Tour de France preview: Stage 1 preview

The day has finally arrived. The 98th edition of the Tour de France kicks off today, not with the traditional prologue but with a 191.5km road stage from the Passage du Gois to the top of Mont des Alouettes.

198 riders from 22 teams will take the official start at 11.20am UK time (1220 CET) and finish some time after 4pm (1700 CET), at the end of which we will know the identity of the first wearer of the yellow jersey.

The route for the day looks deceptively straightforward, but this is anything but the traditional flat stage ending in a bunch sprint which usually dominates the opening week of the Tour.

Stage 1 profile

For one thing, the site of the stage start is an unusual one. The Passage du Gois, in the Vendée region of west-central France, is a tidal causeway linking the Île de Noirmoutier to the mainland, and is submerged by the tide twice a day. On its debut Tour appearance in 1999 it was instrumental in launching Lance Armstrong to the first of his seven wins, when a mass pile-up caused by the slippery surface instigated a six-minute split in the peloton which prematurely ended the hopes of a number of the race favourites.

This year the causeway is included only in a ceremonial capacity as a reminder of its perilous nature, with the peloton traversing it before taking the official start on the mainland side. But there remains plenty for the riders to be wary of, as the first 70km of the route runs down the coastline and could force the peloton to ride in echelon formation – individual diagonal lines, as opposed to the standard arrowhead – to shelter from the crosswinds coming in off the sea.

It is an ideal situation for a break to slip away and could even see a more damaging split in the main peloton itself. Just such an instance occurred two years ago on the run-in to the finish at La Grande-Motte, where a 28-man group broke free with about 30km left causing several of the key contenders, including the Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans and eventual winner Alberto Contador, to lose 41 seconds on those ahead of them. A repeat is less likely this year, as the road turns permanently inland with around 120km to go, but any shifting winds as the road twists and turns will undoubtedly cause some nervous moments in the peloton. As a result, expect to see all the key players jostling for position near the front on this coastal section to avoid being caught out.

The remainder of the stage is lumpy – the highest point of the stage comes 17km from the end, a relatively modest uncategorised climb to just 257m – but should be relatively straightforward until the final few kilometres as the peloton focuses on reeling in the day’s breakaway. With the yellow jersey at stake, the odds of an escape surviving are as close to zero as makes no odds. Expect the pack to pace their pursuit to complete the catch with a little – but not too much – to spare. 10km from the finish would be just about right – far enough out to allow the teams to organise themselves for the finish, but close enough to discourage any serious counter-attacks.

The last 4km is all uphill

A fourth-category hill, the Mont des Alouettes is officially a 2.2km climb, although the road actually starts to rise from 4km out, with the designated ascent averaging 4.7% with a consistently steady slope. That won’t be enough to trouble any of the yellow jersey contenders, but it may well prevent the ‘pure’ sprinters such as Mark Cavendish and André Greipel from contesting the finish if the pace gets too high.

Watch for the teams of the more powerful sprinters or attack-minded puncheurs to do exactly that to try to eliminate Cavendish. Greipel’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team will focus on setting up Philippe Gilbert, Garmin-Cervélo will do the same for Thor Hushovd, and Europcar – whose sponsor is based in the Vendée – will try to launch Thomas Voeckler. If Edvald Boasson Hagen is fit enough to compete after his recent illness, Sky will be up there too.

The prize for the winner will be twofold: the glory of an individual stage win, and the first yellow jersey of this year’s race. Expect the competition in the closing kilometres to be suitably fierce as a result. Gilbert is an obvious tip for the stage, but he will be tightly marked and the final gradient may not be steep enough to allow him to shake off his rivals. Look instead for Voeckler to launch a solo attack in the last 1.5-2km on his ‘home’ turf and claim the yellow jersey which he held with distinction for ten days in 2004.

We’re off!

Live daily coverage of the Tour de France in the UK will be broadcast every afternoon by both ITV4 and British Eurosport. Check back here for daily race recaps and other Tour de France analysis over the next three weeks.

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

Links: Tour de France official

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