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Safety first Tour de France ready to roll from Basque base

Bilbao (Spain) (AFP) – The 2023 Tour de France embarks from the Basque port of Bilbao Saturday with safety in the spotlight, a route featuring 30 peaks, and a roster with two clear overall favourites in champion Jonas Vingegaard and Slovenian star Tadej Pogacar.

The recent death of Gino Maeder who fell racing down a mountain at the Tour of Switzerland was on most rider’s minds as authorities unveiled fresh safety measures on the eve of the 21-day race to Paris.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said Friday “rider security is our eternal quest.”

He unveiled a plan for 30m long mattresses to be placed at potential fall points.

A massive dormant volcano on stage nine and an unusually mountainous route lends Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma an edge over two-time champion Pogacar.

Pogacar is backed by a reinforced Team UAE squad notably with new recruit Adam Yates, but hindered by a nagging wrist injury.

The attack-minded Slovenian finished first in 2021 ahead of Vingegaard, who reversed the positions in 2022. The renewal of hostilities has been billed as Vingegaard v Pogacar III.

Tour director Prudhomme told AFP on Friday “the duel is good for the Tour de France, it adds to the thrill.”

On arriving in Bilbao, Pogacar said his injured wrist had only 70 percent mobility. He then did a wheelie up a mountain in training on Thursday.

“The first week has everything,” he said.

“I was really excited about it before the accident.”

Tour folklore insists the champion is chosen by the Alps, and 13 of this year’s 30 high passes are there.

The Tour makes a hilly start over the forested slopes with stages around Bilbao and San Sebastian.

The Spanish Basque Country is a cycling heartland and fervent local fans will be out in force for the Grand Depart.

The opener, around the Bilbao back-country, is laced with terrain to tempt the one-day mavericks to go for glory with Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe one to watch.

The 20km descent to the chic coastal resort of San Sebastian on stage two might now raise an eyebrow or two after Maeder’s death however.

“There are many downhill sections on the Tour, but the danger depends on if there is gravel on them,” assessed Vingegaard.

There are also a record 96 traffic-slowing road bumps on stage one.

The peloton enters France on day three and then swings west for two stages through the Pyrenees before heading back up the Atlantic coast.

The vineyards of Bordeaux, on stage seven, serve as an aperitif to the star landmark of this Tour, the magnificent dormant volcano at Puy de Dome.

The ascent provides a spectacular view of the domes along central France’s tectonic faultline.

Rarefied air

Neither fans nor vehicles will be allowed on Puy de Dome’s stark, steep upper reaches where pretenders will be brutally exposed to the elements.

Another potential decider is stage 17 from Mont-Blanc, which climbs four peaks, the last into the rarefied air above the tree line at the 2,300m summit of the final climb to Courchevel, where 2019 champion Egan Bernal may once again deliver a late challenge.

As usual the Tour is rich in sub-plots.

Rising star Biniam Girmay is fully capable of becoming the first black African to win a stage on this 110th edition.

“It’s a big moment for me and for Eritrea,” the 23-year-old leader of Belgian team Intermarche-Wanty said.

British veteran Mark Cavendish hopes to break a tie with all-time great Eddy Merckx by winning a 35th Tour de France stage.

The Tour ends with the traditional mass bunch sprint on the cobbled Champs-Elysees on July 23 with the trophies then distributed beneath the Arc de Triomphe. In 2024, the finish will be in Nice because of the Paris Olympics.

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