It's fairly rare for Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, to name one rider as a stand-out favourite for a stage. But when even Prudhomme predicts on the Tour's website that in the opening time trial in Dusseldorf "a multiple world-champion boosted by the support of his fans could well be the fastest man," it's pretty clear whom he's talking about.
Take a bow, Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), all but officially, then, as the man to beat on Saturday night's prologue in Dusseldorf. Martin's time trialling credentials could not be bettered, of course, given he was World TT Champion for a fourth time last year in Qatar last year - where, let's not forget, the course was similar to Dusseldorf this weekend: pancake flat, fast, straight and largely untechnical.
So much for the good news. On the downside for the German is the speculation that at 32, Martin may not be as strong against the clock as he used to be, with his first time trial win since Qatar last year coming just last Friday, in the German national championships. Nor was the time gap in Chemnitz 48 kilometres course on silver medallist Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar Team) of 15 seconds as big a margin as in last year's nationals, when Martin's winning margin on the same rider, and over a shorter distance by seven kilometres, was a thumping 1:39 minutes.
Still, Martin's win means that he now has taken Germany's time trial title for a staggering six years in a row and he will roll down the Dusseldorf start ramp as both defending national and World Champion. That's a huge double ration of motivation, then, on a Tour stage when the stakes could never be higher for the German. Because for the first time in Martin's career - and, at 32, very possibly the last - Martin will have the chance to take the Tour's yellow jersey on home soil and in his own trademark speciality.
Understandably, this sense of not being an 'ordinary' Grand Tour time trial is beginning to tell a little on Martin, particularly in lesser - but important - goals like the German nationals. "The time gap [on silver] in the national's wasn't as big as I'd have expected," Martin told Cyclingnews after winning the TT, " but the result was ok. The thing is, there's less than a week to go before the Tour and I'd got my head already set on the Tour, so that made it quite it a hard day for me."
With so much at stake on Saturday, Martin's pre-race nerves may be higher than usual, too, even for a rider whose first Tour was in 2009, who's already led the race - back in 2015 - and with five Tour stage wins to his name. But whatever the outcome, he says, riding on home soil in Dusseldorf means the opening 14 kilometres of the 2017 Tour de France will not be quickly forgotten.
"I'm really looking forward to it, and I expect a really nice atmosphere, thousands and maybe millions of fans. To be honest, I'm looking more forward to it, than I'm feeling afraid [of a bad result] or have a sense of pressure. I really want to get there and feel the atmosphere."
To celebrate what is a sort of homecoming with the Tour de France visiting Germany for the first time in his career, Martin will be backed by a large number of friends and family in the crowds. On top of that, there will, he tells Cyclingnews, "maybe 100 fans of mine or so coming especially there to see it and stay there for a few nights. I think it'll be a very special occasion for all of them."
Historically, Martin knows that the Tour's return to Germany has been a long time coming - and hence its increased significance. He was still an amateur, in fact, when the Tour last visited Germany, briefly in 2005, even if he was way too young to have any memories of the Tour when it began in Berlin in 1987. However, he remembers vividly the drama when Jan Ullrich took the Tours de France for Germany in 1997. As a 12-year-old, he says "I was a big fan of the sport from then on, it was one of the key moments."
It's a sign of how seriously he's taking Saturday's sporting challenge, though, Martin himself will be giving himself an extra day in Dusseldorf, travelling there today (Tuesday). That's in order to ensure he is totally focussed on Saturday's time trial, to get a chance of reconnoitre it free of traffic, and that no last-minute detail is overlooked.
Chances are, Martin will very much like what he sees, given that on paper, the flat, fast course itself is definitely one that suits him and he's already confident of his chances. "Normally prologues are shorter and have a lot more corners. I'm the sort of rider that likes courses with much less braking and accelerating, so I'm very happy about that. I've definitely got a chance of yellow," he says bullishly.
There will be a whiff of unfinished business in the air on Saturday too, given Martin's never won a Tour prologue. Of the Tour's three most recent opening time trials or prologues, at Utrecht (2015), Liège (2012) and Rotterdam (2010), Martin has taken second in the two Dutch starts. Utrecht, at 13.8 kilometres was a very similar distance, and Rotterdam 8.9 kilometres, whilst in Liège, a much shorter TT at just 6.1 kilometres, a mechanical wrecked his chances. This course in Germany, Martin says, is "less technical than either Utrecht or Rotterdam, which is better for me. Bigger roads, bigger corners, less braking so the speed will be a lot higher.
"It's such a fast course, the differences won't be big at the very top of the ranking, the first one or two guys will have two to four seconds between them, maybe less.
"I've been there before to check it out, but there a lot of ways of one-way streets you can't go with the bike. By getting there on Tuesday I'll have lots of time to go there with the bike and get the chance to see it." It remains to be seen whether Martin imitates his former HTC team-mate Bradley Wiggins approach to checking out the 2007 Tour's London prologue course, riding around it at 3 am one Sunday morning to avoid traffic problems or as he said at the time with a typically pithy Wiggins soundbite, "when most people were too drunk to notice me."
The one factor that Martin can't do anything about at all is, of course, the weather, and it could be crucial, not just because of the aerodynamics. Back in 2015, Martin partly blamed his near defeat in Utrecht to Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) - who won't be taking part - on the very hot conditions, which didn't favour him.
With temperatures due to reach around 20 degrees maximum next weekend in Germany, much cooler than in the July heatwave in Holland two years ago, that probably won't be nearly so important. However, should the weather forecasters have got it wrong and it turns out we're in for another hot Tour start, Martin can draw comfort from his experiences last year in Qatar where he spent a great deal of time working on adapting to the hotter conditions - and benefited from that.
With the course running for a lengthy spell alongside the River Rhine, it's not just the temperatures Martin has to be worried about: it's the very exposed, potentially wind-blasted, roads, he points out. "I heard, though, the wind could be a big factor and I really hope that everybody will have the same conditions throughout the afternoon and evening. That's the only thing I'm not so happy about, but we'll have to take it as it is."
But as Martin points out, his Tour de France will not begin and end on Saturday night. In all the fuss about the opening time trial, some fans have maybe forgotten he's also already taken two spectacular road stage wins in the Tour. The most recent was rewarded with a three-day spell in the lead when Martin blasted away across the cobbles of Cambrai in 2015 before an untimely crash and injuries in Le Havre left him out for the count. There was also Martin's impressive solo ride to Mulhouse in eastern France in 2014.
This time, though, Martin's first big objective of the Tour is on the other side of the Franco-German border, but he is trying to keep a sense of perspective. Certainly, as he tells Cyclingnews, he's no plans to make this Tour stage the be-all and end-all of the last part of his time as a professional racer.
"There will be more goals to achieve, like the World time trial championships, maybe Olympic titles. In the Tour, too, I'll be 100 percent for Saturday, but there will be other opportunities, flatter stages where I will try for my wins and the second last day time trial, too, which could be difficult for me but I won't know till I see the course.
"So I know Saturday is a big chance for me, but it's not the end of things, for sure, it's not. Whether I win or not, what I'll always remember for sure is going down the start ramp with World time trial champion's jersey, with maybe one million fans watching. That's going to be one of the big highlights of my career."
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