WILMINGTON, Del. - Davis Phinney and Raul Alcala have very different outlooks on how this year's Tour Du Pont will turn out, which isn't so surprising since they'll attack America's biggest cycling event in very different ways.
Phinney, 33, of Boulder, Colo., is one of the world's best sprinters, which means that large portions of the Tour Du Pont, namely the mountain stages, will be lost to him.
"Davis Phinney will not get up those hills. I can guarantee you that," said Phinney yesterday.
Alcala, on the other hand, is one of the kings of the mountains and the time trials, so the early portion of the 11-day, 1,085-mile course won't be terribly pleasing to the 29-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico.
"This race is really hard and that part is mostly flat, so we'll see," said Alcala.
But as the grueling race kicks off today with the 2.9-mile prologue -- time trials that determine the launching order for tomorrow's first stage -- there promises to be something for everyone before the conclusion on May 16.
The race, in its fifth year, and with significant corporate backing from Du Pont and 34 other sponsors, has risen in importance in the world cycling pecking order.
While not as bally-hooed as the Tour de France, the Tour Du Pont has become one of the world's top five cycling events, with portions of the race being televised to 93 countries.
"Since I came here three years ago, the race has become more and more like our European races [in importance]," said Norway's Atle Kvalsvoll, the runner-up the last three years. "The difference with European racing is that the organization here is nearly perfect."
Following today's prologue, the 17 teams and 119 participants, including both amateurs and professionals, will head through four states, including a Saturday run from Port Deposit to Hagerstown.
Overall, this year's winner, who will collect $40,000 and a new car, will need to conquer a course that favors sprinters to start through Delaware and Maryland, but goes mountainous through Virginia and North Carolina.
"It's a much more balanced course, which will make for better competition," Phinney said, "The field is also more balanced than in the past, especially because of the development of the American teams."
Two stages, five and nine, promise the toughest challenge, particularly to sprinters such as Phinney, Eric Vanderaerden of VTC Norway and Malcolm Elliott, a Briton who leads the USPro national standings.
In stage five, a 100-mile ride from Front Royal, Va., to Massanutten Resort near Harrisonburg, Va., racers will confront the first portion of the race above 2,000 feet.
Stage nine, which at 151 miles is the longest individual race, offers an ascent from 2,035 feet to 5,058 feet above sea level in the ride from Blacksburg, Va., to Beech Mountain, N.C.
In the absence of last year's individual champion, Greg LeMond, who is concentrating on the European circuit, Alcala, who won the race three years ago when it was called the Tour De Trump, and his WordPerfect team are considered favorites, largely because of their proficiency at both the mountain passages and the time trials.
However, the first three days and their bent toward the sprint, could give the sprinters an early advantage.
Said Elliott: "We're [his Chevrolet-L.A. Sheriff's team] going to work on winning stages in the early parts, then maybe try and see if we can get someone into the leader's jersey later."