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Tales from the peloton, July 8, 2007

Come on sprinters, light my fire

Four was Robbie McEwen's lucky number last year,
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The Tour de France is known for it spectacular sprint shows - the elbow-throwing and head-butting high velocity finishes litter the first week and give fans a chance to see their favourites vie for glory. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown gives a rundown of the men gunning in the bunch sprints.

Sprint trains thunder over the final 10 kilometres to deliver their captain to the last few hundred metres. The dangerous affairs result in a sweaty-legged god rising to victory while others are left pounding their handlebars and, sometimes, sliding across the pavement.

The fires will start to burn en route to Stage 1's Canterbury finish and will keep going though the week before being interrupted by high mountain passes. Only the true hard-men of speed will make it over the Alps and Pyrénées to keep battling for the sprint stages on the other side and, all going to plan, be in contention for the Maillot Vert, the best sprinter's jersey, in Paris.

There are five men at top of the sprint game that give the other contenders fear: Aussies Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto), Belgian Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic), Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank).

"There are a few young guys who will definitely be trying to serve it up, as I did a few years ago."

-Is Robbie McEwen preparing for a re-match with Mark Cavendish?

The fierce rivalry between the two men from Down Under spells excitement for race fans. Despite his prologue tumble, O'Grady is coming into this Tour de France as reigning Paris-Roubaix champion and could find the sprints come just that bit easier with the win in his palmarès. Inspiration will give the extra punch for O'Grady, with the Tour running a route similar to that of the Spring Classic, only in reverse to finish in Compiègne.

Rival McEwen is likely to strike fires while looking forward to another Maillot Vert in Paris. "If I were able to choose I'd pick the one in Gent," said McEwen of which stage he desires to Cyclingnews. "It is virtually my hometown. But I don't really care as long as I get one. There are a few young guys who will definitely be trying to serve it up, as I did a few years ago, but it will all be decided in that final few hundred metres.

Despite his prologue tumble, Team CSC's Stuart O'Grady
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"When I line up at the start I respect all the sprinters and there are plenty of great sprinters here," added McEwen. "But once I am in the race I am not thinking about watching any specific rider. I worry about getting myself into position and then looking at the situation in the final kilometre."

2005 World Champion Boonen is the one who could stop the Australian sprint stronghold. The big Belgian engine exchanged in his rainbow jersey in 2006 for the coveted Maillot Jaune while riding through his home country. If he can win in Canterbury, he could be within reach of yellow, just in time for the hometown run into Belgium on Stage 2. "[Monday] finishes in Gent and to be in yellow there would be great," admitted Boonen. "I'll do what I can to achieve that."

Hushovd had the yellow jersey and stage wins at last year's event. The Norwegian is not altered by the high-pressure stakes of the Tour, preferring to get down to his business of winning stages. It's a business Hushovd is good at, having one four Tour stages along with one Vert.

He's got the Top Gun haircut, but does Zabel have
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Spaniard Freire is suffering form an ill-placed cyst that could hold back his kick. The three-time World Champion, with as many Tour stage wins, has the experience to pull something special even if in pain.

Following that five are contenders for stage wins that should not be overlooked, starting with Team Milram's Erik Zabel. The German is at the end of his career but will have a chance to lead the blue Italian-German squad, following the sidelining of teammate Alessandro Petacchi.

"I'm really disappointed for Alessandro," Milram's Brett Lancaster reported to Cyclingnews. "I've come pretty close to him over the last few months. Still, now I've got Zabel to lead out and there should be a couple of opportunities for me as well, we'll see what happens."

Cool, calm and lethal. Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) might be a silent star
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Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) are the others to watch. Austrian Eisel will be backed by his pink posse for the run-ins as he goes for his first Tour stage win. Bennati had a string of near-successes in the Tour de Suisse that will give his confidence a boost. The Italian also has Vert ambitions. "I will certainly try for the green jersey," he said in a recent Cyclingnews' interview. "I think it is a possibility, I hope. It will be very difficult but it is an objective."

Compatriot 'Pippo' Pozzato will vie for Tour stage victory number two. His first came three years ago as a 22 year-old riding for Fassa Bortolo. German Förster is a stage winner in both the Vuelta and Giro and will kill to add the largest Grand Tour to his palmarès.

While still young, Eisel's teammate Mark Cavendish has proven strong enough to go up against the business' strongest sprinters and win. The 22 year-old Manxman may not last through to Paris on his Tour debut, but expect him to be a contender in the first week, especially on today's stage to Canterbury.

Three others who could surprise the heavy favourites are Clásica San Sebastián winner Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), young Spaniard Francisco José Ventoso (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and South African Robert Hunter (Barloworld).


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by David Reinhardt

Images by AFP Photo

Images by Fotoreporter Sirotti

Images by Luc Claessen/www.ctm-images.com

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