"It is an honour, after 30 years, to be the fourth German host city of the Grand Départ and to be able to celebrate the start of the most famous cycling race in the world with our guests," said Düsseldorf mayor Thomas Geisel; West Berlin being the last German city to host Le Grand Départ in 1987, an edition won by Irishman Stephen Roche.
"It is both an honour and a pleasure for our city on the Rhine, which, as the capital of the most densely populated federal state, can offer everything you would expect from a good host. We enjoy welcoming people here to 'Little Paris'."
The mayor’s zeal contrasts wildly to that of July in Germany a decade ago. Midway through the race, German broadcasters ARD and ZDF, in an unprecedented move, quite literally pulled the plug on their live broadcasts after Patrik Sinkewitz, riding for the T-Mobile Team, tested positive for synthetic testosterone. (Under contract with Tour organiser/owner Amaury Sports Organisation, they returned the following year.) Or the zeitgeist after the 2011 Tour, when ARD and ZDF, again citing the impact of widespread doping on the attitude of German viewers, decided they would cease live coverage - opting out of a rights deal signed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the umbrella body of most public service broadcasters, for live TV rights between 2012 to 2015.
Even as late as 2013, after Marcel Kittel, the country's best-known rider since Jan Ullrich, took the maillot jaune in Corsica and told the world that times were a-changing and that he, along with the likes of André Greipel, Tony Martin, Marcus Burghardt, Simon Geschke and John Degenkolb were at the forefront of said change, it was not enough. Steadfast in their belief, ARD and ZDF chose not partake in a new four-year rights deal signed by the EBU from 2016 onwards.
The ambience among the wider cycling fraternity might have changed, but in Germany things are still, well, complicated. Nonetheless, enormous credit must be given to Kittel, the man with the best-coiffed hair in the peloton, who, through actions and words, has almost single-handedly changed the perception of German cyclists from being tarnished, jaded and corruptible to talented, hopeful and aspirational - and above all, clean. "Through their severity, the Germans showed through these events their insight," said Tour director Christian Prudhomme.
"In a certain way they acted as the barometer of the troubles of our sport that has since seen a generation of new champions appear. Among them, André Greipel, Tony Martin, Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb have conquered titles and reconquered hearts. They delivered a message of hope and confidence that has notably allowed the return of public television channel ARD, and decided to bring a new vision of a changed cycling."
We now have two German-registered WorldTour teams: Bora-Hansgrohe and Team Sunweb. Last year, in no mean feat, the former secured the signature of the most marketable personality in the sport, not to mention the current road world champion, Peter Sagan, who will be vying for a record-equalling sixth consecutive green jersey. And in Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin, the current time trial world champion, the host nation has a more than fair chance of capturing the first maillot jaune in this 14 kilometre, pancake-flat contre-la-montre through the streets of its ninth largest metropolis. That said, he is yet to win a time trial this season but has finished second thrice, most recently to Richie Porte at the Critérium du Dauphiné over a distance of 23.5km.
While Prudhomme speaks of the current crop of German riders acting as talismen for 'a new vision of changed cycling', the reception Düsseldorf offers the peloton of this 104th edition of Le Tour will act as a barometer of whether times have indeed changed.
What the riders say…
Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott)
“For me with a time trial background, I would say yeah, for sure, I’m going to give it 100 per cent and go for it. There’s definitely no ‘save yourself today because we have tomorrow’. I will go all in, give it a good chance. This is the big show, why not have a go for it?
“It’s been a while since I won a big prologue. I had a time trial win this year, but it’s been a while. No one is really going in as a clear favourite, it’s quite open, so who knows, hopefully you get that day - maybe a tailwind and then a wind change (joking). No, I’ll go full gas, roll the dice and we’ll see.”
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal)
“The start of the Tour is always special. When you are not motivated for the Tour it is better not to come. This time the Grand Départ takes place close to (my) home. The city of Düsseldorf and the entire region have made the Tour start possible. Apart from that there was the trust that ASO put in Düsseldorf to realise the Grand Départ in a country that is rediscovering cycling. That is the merit of the many talented German riders who set strong performances the past years.
“Many people I know will come to the start in Düsseldorf. That makes it very unique. During a 14 kilometre-long time trial you can’t take that in, but it is a nice thought that there are many familiar faces along the course. It’s good to be here.”
Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors)
"I am very happy and proud to be in Germany and experience a Tour de France start in my home country. A lot of people are looking forward to have the Tour de France back in Germany, and we want to give fans reasons to be proud of us. Having the Grand Départ here is an important step for the German community and I hope everybody will have a great time.
“Hopefully, the weather will be by our side and allow the fans to enjoy the race, while at the same time making it safer for us. My goal for the ITT is to do my best; just go into the race and ride full gas once I roll down the ramp. I am confident and I'll see once the stage will be over if my ride can influence the possibilities I have on the second stage. But my primary focus is on the flat stages of the Tour."
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“Of the 13 kilometres of the inaugural time trial course, close to 10 will be set on the banks of the Rhine river or the bridges above it… and bends can be counted on the fingers of both hands! There will be no or almost no mystery: the rouleurs will have their word to say. In this speciality where a new generation is showing up, a multiple world champion boosted by the support of his fans could well be the fastest man.”
Finish line: Rotterdamer Straße, at the end of a 400m finishing straight (by line of sight - last bend 4km from the line). Width: 6m.
Weather: 16°C at start, light rain, 93% humidity, wind 18km/h WNW; 16°C at finish, heavy rain expected around 5pm CEST, 91% humdity, wind 14km/h NW.