Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) has predicted that the opening stage of the Tour de France atop the Mont des Alouettes climb will finish with an uphill sprint finish. The Belgian lines up as the favourite to take the first yellow jersey of the race but he acknowledged that it might be difficult to distance the pure sprinters on the haul to the finish.
"I think they'll be up there and they'll be difficult to drop,” Gilbert said as he went to sign on in La Barre-de-Monts before the start of stage one on Saturday morning. "It's up to us to make the race as hard as possible. It will be very fast at the foot of the climb."
Ensconced in the tricolour jersey as Belgian champion and sporting a bleached blonde hairstyle to match his yellow ambitions in this Tour, all eyes were on Gilbert before the start. While some directeurs sportif predicted that a rider of Gilbert's quality would be able to jump clear on the final climb, the man himself was more circumspect about his chances of taking a solo victory.
"I did the reconnaissance yesterday, I checked out the difficulties in the finale but it will be different doing it flat out," Gilbert warned.
Widely expected to replicate his Ardennes classics dominating form on at least one of the uphill finishes in the Tour's opening week, Gilbert pointed out that there were a number of other riders who would have a say on Saturday.
"I'm not the only favourite for the stage. There are others like Thor Hushovd, Matt Goss and Boasson Hagen. There's also Voeckler. He's riding in front of the home crowd so he's very motivated and he knows how to anticipate the sprint. He's shown that he can do it in the past," he said.
Nonetheless, Gilbert recognised that his sumptuous 2011 season means that he is expected to deliver on the Tour de France’s opening stage. When pushed to predict the top three on the day, he included his name along with those of Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi.
Another possible factor in the tactical make-up of stage one is the positioning of the sole intermediate sprint after 87km of racing. Gilbert was unsure of what impact it would have on the way the stage plays out, but he expected his teammate André Greipel to contest the sprint if the bunch approached it together.
"I still have to get my head around the new rules," Gilbert admitted. "We have a pure sprinter in the team. With this new rule that might be useful, but we'll have to see."
With that, Gilbert pedalled off, glad to get his Tour de France underway after a trying week for his Omega Pharma-Lotto squad that saw former rider Wim Vansevenant accused of importing doping products from Australia.
"The Vansevenant affair hasn't affected me mentally," Gilbert said at his squad's final press conference on Friday afternoon. "My supporters can have 100 per cent confidence in me."
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