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David Millar (Cofidis) featured among the candidates for a prologue victory in Paris, and the Scot was eager to put in a strong performance. Millar felt the course suited has talents, noting that the abundance of pavé along the route made for a more demanding parcours, although being relatively flat it isn't ideal.
"I go better on a harder, more technical parcours," he told l'Equipe after investigating the prologue route. "What I like is that, when I'm going well, I go really fast."
Millar has won a Tour prologue before, and could have repeated the feat this year, except he fell short by a fraction of a second. The centenary Tour's opening stage was taken out by reigning world champion in the individual pursuit, Bradley McGee (FJDjeux.com), while finishing a surprising third was Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Haimar Zubeldia.
"This year I really want to do something," Millar added. "In fact, I'm a bit scared...Scared of losing. That would annoy me to lose; I've prepared well." It looked as though Millar may fulfil his dream but his prologue was hampered by a problem with his chain as he approached the finish line.
"Right now my heart goes out to David who had problems just before the finish," McGee told Cyclingnews afterwards. "He's just a great guy, and I don't wish that kind of thing to happen to anyone. I think I'll have to buy him a beer," said the Australian (see separate interview).
McGee also completed the prologue with a deflating rear tyre, but as he said in his diary, "not even a puncture in the final 400m could upset the rhythm this time".
Filling out the podium was the surprise packet from Euskaltel-Euskadi rider. Not really a prologue specialist, Zubeldia surprised himself with his ride today. "I haven't been expecting to ride so well that at the Tour, but today showed I had good legs so I can hope to do something at this year's Tour", said the Basque rider.
There's only one thing Millar has to fear. "My weakness this year...is only a guy stronger than me."
Claudio Corti: Saeco will be competitive
After a two year absence from the Tour de France, Saeco is back again with a strong team for the centenary. Led by Giro winner Gilberto Simoni, the team also includes Danilo Di Luca and Salvatore Commesso, both of whom are riders capable of winning stages. Saeco team manager Claudio Corti believes that his team has earned its place in the Tour, and predicts a good performance from his boys, as he states in the following interview.
Q: What results are you hoping to obtain in the Tour de France?
CC: We're not putting ourselves under pressure for great results at any cost. Of course we're not coming to the Tour de France just to make up the numbers. Our aim is to live up to the potential that I believe we have. That would mean we would obtain some interesting results.
Q: It's been a great season for Saeco so far. What are the reasons?
CC: The team has changed radically in the last two years and now has had time to adapt the changes. We started the season with a very close-knit, very motivated team. That helped us win a lot and become the number one ranked team in the world rankings, it also meant we won races with lots of different riders.
Q: Is a question of team spirit?
CC: We're definitely a good group of riders and very professional team personnel. We're open to constructive criticism and dialogue, it's the only way to grow and improve.
Q: How was the team for the Tour decided?
CC: Naturally there was a plan at the start of the season. We knew we'd ride the Giro and the Tour with Gilberto Simoni as team leader. His win at the Giro boosted our hopes of having a great Tour. The team we selected is a consequence of that. We're sure that the first week of the Tour will be very important.
Q: In fact the team has a lot of strong riders for the flat stages but what about the mountains?
CC: The riders selected will allow Simoni to arrive at the foot of the mountains as well as possible. They will protect him in the opening stages and will do well in the team time trial. For the mountains we also have riders who can be with Gilberto even if we all know the key moments of the race are an individual challenge and an elimination race.
Q: Saeco is back at the Tour after a two-year absence...
CC: And we're back with lots of enthusiasm without thinking about the past. Two years ago we weren't accepted and we kept quiet. Last year we were invited but then the invitation was revoked. We thought that was unfair and we made our voice heard. It's all in the past now. I think a big team like ours who has been in the sport for ten years and with a major sponsor like Saeco, deserves respect and attention in the general interests of cycling.
Q: There riders in the Saeco Tour team who are capable of winning stages. How will they be used?
CC: Danilo Di Luca will ride the Tour for the first time knowing that the race suits him really well. He's had to get over the problems of a broken collarbone but he'll be at his best in a few days. We can say the same thing for Salvatore Commesso. He's already done well at the Tour de France (he won stages in 1999 and 2000). I wouldn't forget a rider like Stefano Zanini either. He's very experienced and that will tell later in the race.
Q: Why did you decided not to select sprinter Ivan Quaranta?
CC: It was a technical decision which has nothing against the rider as some might have thought. If we signed Quaranta it is because we believe in him. The objectives we've set ourselves in the Tour prevailed over anything else. We're sure we did the right thing even if leaving Quaranta at home still hurts.
Q: How is Simoni on the eve of the Tour? Is he looking as good as he did at the Giro?
CC: Gilberto is a very instinctive rider. He knows how to find the motivation to do well. I'm sure he's still hungry to win even after having won the Giro. In fact his win has given him the confidence only a great result can give. He's in good physical shape and motivated for this latest adventure.
Q: An adventure that has a name and a rival: Lance Armstrong.
CC: And a great champion who has won the Tour four times who deserves respect. Gilberto is sure his qualities as a climber can cause some interesting results but this does not mean throwing down the gauntlet to Armstrong. We want to show what Simoni can do. It would be great to help make the Tour an exciting and well-fought race. Any results will what they will be, will be a direct consequence of that.
Belgians assess their chances
There are eight Belgians in the Tour de France this year, riding for four different teams: Mario Aerts (Telekom), Christophe Brandt, Axel Merckx, Rik Verbrugghe, Serge Baguet and Hans De Clercq (all Lotto-Domo), Kurt Van De Wouwer (Quick.Step-Davitamon) and Marc Wauters (Rabobank). In the absence of a top GC candidate, the most they can expect is a stage win and perhaps a place in the top 15, although Mario Aerts did come close to the mountains jersey last year. Indeed, some of them will spend the Tour devoted to working for others, at the cost of their own personal ambitions, as is the way of team riding.
Belgian paper Het Laatste Nieuws quizzed the eight Belgians before the start of the Tour about their plans, their fears, and their prognostics. To start with, Mario Aerts' role will be to work for "everybody in the team. The absence of Evans and Savoldelli doesn't change my part. But now and then I'll only think of myself."
Aerts said he's afraid of the "crazy first week, the tough transit stages and the team time trial" and picks Serge Baguet and Axel Merckx as the Belgians with the best chances of winning a stage and doing well on GC. For the final podium, Aerts predicts "Armstrong, Ullrich and Beloki."
Lotto-Domo contains five of the Belgians in the Tour, with Christophe Brandt, Hans De Clercq and Serge Baguet all assigned to helping Robbie McEwen win one or more stages. Brandt says that he'll aim to improve in the mountains in the second week, and fears "a crash on day three and 'retour à Fléron'...You certainly fall once in the Tour, but the thing is not to break anything."
Hans De Clercq, the second last car in the Lotto train, says that he is worried about "the first two mountain stages, which were very tough to me last year too. If I pass these ok, I'm 80% sure I'll finish in Paris."
De Clercq will be happy "if McEwen wears the green jersey on the podium in Paris. I'll be as glad as him" and predicts Rik Verbrugghe and Axel Merckx as the Belgian stage and GC winners. Podium? "Simoni, Armstrong, Ullrich."
Serge Baguet won a stage in 2001, and says that he'll be "Satisfied if I play a part in a stage victory. Successful if I win a stage myself." He, like many, fears the crashes in the first week.
Axel Merckx won't be part of the Lotto train for Robbie McEwen. "Don't expect of me to lead out McEwen for the sprint, I'll only be in his way," he said. Worried about a "complete off day in the mountains", Merckx hopes to win a stage, but "an honourable place in the general classification won't be possible for me."
Merckx tips teammate Rik Verbrugghe as the best chance of a Belgian stage win, with Kurt Van De Wouwer for the GC. For the final podium: "Armstrong, Beloki, Mayo."
Rik Verbrugghe is looking for a stage win, and "If I still have good legs after ten days, maybe I'll go for the general classification." He is worried about the first week. "I'm glad the helmet is mandatory, because you're playing with your life."
Verbrugghe picks Axel Merckx as a stage winner, and Mario Aerts to finish "approximately 20th" on GC. For the podium, "Armstrong, Ullrich, Vinokourov."
Kurt Van De Wouwer is Quick.Step's only Belgian in the Tour, despite it being a Belgian registered squad. His aim is to "help Virenque in the mountains to a victory or the mountain jersey. And going for my own chances now and then, but early because if I'm together with Armstrong at the foot of the last climb, I know it's too late."
Van De Wouwer prefers "burning sun" to bad weather, and points to Axel Merckx as a Belgian stage winner and GC rider.
Finally the winner of a stage in 2001, Marc Wauters (Rabobank) says that his goals are several. "Ride a good prologue, try to be there in breakaways, bring the climbers at the foot of the cols, and this year, leading out Oscar Freire for the sprint. Rabobank's train is: Lotz, me, Hunter."
Wauters says he'll be happy if team directors Theo De Rooij and Adri Van Houwelingen "pat me on the back in Paris and say: 'Marc, you did a great job.' And if there is a victory for myself."
He picks Mario Aerts to win a stage and Christophe Brandt to do well on GC. For the podium, "Armstrong, Beloki, Mayo."
Uneasy alliance between Tour and Basque movement
Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc has declared himself disappointed with the implications of an agreement signed between the Tour and the French arm of Basque separatist movement Batasuna. The Basque movement, which is permitted to exist legally in France but not in Spain, reached an accord with the Tour de France to stage markings, and podium in both the Basque language and in French on the 16th stage from Pau to Bayonne.
The agreement sparked outrage in Spain, which considers the separatist movement a terrorist group. Acknowledging this uneasy alliance, Leblanc commented that the agreement reached was perhaps a mistake.
"I'm told that among the two associations which made the request (for Basque language considerations), one has links with a terrorist or criminal organisation," Leblanc said in Saturday's l'Equipe. "Clearly the Tour has no sympathies toward an organisation of this type. We had good intentions and we gave our agreement in the context of measures that were already taken in 1996 when the Tour visited Hendaye. I hope the Spanish do not consider this to be a concession to a criminal organisation."
Who's tall and who's small for 2003
The results are in from this year's pre-Tour medical check concerning the physical parameters of the 2003 peloton. The average height in this year's race is 1.79 metres, and average weight tips the scales at 70.36kg. Resting heart rates hover around 50 beats per minute, and the average lung capacity registered was 5.67 litres.
Three riders share the title of tallest. Vladimir Karpets, Andy Flickinger, and Paolo Fornaciari all measure 1.93m, while Samuel Dumoulin sneaks in as the shortest rider, 1.58m. Alexandre Botcharov is the lightest at just 56.5kg.
Perhaps the most easy going rider is Michael Blaudzun, who registered a resting heart rate of just 31 beats per minute. Meanwhile, Marco Milesi has the greatest lung capacity: 7.74 litres.
Security measures at the Tour
Once again this year, nearly 30,000 French police officers and gendarmes will provide security throughout the Tour de France. In Paris alone, 2,300 police officers will be on hand to ensure safety and quell any potential disturbances for the Prologue, which takes place in the heart of Paris.
Cipollini settles for Egypt
Deprived of an invitation to the Tour de France, Mario Cipollini is reportedly spending his time under the sun in Egypt. According to a mention in l'Equipe, Cipo is enjoying himself at Sharm el-Cheik prior to a planned appearance in the United States at the New York Cycling Championship.
(All rights reserved/Copyright Knapp Communications Pty Limited 2003)