Things get all hostile-'n-such tomorrow -- at long last -- as the Tour de France serves up the first stage to be contested by the GC contenders: 52 bumpy kilometers around Rennes. The counterclockwise circle includes a number of climbs in the 50-vertical meter range, which wouldn't mean a damn thing if the clock weren't ticking. IMHO, this is a completely neutral course, in that it's not the kind of board-flat race that might prejudice Leipheimer and the smaller ITT guys, but doesn't climb enough to reduce the power guys from the favorite status they've earned. Granted, there may be no such thing as the perfectly fair course for all, but this is pretty close.
On significance, I'd rate tomorrow's stage 8 of 10. [I don't have CycleSport handy, but for reference you can look up their significance rating if you want.] After
Landis someone pulls on the yellow jersey tomorrow, there will still be a long, long way to go in this Tour, and the riders are all pretty conscious of this. Most of them try to get their fitness peaking in week three, not week one.
Then again, historically the ambitious riders often like to grab the mantle at the first possible moment, to demoralize the competition. Also, the race is full of riders who have built their entire season around the Tour, specifically the GC competition, and they've been waiting a long time for this fight. So expect this stage to be as hard-fought as anything we see.
Update [2006-7-7 19:21:11 by chris]: See how Bobby Julich approaches Stage 7 at ESPN, of all places.
Checkpoints are at 16 and 36 kilometers. I'd guess the winning times will be in the 1:10-15 range (Lance's winning time at St. Etienne, simlar distance, was 1:11), which would put the checkpoints at the 22 and 50 minute points, thereabouts. We will be live here as soon as OLN comes on, west coast time be damned...