Ever since prologue time trials were introduced to the Tour de France 45 years ago, only four of its winners have gone on to win the Tour itself: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Induráin and Lance Armstrong, all of whom won the Tour five or more times. And if the prologue existed before 1975 it’s certain that the Tour’s other five-time champion, Jacques Anquetil, would have pioneered that list.
So what can we gather from Saturday evening’s sunlit prologue in Liège with regard to the 99th Tour de France? Well, we know that time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek won’t keep his brand-new yellow jersey beyond a few stages, but the much longer term race for final victory definitely began in this challenging 6.4-kilometer test through the streets of this Belgian city. And at the top of the list was Brad Wiggins of Team Sky, who confidently confirmed his status of race favorite.
Wiggins finished second to Cancellara, just as 2004 race favorite Armstrong did on this almost-identical Liège prologue course. On Saturday, only five of the main contenders finished within 20 seconds of Wiggins, while two others, Fränk Schleck and Samuel Sanchez, lost more than half a minute. In other words, with 20 stages and more than 3,500 kilometers still to race, those two favorites are already behind Wiggins by what could be the likely margin of victory in Paris. But that’s jumping ahead too fast. Let’s first examine the performances and results of this brief opening stage.
Regarding the prologue itself, it was a huge disappointment that co-stage-favorite Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step had to stop and change his bike moments after he’d gone through the midway checkpoint with the then fastest time. The world time trial champion was clearly on his way to the day’s podium, and probably headed toward a finish time that would have rivaled, if not beaten, Cancellara’s 7:13.
In the opening 3.5 kilometers, where the wind was most favorable and only the first of two roundabouts slowed riders, Cancellara averaged a phenomenal 58.873 kph. But his split of 3:34 put him just one second ahead of Martin and French national time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma, the biggest surprise of the day. The next best times were recorded by Sky’s Eddy Boasson Hagen (3:38), Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (3:39) and defending Tour champ Cadel Evans of BMC Racing (3:40)—though Evans couldn’t maintain that pace till the end.
You’ll notice that Wiggins is not among those six names and that’s because the lean Brit had an un-typically slow start, perhaps due to nervousness caused by the high expectations placed on him. He went through the 3.5-kilometer mark in 3:41, six seconds slower than Cancellara and in the same time of a wonderfully confident Tejay Van Garderen, Evans’s American teammate, who take fourth in the stage and the white jersey of best rider aged 25 or under.
The remaining 2.9 kilometers included the most technical parts of the course, with constant left and right turns into and out of the Place St. Lambert—where Thursday night’s team presentation took place—and the longest section exposed to a head- and crosswinds. This is where the innate power of Cancellara and Wiggins showed through the strongest. The big Swiss completed this final section in 3:39 (a speed less than 48 kph, showing how much the bends and winds slowed everyone), a time that was matched exactly by Wiggins and which enabled him to finish second on the stage, marginally faster than Chavanel.
It’s likely that Martin would also have matched Cancellara and Wiggins. Instead, he was slower by 22 seconds—a period of time that was easily eaten up by him slowing, putting up his right hand to signal a front-wheel puncture, stopping to drop his bike, remount a replacement machine, and get back up to his 50-kph velocity from a standing start. We will never know whether the solid German racer would have ended Cancellara’s run of winning the Tour’s past four opening-day time trials. Their revenge match will come either later in this Tour over much longer distances, or in the Olympic Games time trial in early-August.
Returning to the performance of the overall contenders, here’s how they stack after this opening 6.4 kilometers of time trialing: 1. Wiggins, 7:20; 2. Denis Menchov (Katusha team), at 0:06; 3. Evans, at 0:10; 4. Nibali, at 0:11; 5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), s.t.; 6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank), at 0:19; 7. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), at 0:21; 8. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma), s.t.; 9. Fränk Schleck (RadioShack), at 0:31; 10. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), at 0:33.
Now we have to wait and see whether Wiggins can follow the illustrious multi-champions before him and claim yellow in Paris on July 22.