Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan, who took the maillot jaune when he won the Prologue in Liège in 2004 on his Tour de France debut, repeated that feat today to become the first leader of this year's race, with Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins second, seven seconds back and gaining what could be valuable time on his rivals for the overall win. Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, crowned French time trial champion earlier this month, was a surprising third.
Eight years ago in Liège, Cancellara, then with Fasso Bartolo, took his bow at the Tour de France at the age of 23 by beating defending champion Lance Armstrong into second place in the Prologue and taking the maillot jaune on his first day at cycling’s biggest race.
Since then, the Swiss rider has been unbeatable when the race has started with a ride against the clock outside France’s borders. In London in 2007, Monaco in 2009 – classified as an individual time trial due to its 15.5 kilometre distance – and in Rotterdam two years ago, it was Cancellara who finished the day in yellow each time. In repeating that feat today, he equals Bernard Hinault’s record of taking the first maillot jaune of the race on five separate occasions.
Having shattered his collarbone in a crash as he passed through the feed zone in the Tour of Flanders in April, the RadioShack-Nissan rider returned to racing last month and in the recent Tour de Suisse showed that he was coming back into form ahead of not just the Tour, but also the Olympics where he will defend the time trial title he won in Beijing.
While today’s Prologue of course is over a much shorter distance than the one he will face in London, Cancellara showed that he is unlikely to cede his Olympic crown without a fight come August.
At the halfway stage of the 6.4 kilometre route, he was one second up on the then quickest time of 3 minutes 35 seconds, held by Chavanel. Wiggins had been six seconds down on the Frenchman’s time at that point, the Team Sky man storming round the second part of the course to take the lead by half a second, but Cancellara matched that performance to win by seven seconds.
Still, Wiggins, the favourite for the overall victory in this year’s Tour which would make him the first ever British rider to win the race – as a curiosity, today he was riding in the country of his birth, his late father Gary being a regular on the Belgian six-day circuit – can look back with satisfaction on today’s ride.
The Team Sky rider may have missed out for now on the opportunity to become just the second British rider after David Millar to sport the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours, but if all goes according to plan, he will do just that at some point in the coming three weeks; moreover, by not taking yellow today, there is no onus on Team Sky to defend the jersey on tomorrow’s opening road stage.
Wiggins also gains time on the men who are expected to be his biggest rivals for the overall in this 99th edition of the Tour, Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali, 14th today and losing 11 seconds to the British rider, and the last man out on the course, defending champion Cadel Evans, who finished 13th and ceded ten seconds; Frank Schleck, third overall last year, lost a full half minute to the Team Sky rider today.
Earlier, the man who had succeeded Cancellara as world time trial champion in Copenhagen last September, Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, had to make a bike change due to a puncture. Today, Martin was riding clinchers, as he had done when winning that rainbow jersey last autumn, with the German insisting that they are faster than tubulars.
This evening, he may be regretting that decision – while the seconds he lost might have been recovered in one of the two longer time trials that feature later in the race, today there was no comeback, and he would finish in 45th position, some 23 seconds behind Cancellara.
Chavanel wouldn’t have figured in many people’s lists of favourites for the Prologue and proved to be the revelation of the day, and with some tough stages in the opening week that could well suit him, including Stage 3 in Boulogne where he won the French national road championships ahead of last year’s Tour, he could well repeat his feat of 2010 when he got into the maillot jaune.
Today, a rider who, like Cancellara eight years ago, is widely tipped to become one of the sport’s superstars made his debut in the race, Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts for the 22-year-old Slovak, however, as he took a roundabout too quickly and had to unclip his left foot to avoid overshooting the corner and going into the barriers. He would finish 24 seconds off the lead in 53rd place.
Among the other British riders in the race, Team Sky’s Chris Froome, seen as a potential GC option for Team Sky should some mishap befall Wiggins – the pair were second and third respectively in last year’s Vuelta, of course, and Froome is also strong in the time trial – came home 16 seconds behind Cancellara in 11th place.
David Milllar of Garmin-Sharp, winner of the individual time trial at Futuroscope that opened the 2000 Tour de France, had struggled with illness earlier in the week and went off early today, briefly holding the second fastest time behind Astsana’s Andriy Grivko. He would eventually finish 16th, 18 seconds down on Cancellara, and one place ahead of another British rider, Steve Cummings of BMC Racing.
The fifth and final British rider in the race, Mark Cavendish, who has said that winning gold at London 2012 is more important than defending the points classification he topped last year, posted the 41st quickest time, 23 seconds down on the Cancellara.
Cavendish’s former colleague at HTC-Columbia, George Hincapie, finished outside the top 20 today but in starting what will be his penultimate professional race – the last one will be the USA Pro Cycling Challenge next month – the rider, who celebrated his 39th birthday yesterday, has now appeared in more editions of the Tour de France than anyone else, and has finished the race in 15 of his 16 previous appearances.
Prologue winner and race leader Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan):
"I have memories today of winning eight years ago and that was very special. When you are 23 and win, then eight years later do it again, it’s a very special thing for me, my family and especially for the team. This is a great opening for our Tour. A lot of pressure went away with this win. But we all want success and success is never easy. The whole team did a big effort.
“I was thinking of my family today, of my daughter and my wife Stefanie who is expecting our second child later this summer. I’m happy to have a lion to take home for the next baby. Home is the basis for everything, more than my training or the team. My family is most important and I’m proud.
“Now the Tour can start for us and you will see RadioShack-Nissan-Trek at the front. This win gives me confidence for what is coming in the days ahead, especially after my crash earlier this year. It’s just great. I’m proud to be in yellow now. I won’t say yellow gives you wings, but I will do my best to defend the jersey.”
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), second today:
"I'm really happy, the legs felt good and I stayed calm and relaxed. It's a good start and the main thing was to stay upright, safe and trouble-free - it's nice to get this first day out of the way.
"Fair play to Fabian, he's the best in the world at what he does and I think he proved that again today."
Sean Yates, Sports Director at Team Sky:
“In the grand scheme of things it was a good day and we cannot complain. Bradley set a great time on a course that doesn’t particularly suit him. We are in a great position.
“When Bradley opened it up it was plain to see that his condition is really good. It is just a question of staying out of trouble at the moment, starting tomorrow.
“It was great to see strong rides from Edvald and Froomey today and a strong start for the team across the board.”
Third-placed Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step):
"I did a great race. I wanted to make a good performance. From the beginning of the season I'm doing good in the time trials. I knew that the specialists could have beat me, but I'm super happy in any case. I have no regrets. I really did my best to honour my brand new French champion jersey. It's a third place in a prologue of the tour against the best time trialists of the world.
"I'm disappointed for the flat tire of Tony. Today he was really strong and he could have fought with Cancellara until the end. The Tour is just getting started. I have time to try to attack and do something good. Today is my birthday and even without a victory, we are going to celebrate!"
World Time Trial Champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step):
"I had a flat tire after the first split time. I could feel that I was slipping away on the last roundabout and thought 'OK, maybe it's just a little bit slippery,' but then I realized I had a flat in the back and had to change the bike. I think it was a quick change, but it kills the morale and the rhythm. I'm really disappointed.
"I still have a good time, and I think would have a made a really good time without the flat tire. I wanted to fight for the Yellow. I'm disappointed, but I thought 'just keep on fighting, the long time trials are coming.' I can tell I have very good condition and now I have to fight now for the next time trial.
"Now my goal is to keep the morale, stay in front, show the strengths of me and the whole team, and try again in the long time trial."
Defending champion, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing):
"You never want to lose time to any GC (general classification) rider and I lost time to one, but I was sort of expecting that. But it's six kilometers out of 3,500 or so, so in that regard it's a small comparison. I'm happy to get things started and I'm feeling good."
Local hero Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing):
"Thanks to all the fans here in Liège. It was amazing. It was like the classics last year in Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège."
Record-breaker George Hincapie (BMC Racing):
"I got on the podium to start and it really hit me there. I should have been thinking about the effort. But I was excited. I'm really going to try and enjoy this and work my butt off the whole three weeks for Cadel."
Tweet of the Day:
"I'm [not] sure if I should be upset or congratulate @dzabriskie for finishing 69th place while wearing #69...." - Jonathan Vaughters, Garmin-Sharp
Tour de France 2012 Prologue result 1 CANCELLARA Fabian RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 07' 13'' 2 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 07'' 3 CHAVANEL Sylvain OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP + 00' 07'' 4 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 10'' 5 BOASSON HAGEN Edvald SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 11'' 6 LANCASTER Brett ORICA GREENEDGE + 00' 11'' 7 GRETSCH Patrick TEAM ARGOS-SHIMANO + 00' 12'' 8 MENCHOV Denis KATUSHA TEAM + 00' 13'' 9 GILBERT Philippe BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 13'' 10 GRIVKO Andriy ASTANA PRO TEAM + 00' 15'' 11 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 16'' 12 VELITS Peter OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP + 00' 17'' 13 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 17'' 14 NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 18'' 15 HESJEDAL Ryder GARMIN-SHARP + 00' 18'' 16 MILLAR David GARMIN-SHARP + 00' 18'' 17 CUMMINGS Stephen BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 18'' 18 VOIGT Jens RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 00' 19'' 19 KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 00' 19'' 20 NUYENS Nick TEAM SAXO BANK-TINKOFF BANK + 00' 20''
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.