|Passage du Gois: scene of carnage in 1999.|
Who can predict what it will bring today?
It's an unusual one this year, because rather than a prologue as is usually the case Stage 1 is a proper road stage taking in a U-shaped 191.5km of the Vendée department in Western France, birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the only woman to have been queen of both France and England and one of the most powerful people in Medieval Europe. The Tour returns to the Passage du Gois, a tidal causeway visited in 1999 when it proved to have a pronounced effect on the day's results due to the slippery, algae-encrusted surface causing a crash which split the peloton by six minutes. Similar carnage may happen today, providing the 198 riders who are taking part with a good introduction to what promises to be one of the most challenging, thrilling Tours for many years.
There's nothing much in the way of climbing over the first 125km today. In fact, until Les Sables D'Olonne where the road turns inland, when the riders will follow the flat coastline and the parcours reaches no altitude more dizzying than 9m above sea level. Who knows what will happen here? Some riders - especially those more endurance-orientated sprinters who can remain plugging away at a high rate pretty much indefinitely may choose to do so and win their chance to wear the yellow jersey. They may as well, because this is a Tour designed to favour the climbers and once reaching the mountains it's all going to be about them. On the other hand, they might all want to check each other out, assess who looks on good form and who doesn't and save themselves for a final every-man-for-himself dash at the finish.
|Château de la Guignardière. You don't get a place like this for cooking sausage rolls in Greg's.|
Directly after passing through Saint-Michel-Mont-Mercure the parcours drops steeply into a rolling section of around 11km, the turns sharply heavenwards for the only categorised climb of the day in the shape of the Category 4 228m hill to Les Herbiers where, as it was the location of Thursday's team presentation, the spectators are already fired up and riders can expect an ecstatic welcome.
|Ben Swift (Sky).|
The one thing that's certain is that the long wait since last year's Tour will soon be forgotten in today's excitement.