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TDF 2010: Week #1 Up Close

Now that the first rush of Tour de France route presentation hysteria has passed, let’s take a slightly calmer, more methodical look at what we’ll find over three big weeks of racing in France next July. This will be a three-part series with one week going to each of the next three days. We’ll get it started with the traditionally wild and crazy Week 1.

In the opening seven days of racing of the 2010 Tour de France – covering the prologue in Rotterdam through to the Friday finish in Gueugnon, the riders will cover 1,191km across the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. Since the announcement of the race route, 13.2 of those kilometres have dominated discussions because they are some of the legendary cobbles covered each year in Paris-Roubaix.

While the other 99% of the route in that first week might not have the same potential impact on the GC contenders, there are plenty of other things to talk about in the Tour’s fifth Netherlands start and its subsequent passage through the other cycling hot zone of Belgium.

At present, the actual location of the start and finish points of some of the stages have not been finalized (or publicized) but here is what we do know so far:

8k Prologue: Rotterdam
Al stole the words right out of my mouth for this one: “Just like the 2009 La Vuelta a Espaсa the Tour will be starting in Holland with a short time trial – perfect to put a yellow jersey on the back of Fabian Cancellara.

Well, let’s face it and be honest about it: any time trial would put the jersey on Fabian Cancellara’s back. He’s the best time trialist on the planet, and when it comes to an opening day time trial, you better believe the win will go to him…and likely a long stint in Yellow as well.

Once again, as Gord notes, there will be no time bonuses in the Tour de France, so the Prologue could well see a rider, ahem, Fabian Cancellara, in Yellow until easily Stage 7. Gord sees it slightly different though: “even if Cavendish or Farrar are in blazing form and carving things up between tem, it makes the Yellow Jersey just a little more of a realistic ambition for the brave-hearted escapee.”

Conclusion: The ASO has a year to get that Yellow Jersey fit for Fabian Cancellara just right. Use that time wisely.

Stage 1: Rotterdam – Bruxelles, 224 km
Our own Matt Conn spent 3 seasons racing in Belgium, and knows these roads better than most. We tapped him for the local-man scoop on the opening stages.

The opening road stage takes in a long coastal loop from Rotterdam before heading down towards the Belgian city of Antwerp, where the race will pass through the city centre and then on to Mechelen and Meise on the outskirts of Brussels, which is the home of Eddy Merckx’s bike factory.

VeloClassic Tours paid a nice visit to Eddy Merckx during Holy Week. The race will most likely pass right by here next July.

The Tour’s passage through the town is in honour of the five times winner from Belgium, and in 2010 the Cannibal will also be celebrating his 65th birthday. The exact finish in Brussels is not known yet, with the famous Atomium (built for the world fair in 1958) and the Boudewijnstadion or King Boudewijn Stadium (which Liverpool and Juventus fans may remember by its former name of the Heysel Stadium) the two most likely possibilities.

Stage 2: Bruxelles – Spa, 192 km
The second road stage heads south from the Belgian capital to the town of Spa, which is a few kilometres south east of Liege. Expect the stage to be described as a mini “Liege-Bastogne-Liege” (like every stage in the Vuelta’s visit to the Low Countries this year seemingly was) and while it will not follow the exact finish route of the Belgian classic, it will include the climbs of the Stockeu (1.1km long with a section at 10.5%) and Rosier (4km long with sections at 5.9%), with the latter coming just over 10km from the finish.

Matt is right: the phrase ‘mini Liege-Bastogne-Liege’ is going to be used far too many times for my liking. Sure, the finale should be aggressive, but to think that anything might actually happen is a bit hopeful. But hey, it’s October, and I’m feeling hopeful. There is a history along this route though – the Tour did a stage quite similar back in 1995. The final cote in the 2010 edition will be the Rosier – climbing the descent of LBL – and according to the inimitable John Wilcockson, this could mean the use of a lesser known, stern climb: the Mont Theux.

Miguel Indurain made good use of the Ardennes in the 1995 Tour de France.

Miguel Indurain notched this climb into many a skull when he rode a certain Lance Armstrong right off his wheel and only Johan Bruyneel could follow. Bruyneel eventually took the stage win, but the precedent remains: the chances are unlikely of a shake-up in Stage 2, but it’s possible. Here’s to some GC rider pulling the improbable.

Stage 3: Wanze – Arenberg, 207 km
The 207km third stage stars in Wanze (close to Huy and its famous Mur) and with the finish town of Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, including the name of the most famous stretch of stones from Paris-Roubaix, you know that this is the place where it is all going to happen. Before the riders even leave Belgium, they will need to negotiate three small sections of pave (giving a total of two kilometres) before crossing the border for the main event. The brief asphalt run after the Belgian stones will give the peloton just enough time to get worked into a frenzy of making position.

The 2004 Tour got a little dose of cobbles, two sectors, and it mutilated the field – a group of 90 made it to the line together. What will happen in 2010 with FOUR sectors?

They’re not fooling around in Stage 3. The Tour de France will get a real kick in the ass courtesy of some ancient French rocks. The race will take in FOUR sectors of cobbles (yes, we’re in Paris-Roubaix territory now – we call em sectors around here) straight from the heart of Paris-Roubaix: Sector 14 Tilloy а Sars-et-Rosiиres, Sector 15 Warlaing а Brillon, Sector 16 Hornaing а Wandignies-Hamage, and finishing with Sector 18 Haveluy а Wallers. 11 kilometers of cobbles in 20 kilometers, four sectors in the final 27.5 kilometers, and the finish line is only 6.5k following the exit from the Haveluy punishment.

Sector 16 in Paris-Roubaix, Wandignies, sits quiet a few days before this year’s edition. It will serve as the penultimate sector of rocks in next July’s Stage 3.

There will be no need for race radios here as every single director will have said the same thing to every single rider: “Get up the front and stay out of trouble!”.

Sector 15, Warlaing, will be the second sector the GC favorites and the rest of the 200 rider field will encounter en route to the finish in Arenberg.

While avoiding crashes, picking a good line over the stones and not allowing the gaps to open are all important skills on the cobbles, the real dangers will come when nearly 200 riders are all trying to follow their team orders and move to the front on roads approaching the cobbles where there is only enough room for about 8 or ten men (max!) to ride shoulder to shoulder.

These roads and signs, completely left behind by time, see little to no traffic the entire year, but 2010 will give them an extra day of life in July.

That night, with only four days covered, there will be a very different look to the Tour de France. It would take a very brave person to place money on the fact that all of the pre-race GC contenders will still be in contention for the overalll title (or even still in the race!) when the Tour rolls out of Cambrai on Wednesday morning. Forget the first mountain stage or first rest day. For more than a few teams, July 7 will be the start of a very different looking stage to their 2010 Tour de France.

Scott Sunderland showed us the cobbles in April – but he won’t be riding them next July! Team Sky will be hoping for big things from Boasson Hagen on this stage.

There are a number of ways to look at the fantastic chaos that will be Stage 3. You can see it like Gord, Marc Madiot, Al, and I do and say: damn right include the cobbles. Gord notes, “FdJ chief and former Paris-Roubaix winner Marc Madiot has a point: if the Tour is about the best rider winning in all terrains, make them race on all terrains. Who knows, maybe Contador and Schleck will develop a newfound love for the stones and go to race Paris-Roubaix in 2011?” I agree wholeheartedly with Al – it’s just going to be fun to relive the Hell of the North, except this time with little people characters with huge ambitions 17 stages down the line.

That brings me to our able-bodied leader, Pez. His take on Stage 3? Not too much love. He makes the valid point that, “Those sections of cobbles will be fun to watch, not so much to ride. Remember Iban Mayo crashing and then mentally self-destructing after a crash on the cobbles in the 2004 edition? ”

You bet I remember Iban Mayo coming to grief in 2004.

“That provided some short term sidelines on the newsfeeds, but the race would have been better with him to challenge in the mountains. So why add stages of such spectacle when they negatively affect the racing? Wouldn’t it be fun to sit in on those ASO meetings when they pick the routes? The rationale must be mind-boggling.

But hey, it’s the Tour. Sure, I’ll have another glass of that Kool-Aid.” (In the background you can hear whispers of beautiful Giro, beautiful Italy, Grappa, Negroni, oh my!)

The mad rush to the tiny cobbled stretches of rocky hell will be pure theater. No need to wonder why it’s included in the Tour: spectacle, panache, long live Le Tour…right?

As a final note on this intriguing stage: let’s not forget the weather. If the weather’s fine and dry, we’ll be looking at dust cloud drama on the horizon as the race approaches, but if it’s wet … there’s going to be a hell of a scramble as the QuickStep, Columbia, and SaxoBank boys all trying to rip things up with The Shack and Astana poking each other’s eyes out. Brilliant entertainment either way.

Stages 4,5, and 6:
Yep, nothing much to keep things interesting anymore. Gone is the first day thrill, gone are the foreign countries, gone are the cobbles – all that’s left are three stages built for the fastmen. They’ll need to take advantage of every opportunity they can get, because from Stage 7 onward, their chances vastly deteriorate.

For the sprinters with eyes and goals set on the Green Jersey, the Tour will be all about the first week of bunch sprints, then maintaining through the rest of the Tour and getting some intermediate sprints if possible…and trying not to get time cut.

Mark Cavendish will be a year older, wiser, and stronger in 2010. That should make a lot of people nervous.

Al’s take is characteristically pragmatic when it comes to these opening, flat stages: Low points? Probably the tediously long stages from Epernay to Montargis to Gueugnon. Staying awake till the bunch finish (won by Cavendish) will be a tough job.

For the favorites, this will be a time of licking whatever wounds they might have picked up in BeNe and doing their best to avoid anything else. For the sprinters’ teams, it will be all about keeping the aggressors in check to set up their men – and by sprinters’ teams, I mean sprinter’s team: Columbia. Columbia will have a long, lonely furrow to plow during that opening week. No one wants to help the imperial Mark Cavendish to the line.

Pez Sez: I experience this same feeling every year, yet I’m still amazed that the ASO gets so excited about a bunch of pan flat stages that reduce multiple days of 5-6 hours of bike racing to the final km. And with Cav’s current dominance in the sprinting arena, even these few kms of excitement have been annulled. (No slight intended to the world’s second fastest sprinters.)

Here’s Pez doing his best to look “Parisiene” at the 1990 Tour. It pretty much sums up his feelings about week 1.

It is true, if it were any other race, we’d cry in pain at the thought of the opening week of doldrums, but is le Tour! For some reason, we’re able to put aside our topographical prejudices just one time every year to accommodate the Tour de France. The Tour has a special magical power of making even the most boring of first week flat stages entertaining. I can’t say the same for the third week transition stages, but that first week gets a special gift straight from the Heavens: our patience and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately for the riders, the same doesn’t work as well for them. The enthusiasm that the riders feel results in hella hard, scary, aggressive bike racing – and when that aggressive energy is focused on 11 kilometers of 5 foot wide cobblestones? Oooohweeeee. We’re going to be in for quite a show.

Thanks to Matt Conn for his excellent route previews over the first few stages. Matt is our resident expert on all things cobbled – he spent 3 seasons racing in Belgium. Thanks as well to Al, Gord, and the Pez for their takes on Week 1!

Questions? Comments? Happy? Sad? Send me an email.

There’s always the trusty JeredGruber.com if you ever get really bored.

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