By John Wilcockson
Heavy rain blew in from the English Channel overnight, and the 189 starters in Saturday’s prologue will likely have a damp opening to this 88th Tour de France. A wet course for the 8.2km prologue will certainly put caution at the top of everyone’s mind, particularly race favorite Lance Armstrong, who will be happy to concede a few seconds of overall time in exchange for a safe ride.
The Dunkirk course has one short stretch of cobblestones, on a chicane outside the medieval-style city hall, just 1.6km into the race. There’s another chicane as the course turns onto the seafront for the final 1.8km, and here the riders will feel the full effect of a strong west wind, which will be in their faces, blowing off the Channel to their right.
Local forecasters are saying that the weather could clear by the end of the day -– Armstrong starts at 7:08 p.m. -– but don’t bet on it. However, on Friday night a heavy shower blew through just before the televised presentation of the 21 teams, and a pale sunshine pierced the humid evening air as the teams took their turns riding slowly across a floating pontoon.
Some 10,000 fans flanked one of Dunkirk’s yacht basins, reserving their biggest cheers for French hero Laurent Jalabert and popular German star Jan Ullrich. Another receiving a warm reception was local rider Laurent Desbiens – who wore the Tour yellow jersey for two days in 1998. Ironically, Desbiens is the only rider from the North region out of the 51 French riders here, and despite there being a record eight French teams, Desbiens now rides for Kelme-Costa Blanca of Spain.
Costa Blanca is a co-sponsor of Kelme to promote its sunny southeast “White Coast” tourist region of Spain, while the Dunkirk organizers have spent some $1.5 million to host the opening three days of the Tour de France, in the hopes of publicizing its Côte d’Opale (the “Opal Coast”). But the weather is certainly not cooperating. More rain is in the forecast for Sunday’s hilly looping stage 1 from St. Omer to Boulogne, and Monday’s stage 2 from Calais to Antwerp, Belgium.
Given the bad weather, and the incentive of going home in the yellow jersey, the Lotto-Adecco team’s Rik Verbrugghe will do everything he can to win the prologue –- as he did at the Giro d’Italia. Unlike Armstrong, the Belgian will very happy to risk crashing in search of a few extra seconds, or tenths of a second.
Tune in later to our up-to-the-minute reports of the prologue.