By Hedwig Kröner
The island of Noirmoutier off the Vendée coast in North-Western France has had a reputation for its windy Atlantic weather. But who would have known, especially in these days of canicular heat that has set off French social security alarm bells - in 2003, thousands of elderly people died of the heat because they weren't looked after properly - that the wind, the rain, and moderate temperatures would return just in time for 'Le Tour'?
They have, at least in the region of Fromentine, where the first stage of the Grande Boucle will take place on Saturday. The small town is bustling with Tour tourists, but all they can do at the moment is wait in their camping cars for the rain to stop. Temperatures are up to a maximum of 20° celsius during the day, and the Atlantic wind has been blowing with gusts up to 55 km/h.
Cyclingnews spoke with CSC's directeur sportif Scott Sunderland about the difficult conditions the riders will have to face. "It's hard doing time trials and team time trials in weather like that," he said. "In a team time trial, it's a fair bit of work, and you have to lay off the wheel a bit more." Team CSC has had a training ride on the team time trial course on Wednesday. But stage one of the world's biggest cycling race will be an individual time trial on a fairly flat and straight course (see the stage's map and profile). Because it won't take the famous 'Passage du Gois' like in 1999, when a crash involving half the peloton on the slippery low-tide road paved the way for Lance Armstrong's first overall victory, the riders will cross a bridge over to the island.
CSC's Dave Zabriskie, after winning the first time trial in Giro d'Italia this year, is looking forward to the 19 km-task. "It's not a bad distance for me. We'll go look at it on Friday, but it should be OK," he said. Hopefully, the rain will have stopped for the reconnaisance of the course. The wind, nevertheless, might not have ceased until then. "Actually I hope for headwinds," he added. "That would be perfect for me. I aim for a place in the top 10, but winning the stage would obviously be the best."
After the Giro d'Italia, Zabriskie stayed in Italy training with teammates Ivan Basso, Giovanni Lombardi and Jakob Piil under the guidance of Bjarne Riis, which meant that he missed out on the US time trial championship. "It would have been much too stressful to do the US championship, flying back and forth in the middle of my Tour preparations," he explained. The Tour de France 2005 will be his first, and he's impatient to race it. "I'm not nervous, but of course I'm excited about doing the Tour. Basically I just want to get going, get in the rhythm of the race, instead of doing all these other things."
Medical check-up, press conferences and missed out traing rides because of bad weather isn't exactly what the Tour de France riders like best. But the Tour will get underway soon enough, and Scott Sunderland is optimistic about CSC's team leader Ivan Basso. "He's been doing some very good training before and after the Eindhoven team time trial," Sunderland said. "He feels quite good on the bike, mentally fresh and confident, and ready to be there for the Tour."
Basso finished the first Grand Tour of this season, the Giro d'Italia, with two stage wins but without a high placing on GC, which he would have been up to had it not been for a stomach bug. "It's not like he's been flat after the Giro. We'll just have to see how it is. The crucial part is the third week, and it will probably be a bit more important for Ivan because he was sick in the Giro, so we'll see how well he has recovered," Sunderland added.
"Bjarne is quite confident though, and we still have Jens Voigt, Bobby Julich, and Carlos Sastre. That gives us a few cards to play with. But in principle, the team will be working for Ivan and protecting him," he concluded.