Wrote Tour director Christian Prudhomme in the foreword of every journalist’s dossier de presse this year, “The Mont-Saint-Michel, transformed by the works that have just been finished there, will have never looked so impressive as the start ramp to launch this 2016 edition of the Tour.”
Judging from the pictures coming through this week, and what we can expect when live television coverage begins tonight from the first site in France to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Status, who are we to argue?
After last year's 13.8 kilometre individual time trial in Utrecht, it is a return to a flat road stage to kick off Le Tour, and, more than likely, a chance for a sprinter to don the first maillot jaune.
If the 2013 and 2014 editions are anything to go by, which also featured a flat stage to open proceedings, not to mention the return to form of road cycling's fastest man, than it is impossible - no, make that downright stupid! - to look past Marcel Kittel.
Three years ago in Corsica he beat Alexander Kristoff and Danny van Poppel when race officials, at the eleventh hour, moved the finish line back to its original place after 'team bus-gate', sheepishly sponsored by Orica-GreenEDGE. Proving it was no fluke, the German juggernaut won another three stages including the last on the Champs-Élysées, emphatically signalling the arrival of a new sprint king after the dominance of 26-time stage winner Mark Cavendish. A year later in the home of the one he dethroned, that man Marcel did it again in Harrogate, this time galloping past Peter Sagan and Ramūnas Navardauskas while Cavendish saw his hopes and race over in an instant following a collision with Simon Gerrans.
On paper the finish of Stage 1 is non-technical with no corners to speak of in the final five kilometres. Just the way the man with the sculpted hair, eyebrows and legs likes it.
Last time we were here...
La Grande Boucle last came to Mont-Saint-Michel in 2013 when another German powerhouse, Tony Martin, the world TT champion at the time, won a 33km race against the clock. Against the backdrop of the otherworldly Abbey founded in 709AD and the nation's second-most visited monument with 1.5 million visitors a year, Martin's win came to the surprise of none; it was the man who finished second, just 13 seconds behind, that raised eyebrows. After 11 stages he was already 3'25 in front over his nearest rival, Alejandro Valverde. And after twenty-one stages he would finish 4'20 ahead of rising star of Colombia, Nairo Quintana, a man five years his junior but this year will likely represent his greatest nemesis in his quest for a third title.
His name, of course, was Chris Froome.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says...
“The Mont-Saint-Michel! Who could have dreamt of a more spectacular Grand Départ to a Tour de France under the sign of aesthetics? From there, it'll be a rather smooth start: flat terrain through the entire stage. At the finish, the riders will have a meeting with history, arriving at Utah Beach, one of the beaches chosen on the 6th of June 1944 for the D-Day Landing operations. The sprinters should have the final word…"
What they say…
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
“I've had a track build up and used racing to build my endurance. I really don't know how it's going to be. It could be the best thing I’ve ever done, it could be the worst. I've definitely made every second of every day count. I'm not coming to the Tour to just dick about. I'm here to represent team Dimension Data.”
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal)
“The run-up to this Tour has gone smoothly. In the first part of the season I had a difficult time because of an injury, but then I had a successful Giro and at the Tour de Luxembourg and Ster ZLM Toer I prepared for this race. (Last) Sunday I won the road race at the German Championships and I am really proud to wear that jersey again for one year. I come to the Tour with lots of confidence.
“Last year was wonderful with four stage wins, but Saturday we all start from scratch. The goal is to win at least one stage this edition and depending on when I achieve that one I can aim for another one. Saturday is the first opportunity, with the yellow jersey as extra reward for the winner. I can rely on the most experienced lead-out I’ve ever had, with Jürgen Roelandts who is part of my train again this year. The team is almost entirely built around me; the fact that the team has that much confidence in me makes me happy.”