AFTER playing away for the past five seasons, Chris Boardman is set to enjoy home advantage in the Prutour round Britain race, which starts in Stirling today.
Boardman, who rides for the French Gan team, plies his trade throughout continental Europe, but rarely in Britain. His last stage race appearance on home roads was in 1994 when the Tour de France roared through Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.
Boardman, the world hour record holder on the track and rarely defeated in road time trials, should be relishing the nine-day tour which is being contested by 18 teams from a dozen nations.
Last November, still basking in the glow of his prologue win in the Tour France, he declared overall victory in the Prutour was a prime target for 1998. However, on the eve of the race his words came back to haunt him. "I said that I'd be going for the win and I'd dearly love it to happen, but the reality is my form isn't up to it," he said. "I get very tired very quickly and I don't know why."
Boardman has changed his training methods without any apparent effect, and is now awaiting the results of blood tests that he hopes will pinpoint the cause.
He still clings to the belief that he can win today's time trial, a 2.6- mile sprint through the streets of Stirling. "The best I can hope for is to take the leader's jersey on day one and hold it for a few stages, then it could pass to one of my team-mates who can go for the overall win," he said.
Boardman reckons the Australian Stuart O'Grady is Gan's best bet for overall success. Like Boardman, O'Grady is a former world track champion, but unlike his leader he collected several top-10 placings in the spring classics.
Another Australian, Neil Stephens, leads France's Festina squad. Stephens, a stage winner in the 1997 Tour de France, raced in Britain as a young professional before making the big time in Europe. At 34, he is approaching retirement and a win in Britain would put a gloss on his last season.
The other world figure in the 108-man peloton is Russia's Viatcheslav Ekimov, who has been in the top 10 of the international rankings throughout the 1990s.
Ekimov leads US Postal, one of the few teams to complete last year's Tour de France without losing a rider.
Despite the bait of a pounds 100,000 prize fund, the quality of the Prutour field has fallen some way short of the organisers' high ambitions. Britain last staged a national tour in 1994, and the new event had to elbow its way on to a crowded international calendar. A clash with the Giro d'Italia has not helped, but sponsors Prudential plan a long-term involvement and a successful inaugural event should ensure more favourable dates next year.
A hilly route and long, daily mileages mean that the accent will be on endurance - only two of the eight stages are shorter than 100 miles. The race also takes in every range of hills in Britain, from the Cheviots via the Pennines and Welsh valleys to Surrey's North Downs.
The manager, Keith Lambert, who will be directing the Brite Voice Systems team, reckons stage five, 129 miles from Birmingham to Cardiff, will be crucial. Riders will be softened up by the Malvern Hills and rolling Herefordshire roads before being hit by a double whammy in south Wales, where they tackle the "Tumble" climb at Abergavenny and Caerphilly Mountain in quick succession.
"The race won't be all over by Cardiff, but anyone with hopes of overall victory will need to be in touch with the leaders at that point," Lambert said.
Although the Prutour is modelled on the Tour de France, it is departing from tradition by insisting - in deference to the sponsor - that the leader wears a red jersey rather than yellow, making it one event in which everybody wants to finish in the red.
How the top 10 teams line up
France's No 2 team fields one Briton, a Swede, a German, two Australians and an Italian, but no French rider. With Chris Boardman playing down his chances, Australia's Stuart O'Grady could step into the breach. New Swedish signing Magnus Backstedt impressed in April with seventh place in the Paris-Roubaix classic.
Australian Neil Stephens lives and trains in the Basque country, so hills like Rosedale Chimney in north Yorkshire and Holme Moss in the Pennines hold few fears for the man from Canberra. A "super domestique", who normally works for the greater good of the team, he leads a young squad of French, Spanish and German riders.
US POSTAL SERVICE (US)
Russia's Viatcheslav Ekimov should challenge Chris Boardman in the prologue time trial. For overall honours, the team will look to their lone Frenchman, Jean-Cyril Robin, who finished 15th in the 1997 Tour de France.
BIGMAT AUBER 93 (Fr)
Yet another Australian, Jay Sweet, is Bigmat's best bet for success. Sweet won't be chasing the red jersey of leadership, but his powerful sprint finish could earn him at least one stage win.
The veteran Italian sprinter Roberto Gaggioli goes into the Prutour with a career record of 188 victories. He should top 200 some time this year, but the absence of flat roads will hamper his chances in this event. However, the American Chad Gerlach could find the terrain to his liking.
TEAM BRITE VOICE (GB)
Formed this year with a big budget and high ambitions, Brite Voice has swept the board in British races. Jonny Clay won the Tour of Lancashire four-day and a host of other events, but he may have peaked too soon. If so, John Tanner or Chris Newton are capable of assuming team leadership.
LINDA McCARTNEY (GB)
The all-veggie squad pulled off a coup by signing Sean Yates, the 38- year-old ex-Tour de France leader, to replace the injured Scot Gamble. Although retired from international racing, Yates is still fit enough to reign as national 50-mile champion.
Chris Lillywhite won the Milk Race back in 1993 and proved he is still a force by winning the Lincoln Grand Prix earlier this month. Consistent Kevin Dawson is the team's best hope for a high overall spot. Nick Craig, Britain's mountain bike champion, makes a temporary switch from mud to road.
Twice national road champion, Brian Smith is enjoying a renaissance as captain of the sponsored Scottish squad formed with the Commonwealth Games as its main target. Scotland's No 2 is pedalling postman Drew Wilson, who insists that win or lose this is definitely his last year at 31.
Julian Winn has made a successful switch from mountain biking to road racing, with top-10 placings in international tours over the last two years. Wales' selection policy is all-embracing, which explains the English accents of Simon Bray and David Rand.
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