Snapshot of a City – Utrecht
The Dom Tower stands alone, an imposing sentinel looming over the tightly packed houses and ancient canals of the Netherlands’ religious centre and fourth largest city, Utrecht. It is through these narrow, sometimes cobbled streets, and against this glorious backdrop that the 2015 Tour de France will begin on Saturday 4th July. The Grand Départ, as the opening of the Tour de France is known, will be held on Dutch soil for the 6th time in the Tour’s history this year, the most for any country other than France and a fitting nod to a country with cycling in its soul.
Indeed, such is the Netherlands’ infatuation with cycling that the majority of journeys in the country are completed astride the humble bicycle. This is reflected in Utrecht’s extensive maze of cycle paths, unique “barrow” bikes for transporting shopping and/or children and from 2014, the world’s largest bicycle parking station.
However, there is much more to Utrecht than just an affinity with cycling. Home to the Netherlands’ largest university, Utrecht is often cited as a cultural hub – second only in terms of cultural events to the much larger capital, Amsterdam. Each year, the Netherlands Film Festival and Early Music festival are both hosted in Utrecht and an abundance of museums, sports facilities and theatres accompany a botanic garden, providing a host of attractions across the city regardless of the visitor.
The opening stage of the 2015 Tour de France is a sinuous 13.8km individual time trial, winding its way directly through the centre of Utrecht. In essence an extended prologue, this first test of the riders is unlikely to produce large time gaps between the favourites for the general classification and instead will favour the rider who can combine raw power with the necessary bike dexterity to negotiate the course most efficiently.
Such is the intricacy of these first few kilometres of the race that one could argue any time differences here will be down to machine and not man. The Tour de France is often a testing ground for the latest technological innovations and we can be sure to see the riders sporting new aerodynamic helmets, time trial specific deep-section wheels as they hope to save time at every opportunity. Given the scarcity of time trialling kilometres in this year’s edition, the opening day will be one of only two opportunities the teams have to show off their cutting edge speed machines.
Favourites to take the first maillot jaune of the race include Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin who have both shown excellent form of late in Tour de France warm-up races. The latter claimed victory in both individual tests in the 2015 Tour de Suisse while the former is a multiple world champion in the individual time trial. Of course, one can never discount Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss powerhouse has had an injury strewn season and will be looking to rekindle his indomitable form from the prologues of previous Tours de France with a strong showing this year.