The 2012 Tour opened with a 6.4km individual time trial prologue around Liege, tailor-made for time trial specialists. Although the last few days had been rainy, the weather was clear and sunny. French TT champion Sylvain Chavanel‘s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) time of 7:20 stood for much of the day – his 33rd birthday – until Bradley Wiggins (Sky) pipped him by less than half a second. Tony Martin (OPQS), the current TT World Champion, was also a danger but he punctured halfway through the course and came in a disappointing 45th, 23 seconds off the pace.
That just left penultimate rider Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) as the last credible threats to Wiggins claiming the race’s first yellow jersey. And Cancellara showed that he was back on form by storming the course, shaving off seven seconds and taking the maillot jaune. Evans finished a respectable 13th, just ten seconds down on Wiggins.
VeloVoices rider of the day
It can only be Spartacus and not just because he won and therefore dons the yellow jersey. This win was Cancellara’s fifth consecutive prologue win at the Tour [technically his 2009 win was a 15km ITT rather than a prologue, but let's not quibble - Ed]. He has never lost a prologue since his first win in Liege in 2004. He also equalled Bernard Hinault’s record of wearing the maillot jaune on opening day for a fifth time.
If that isn’t enough, Cancellara is also the active rider who has worn the yellow jersey the most – this is now the 22nd yellow jersey to grace his shoulders. And of all the riders in this year’s race, only Mark Cavendish (20) has won more stages than his eight. All things going well, Cancellara might well be in yellow for most of the first week.
Chavanel wasn’t the only birthday boy today, as BMC’s Marcus Burghardt was quick to remind viewers. He revealed his under-shirt in the start-house, which bore the message: “Thanks for coming out on my birthday.”
Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Gorka Verdugo was taken to hospital after falling on the course, although he did complete the stage 191st out of the 198 riders.
Cancellara‘s victory came as little surprise, particularly after Tony Martin‘s mishap, with the only seed of doubt being whether he had fully recovered from his Tour of Flanders injuries. As far as the GC contenders are concerned, time gaps are largely trivial over such a short distance – but a good showing carries psychological weight. In that respect, Bradley Wiggins landed an expected early blow, although Cadel Evans will be pleased to have limited his losses in finishing a respectable 13th.
Among the other top contenders Frank Schleck showed he still can’t time trial for toffee (136th at +0:38). But Denis Menchov (eighth at +0:13), Vincenzo Nibali and Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (14th and 15th respectively, both at +0:18) will all be delighted with their form, while climbers Robert Gesink, Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez will not be overly upset by their losses.
Having won the Tour de Suisse prologue over a similar distance (but on a hillier course) just three weeks ago against a quality field which included Cancellara, Peter Sagan will have been disappointed that an error cost him valuable momentum and left him down in 53rd, 24 seconds off the yellow jersey. Not so much because he was a likely stage winner, but because a place in the top 15 would have earned him useful points in the green jersey competition on a day when none of his sprint rivals were ever going to trouble the scorers. A six-second improvement on his time would have seen him finish in the points – ten seconds would have netted him six points for 10th spot. Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Matt Goss and company will have breathed a small sigh of relief at this.
Overall, it’s still early days, with just 6.4 out of 3,497km raced so far [that's 0.2%, stat fans - Ed], and it would be foolhardy to read too much into today’s results. No one ever won the Tour de France in a prologue – most importantly today, nobody lost it either.
Look out for our stage one preview tomorrow morning. VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.