Gilbert goes for yellow as Tour de France starts

Les Herbiers (France):Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert dyed his hair blond shortly before the Tour de France, perhaps to match the yellow colour of the race leader`s jersey.

Winner of three classic races in succession earlier this year - the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege - and crowned in his home championship last weekend, the 28-year-old world number one is seen by most experts as the man to beat in the first week of the Tour.

"He had an exceptional spring and is a great rider. He is the arch-favourite in several first-week stages," French manager Marc Madiot, who was Gilbert`s team chief at Francaise des Jeux for several seasons, said ahead of Saturday`s start.

For once, the Tour does not begin with a prologue but with a 191.5-km stage between Passage du Gois - a periodically flooded causeway between the mainland and the Isle of Noirmoutier in the Vendee region - and Mont des Alouettes.

As a result, the list of favourites to snatch the first yellow jersey in this edition is not composed of time-trial specialists but of strong finishers.

Gilbert has certainly proved his strength as a finisher this season.

"It is true that this first stage suits me perfectly," he said.

The Belgian has several rivals to watch in the opening stage, including world champion Thor Hushovd of Norway, gifted Australian Matthew Goss and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. Pure sprinters, such as Briton Mark Cavendish, are not expected to do so well as the finale looks too hard for them.

Swiss time-trial world and Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara, who has taken the inaugural yellow jersey four times in the last six years, warned he should not be ruled out even though this was not a prologue.

"Without a prologue, I feel less pressure," he said. "I went to check the course and I have a chance."

Bureau Report

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