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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 21:14 GMT 22:14 UK
Q&A: The Tour's first stage
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By Matt Slater

Once Saturday's all-duck-or-no-dinner dash through central London has sorted out the early jerseys, the real racing in the 94th edition of the Tour de France starts on Sunday with a pedal pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Starting with a processional "depart fictif" on The Mall at 1025, the peloton will proceed in good order, via Tower Bridge, to Greenwich for the "depart reel" at 1100. A Ben Hur-like bundle for the finish line is expected on Canterbury's Reims Way at about 1530.

That's 203km of south London suburbia and rolling Kent countryside (try saying that really fast), with three sizeable climbs (by English standards) and three intermediate sprints.

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I joined a T-Mobile "media team" on Sunday to try it for myself and thoroughly enjoyed the five feeding stations en route, particularly the copious amount of malt loaf that was available. The ride, however, was seven and a half hours of knee-grinding agony.

The professionals will do it in four and a half hours, although they probably will not do it on a borrowed bike and eight weeks' training (not that I am making any excuses, of course).

On Friday, the eve of the world's largest annual sports event, I spoke to Transport for London's special projects technical manager Gary MacGowan, the man that designed the route.

Here is what he had to say (and there is not a hint of sympathy for my knees).

How involved do the Amaury Sports Organisation (the Tour's organiser) get in the route-making process? What guidelines do they set?

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There were obviously discussions between ourselves and the ASO when we first started looking into bringing the Tour to London. We knew that we wanted a fantastic start to the Tour, which is why we chose to have it start from The Mall and lead out through central London past many of the capital's iconic buildings.

ASO was very keen to have the race pass through Greenwich and cross the Greenwich Meridian. Both parties suggested that stage one would end at Canterbury and Kent County Council was delighted to get involved.

The problem in planning the route came in trying to find a way of linking from London to Canterbury so that the riders were not just going along main roads.

ASO demands that the roads should be no smaller than six metres wide so that the publicity caravan and the riders can pass along safely. With that in mind, we decided that instead of having the Tour pass through the English countryside, why not bring it directly to the people and have it pass through villages and towns on the way down to Canterbury.

Recent Tours have seen lots of crashes and injuries, particularly in the opening week. How conscious were you of the need to protect the riders from crashes?

Well, the route, although designed by us, was surveyed by ASO many times before this weekend, and they are satisfied the course meets all standards and requirements.

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It's important to remember that the riders taking part in the Tour will be used to cycling in many different conditions and will use a variety of different riding styles whilst cycling.

In London, we have filled some pot holes and smoothed some road edges around Greenwich. In Canterbury, due to the riders entering the city at speeds of over 60kmph, we have taken out some central reservations and will have road assistants and the gendarmerie along the route to warn the drivers of corners and bends. These changes were all made in agreement with the ASO.

What is your favourite part of the route? Where would you choose to watch the race on Sunday?

I have three! I think one of the most fantastic aerial shots will be as the riders pass between Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral.

The "King of the Mountain" climb to Goudhurst village will look spectacular, as there is a church at the top of the hill bearing down on the riders, and then at Tenterden, which is a tiny market town, there is a sprint section straight through the middle of the high street.

Where do you think the first attacks will come? Could a group of riders break away and stay away, or are we looking at a huge bunch sprint?

I couldn't say but from people I have spoken to - previous riders and organisers - the general feeling is that there may be a breakaway around Gravesend (about 30km in) as roads are quite open and fast there.

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But then there is also the last climb at Farthing Common (a gradient of 12%) and the final 20km of open road to Canterbury which will see the riders hitting speeds of 65kmph. So who knows what could happen!

In planning the finish, what factors did you consider?

We wanted to have as much of a straight a possible. The problem is that Canterbury has a lot of roundabouts, so we had to have the route head round the city wall and then go slightly back towards London.

The riders will be hitting speeds of up to 65kmph and as they race around to the finish you will be able to see Canterbury Cathedral behind them - the photos from the finish line will look fantastic.

So come on then, Gary, who is going to win on Sunday?

I don't want to say. All I'd like to see is the yellow jersey being held by a British rider after the prologue and stage one!

Hear hear to that Gary and thanks very much for your time.

So there you have it, folks, join the millions expected on the course and enjoy the spectacle of the world's hardest and most colourful sporting event.

The pub at the top of the climb to Goudhurst looked like a lovely spot for a long lunch when I pedalled past on Sunday but I will leave those decisions up to you. Come on Cav!



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