Tour de France sets off from Bilbao

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Tour de France sets off from Bilbao
The 1st stage of the 110th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, 182 km departing and finishing in Bilbao, in northern Spain, on July 1, 2023. Photo: Anne-Christine POUJOULAT/AFP.

The Tour de France started in Bilbao on Saturday, embarking on a 3,404km race to Paris with the first three of the 21 stages in the Spanish Basque Country.


Led out by defending champion Jonas Vingegaard and his key rival Tadej Pogacar, the 176 riders started under grey skies on a route packed with rolling green hills to compete for the first yellow jersey awarded to the opening-stage winner.

The streets of the Basque city were decked out with regional flags and Tour de France logos, with the starting line outside the downtown San Mames stadium of football club Athletic Bilbao.

"There's a great fervour for cycling among the Basques and the way this stage has been designed it will feel like one of the one-day classics," said French star Thibaut Pinot just ahead of the Grand Depart.

Tens of thousands of fans had packed into the streets in pursuit of a glimpse of their heroes or for the free hats and t-shirts thrown from the ever popular publicity caravan.

This 110th edition of the world's greatest bike race is heavy on mountains with 30 peaks, and a roster with two clear overall favourites in Jumbo-Visma's Vingegaard and UAE Team Emirates rider Pogacar.

A massive dormant volcano on stage nine and an unusually mountainous route lends Vingegaard an edge after he vanquished the two-time champion Pogacar in the mountains in 2022.

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

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.


Tempting opener

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 coastal resort of San Sebastian on stage two might attract difficult questions after Swiss rider Gino Maeder's death following a crash on a downhill run during the Tour of Switzerland last month.

"There are many downhill sections on the Tour, but the danger depends on if there is gravel on them," said 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.

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 of the race.

"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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