Spartacus ignores the slippery conditions to deny Tony Martin at the last minute
World and Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) blasted around the drying prologue course in the Netherlands port city to take victory and the first yellow jersey of this year’s Tour de France. Second from last to start, the Swiss specialist’s performance finally eclipsed that of German champion Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), who had led the race after starting at number 11 before heavy rain began to fall and slow down the majority of the field. David Millar (Garmin-Transitions), the winner of the race’s opening stage back in 2000, finished in third place.
"Of course we had to play the gamble with the weather and it was a little tough to sit on the bus for so long to wait for my ride but if I look around now, it’s golden, bright, sunshine-filled end to the day,” said Cancellara after his victory. “It was the right decision to go late. I followed one of my teammates [in the team car] to see how it was with the wet roads because yesterday I trained on the course but it was hot and the conditions were completely different. You have to adapt your approach to the situation but I managed to do that and I’m happy with the result.
"It’s a nice round number: 10 minutes for the win. I like that," he added. "There are a few interesting days ahead of us but I like wearing the yellow jersey and we have a good team that can defend it.”
After several days of sunshine in the Netherlands, the weather threatened to break with rain forecast to fall on the later starters. Many specialists who had been due to start late elected to gamble on the conditions and change to a much earlier time.
One such rider was Martin, the World championship time trial bronze medallist in Mendrisio, Switzerland last year who beat Cancellara in the Tour de Suisse time trial last month. The 25-year-old elected to take the HTC-Columbia team’s first start position, and the gamble appeared to pay off as he posted a time of 10’10” on almost completely dry roads.
Unfortunately for other gamblers, the German was to be one of the last to start before the expected rain began to fall rather earlier than forecast.
British time trial champion Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), fourth place in last year’s Tour, also moved his start time, but unfortunately was unable to repeat his prologue victory from the Giro d’Italia as the rain was coming down heavily as he rolled down the start ramp.
The Bradley Wiggins of old may have thrown caution to the wind in the search for short-term prologue glory, but with ambitions of a high finish in Paris in three weeks time the multiple Olympic champion opted for caution; Wiggins tiptoed round the slick city streets to post a time 46 seconds slower than Martin.
Two Americans in close succession looked like they might get close to Martin’s time as first Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) went just 28 seconds slower, with Levi Leipheimer just 0.02 seconds behind his compatriot. It was not until Millar took the start that the HTC-Columbia rider’s time looked like it might be seriously challenged though.
It looked for a long time as though it might be Millar-time once more as the Briton was just 3 seconds behind Martin at the 4.2km checkpoint. Despite keeping the pressure on in the tight, twisty closing stages though, the slick corners meant that Millar could only finish a provisional second, 10 seconds back.
Wiggins’ Olympic pursuit teammate Geraint Thomas went where his Team Sky captain was seemingly unwilling to go a few minutes later. The newly crowned British road champion went close to Millar’s time, but never truly looked like he would threaten Martin.
As the overall race favourites were approaching their late start times the rain stopped and the roads began to dry. Despite wearing the skinsuit of Luxembourg national champion though, Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) – with the evidence of last week’s training crash visible in the shape of a dressing on his right knee – proved as tentative as Wiggins and lost 59 seconds to Martin.
Starting his last ever prologue, seven-time race winner Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) set off third from last, with just Cancellara and last year’s race winner Alberto Contador (Astana) behind him. With the roads drying rapidly, but visibly wet on many of the corners, the American crossed the 4.2km mark in third place, just 5 seconds behind Martin. However, a number of shaky corners meant that instead of reeling in the German’s time Armstrong was unable to get any closer and eventually finished 12 seconds down in provisional third.
Cancellara, his unlucky 13 dossard worn supersticiously upside down, hardly seemed to notice the less than ideal conditions and pushed his bike (which the commissaires confirmed was engine-free!) around the first half of the course 6 seconds faster than Martin had been when the roads had been bone-dry. By the finish he had increased that margin to 10 seconds, finishing on exactly 10 minutes.
Contador could almost match the time of Armstrong, dropping just a second to his American rider at the first check. Armstrong’s efforts in the second half, coupled with Contador’s slightly more safety-first approach though, saw the Spaniard fade away to finish 27 seconds down on Cancellara.
The Spanish defending champion finished just 5 seconds behind Armstrong, and there are plenty more challenging kilometres to come, but the American may well see this as round 1 to him.
Today’s victory is Cancellara’s fourth on the first day of the Tour, after 2004 in Liege, 2007 in London and last year in Monaco. With it his takes the yellow jersey and the green points jersey; the latter will be worn by Millar, with Martin in the white, young rider’s jersey.
"I’m proud of what I’ve done today,” said Cancellara, “there was no sense of revenge I just wanted to go the fastest and I did just that. It’s important to try and hold onto the jersey until the Arenberg [stage 3] but first there is Brussels and Spa and it’s not flat at the end of stage 2... but it’s the goal to try and wear the yellow jersey on the cobbles."
Whether the Swiss Paris-Roubaix champion will ride that cobbled stage to win, or whether he’ll shepherd his two Luxembourg teammates – the Schleck brothers – safely across the treacherous pave, remains to be seen.