloton faces a testing 202.5km ride across mainly flat terrain from Liège to Charleroi that will give the sprinters their first chance to start bumping elbows. Flamboyant veteran Cipollini, the “Lion

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By Agence France Presse

Former Italian sprint king Mario Cipollini will be one of the big names expected to get into the sprint action when the first stage of the Tour de France (July 3-25) gets under way here on Sunday.

However, the 37-year-old admits that his long-anticipated roar back to the front line could be kept in check by a number of heirs apparent.

Following Saturday’s 6.1km prologue around Liege, the peloton faces a testing 202.5km ride across mainly flat terrain from Liège to Charleroi that will give the sprinters their first chance to start bumping elbows.

Flamboyant veteran Cipollini, the “Lion King” who has 12 stage wins but has never finished the race, begins his first Tour in five years hoping to rekindle some of the sprint magic that has become the basis for his hugely successful career.

But the Italian, who last competed here in 1999, admits he is likely to find the going tough against a quality field that includes his new heir apparent, Alessandro Petacchi, Australians Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen, along with Germany’s Erik Zabel and new boy Tom Boonen of Belgium.

“Honestly, I’m so happy to be back on the race. It’s a very special atmosphere,” said Cipollini as he addressed waiting journalists. “I’m not hiding the fact that I’ve missed not being here. I’m feeling very moved to see people I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Putting his emotions to one side, Cipollini said that while the competition was harder on the Tour, it made winning a stage all the more prestigious, especially if it were to come against Fassa Bortolo’s super sprinter Petacchi, who has stolen the spotlight from Cipo’ in the past two years.

“The competition on the Tour de France is definitely of a better quality,” said Cipollini. “Personally, I’m looking forward to finally battling with Petacchi. “Until now, that hasn’t really been all that possible.

“But obviously it’s not just him I’ll have to worry about. “Boonen is impressive, but it will be interesting to see how he approaches the race on his debut. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just all about speed. Experience is a huge factor here. That’s exactly why I think Zabel could spring a few surprises; he’s not to be counted out.”

With Cipo’ and Zabel spearheading the sprinters’ old guard, Quick Step’s Boonen could provide Petacchi – who this year set a modern day record with nine stage wins on the Giro d’Italia – with his biggest challenge.

The 23-year-old has had a great season so far, claiming 13 victories including the GP de L’Escaut, the Ghent-Wevelgem classic and two stages in the Tour of Germany.

More importantly, Boonen has beaten all of the big-name sprinters, except two – Petacchi and Cipollini, although he has yet to race against Petacchi this year.

“Last year I was just happy to sit on the wheel of McEwen or Zabel,” he said. “But beating Petacchi can’t be impossible, and I’m certainly not getting obsessed about it.” —Agence France Presse