COPENHAGEN (AFP) – Fans packed downtown Copenhagen ahead of the Tour de France’s Grand Depart where Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik had promised to watch from in front of the royal palace, while over a billion television viewers are expected to tune in over the three weeks.
Storm clouds were gathering and rain could make the 13.2 kilometres (km) opening stage time-trial route treacherous.
The 176 riders will hit speeds of up to 60 kilometre per hour (kph) as they ride past sights including the Little Mermaid statue, the harbour-front Blox building and the Amalienborg palace.
The showpiece opener is a showdown between cycling’s top time-trial specialists, Italian Filippo Ganna of Ineos Grenadiers and Belgian superstar Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma.
The pair leave the starter ramp consecutively at 5.04pm and 5.05pm local time.
Riders compete on specialised bikes for the time-trial and wear tailored aerodynamic outfits that cost up to and above EUR4,000 (USD4,161).
Frenchman Jeremy Lecroq will be the first man down the ramp at 4pm outside the Tivoli theme park, next to Copenhagen’s eye-catching central train station.
Van Aert, winner of a time-trial, a sprint and a mountain stage at the 2021 Tour, was excited after two editions impacted by Covid-19.
“I was surprised by the amount of people on the roadsides. After two years, we can finally have a Grand Depart with huge crowds,” he said.
Ganna accepted his tag as the favourite to win the opener and don the overall race leader’s yellow jersey.
“It would be nice to wear the yellow jersey, nothing is easy but I want to try and put that in my museum,” he said.
Overall race favourite and two-time defending champion Tadej Pogacar was impressed by the rapturous reception the Tour received on Wednesday.
“I’m ready personally and my team is ready too, and you can only be happy with the kind of reception we have had here,” said the UAE Team Emirates leader.
Around a dozen riders scheduled to race have tested positive for Covid and been replaced, although none of them were among the favourites.
French climbing specialist Romain Bardet said he felt panic when he boarded his flight to Copenhagen and realised few people were wearing masks. Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen avoided the issue by travelling by campervan.
Doping raids on the hotels, team cars and residences of staff at Team Bahrain Victorious also cast a cloud over the Tour.
The team said no illicit substances were uncovered, while the French police behind the Interpol raid said substances and electronic material had been confiscated.
The sport’s greatest race attracts up to 15 million roadside fans per year and the opening three days in cycling-obsessed Denmark on the 109th edition will provide the same festive atmosphere so beloved by the French.
Saturday’s second stage runs 202.5km from Roskilde to Nyborg along roads adjacent to fjords and culminates with a 20km crossing of the Great Belt Bridge.