The Tour de France calls its start the “Grand Depart”. This year it feels more like the “Grand Return”.
Six years after German TV stopped broadcasting cycling’s showpiece event because of a series of doping scandals and three decades after it last rolled off in the country, the Tour opens this weekend with two stages in Dusseldorf.
The race starts today with a mostly flat 8.7-mile individual time trial in Dusseldorf that seems tailor made for four-time world champion Tony Martin to grab the yellow jersey in front of his home fans.
Stage 2 tomorrow goes from Dusseldorf to Liege, Belgium.
The last time the three-week race started from Germany was in 1987, when the Grand Depart took place in West Berlin – when the city was still divided.
A decade later, German cycling reached its high point when Jan Ullrich became the first and still only German rider to win the Tour.
Ullrich also finished runner-up five times in the Tour, three times behind Lance Armstrong, who was eventually stripped of his seven titles for doping.
Ullrich also fell into disgrace and was suspended in 2006 in the fall-out from the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal in Spain. He retired a year later, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport then banned him for two years in 2012 for involvement in the doping programme of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
Ullrich did not contest the ruling by the sports court and remains unwelcome in cycling circles. He was not invited to Dusseldorf by Tour officials.
While Ullrich’s Tour victory set off a golden age of German cycling, the sport quickly disintegrated in the country following doping scandals involving prominent riders like Patrick Sinkewitz and Stefan Schumacher. Even Erik Zabel, the popular rider who still holds the record of six green jerseys in the Tour’s points classification, admitted to doping after he retired.
These days, a new generation of German riders led by Martin, sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel – who have won 11 and nine Tour stages, respectively – plus classics specialist John Degenkolb, have drawn local fans back to cycling.
German TV station ARD began broadcasting the Tour again in 2015 and the Tour of Germany is slated to return next year after it, too, was cancelled in 2009.
“A lot of people are looking forward to have the Tour de France back in Germany, and we want to give fans reasons to be proud of us,” said Kittel, who is aiming to win Stage 2. “Having the Grand Depart here is an important step for the German community.”
Martin, meanwhile, should thrive on the urban time trial course taking the riders down the banks of the Rhine river. The course likely isn’t long enough for overall Tour favourites Chris Froome and Richie Porte to distance themselves too much from their rivals, although they could contend for the stage win.
Another rider to look out for in the time trial is Rohan Dennis, the Australian with BMC who won the first leg in 2015.