As two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador told The Independent, “if you could pick one Tour de France to win of all of them, this would probably be it” – and there can be no doubt that the 100th edition of this race has a special feel to it.
Rather than the usual sedate sight of riders rolling down a prologue time trial ramp, one after another, to get the race under way, the centenary Tour will turn back the clock today when it kicks off with a mass-start stage with a flat finish for the first time since 1966.
That, combined with Corsica’s narrow, twisting, undulating roads – the only French département the Tour has never previously visited – will guarantee that today’s racing is fast and furious, and liable to be fraught with crashes too. “We can’t just rely on there being a bunch sprint,” Mark Cavendish’s team manager, Wilfried Peeters, said – although Cavendish is today’s clear favourite to don the maillot jaune. “We will have to plan for all sorts of scenarios.”
On Tuesday, in a team time trial in Nice, the intentionally muddy waters of three intense days’ racing in Corsica will begin to clear and some sort of pecking order will be established. But the first major sort-out will not come until stage eight’s ascent of Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees. It may not be until the 33km (21-mile) time trial on stage 11 in Normandy that the first clear leader emerges.
As the organisers’ deliberate attempt to prolong the tension continues, the real high points of the Tour then arrive, starting with Mont Ventoux, France’s single most difficult climb, on stage 15 and continuing with an unprecedented double ascent of its most infamous Alpine col, the Alpe d’Huez, three stages later.
In total, there are five days of high mountain racing in the last week and a bit, which will give ample opportunity for the climbers to challenge the time triallists and will mean the Tour’s outcome is likely to remain uncertain – as was not the case last year thanks to Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sky’s stranglehold on the race.
The way the final curtain on the Tour’s 100th edition is to fall is also unique, with the traditional finale on the Champs-Elysées delayed from its usual early evening slot until 9pm and the riders circling, unusually, the Arc de Triomphe as part of their final victory lap. The last moments of the Tour’s victory ceremony, therefore, will be held in the dark.
So far, so different, but the Tour could barely get under way without some kind of echo of the doping scandals that form its perennial plague. And on this occasion it came from Lance Armstrong claiming that it would have been impossible for him to win the Tour seven times without using banned drugs.
“We are practising a much healthier sport and there is almost no doping,” France’s young outsider for a top placing, 23-year-old Thibaut Pinot – 10th last year – told Le Figaro yesterday, “which makes it easier to win.
“There was a long period during which Armstrong lied to us and I want to forget it. Today, our aim is not to disappoint, after those stolen years, to create a real history of the Tour."