Cancellara wins 2012 Tour de France prologue in Liège

Swiss time trial powerhouse in Tour's first yellow jersey

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There was something almost inevitable about it: the scene was perfect, the timing essential, and the man in form. Eight years after his first prologue win in Liege in the Tour de France, ‘Monsieur PrologueFabian Cancellara rolled back the years to claim his fifth Tour de France prologue, with a comprehensive win in the Belgian city on Saturday. 

The RadioShack-Nissan rider turned out a time of 7:13 over the 6.4km course. Not even a determined Bradley Wiggins (Sky) finishing second, 7 seconds down, or world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) could come close, although the German will feel aggrieved after he set the fastest time at the first time check but suffered a mechanical and was forced to change bikes.

Defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) finished in 13th place, nine seconds down on Cancellara, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Denis Menchov (Katusha), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) impressing with solid performances. French time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel had led for a large portion of the afternoon, nervously awaiting the time trial specialists at the line, but he was demoted, first by Wiggins, and then by Cancellara, to third.

But after all the talk of Wiggins and Evans in the build-up to the race, the day belonged to Cancellara. In the last twelve months, the Swiss rider has found himself on the receiving end of a number of high level losses, with Tony Martin usurping his long-standing crown as the best time triallist in the world, and two campaigns in the Classics without a win. “I thought about my wife, the baby that’s coming, about team that’s given me help, and I’m proud of having done the work I should have done,” Cancellara said at the finish. “This victory is even more special than the other ones I’ve had in the Tour de France., Yes, I’m proud, which is important, and I’m also confident about the rest of the Tour.”

Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, mimics rocking a baby as he holds the stuffed lion trophy after winning the prologue of the Tour de France cycling race, an individual time trial over 6,4 kilometers (4 miles) with start and finish in Liege, Belgium

There were murmurs that Cancellara was no longer the powerhouse he used to be, his legs slowing as younger riders developed, and despite uncertainty within his team surrounding missed wages and in-fighting, the experience and most importantly the power were there for all to see in Liège.

“I’m looking forward and not looking back. I’m here on the Tour de France not thinking about the past. The last time the Tour was here, in 2004, I beat Lance [Armstrong] by 1.6 seconds and took the jersey, but that was eight years ago. We have to focus on now because if we let [USADA’s decision to manager Johan Bruyneel with doping] crack us, I wouldn’t be able to perform on the road like I did today. It’s up to Lance and Johan to sort out. One year I was in Bjarne Riis’s team, and he stayed away from the Tour to leave us in peace, so I’ve experienced this before. Johan is just leaving us to get on with the job in peace.”

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Liège loosens the Tour tension

The pro peloton had descended on Liège on Wednesday, settling into a pattern of reconnaissance and press conferences. By Friday, as the final pre-race press noise died down, it was clear that the peloton were ready to race. The tension was clear in Liège on Saturday morning with riders testing themselves over the prologue course. Wind variants were considered, final adjustments made to bikes and in the end it was Tom Veellers (Argos-Shimano) who set the ball rolling. The Tour had finally started.

A number of early pacesetters came and went until Brett Lancaster posted the first serious time of the day with a time of 7:24. The GreenEdge rider was edged out by Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen but it wasn’t long before Chavanel was on the road.

The Frenchman has improved greatly against the clock in the last twelve months – something he has put down to overcoming a longstanding back problem – and had already won the time trial in De Panne this spring. Along the Liège course he married power with precision, dancing through the few corners in the tricolore of France.

It looked like an unlikely winner could be crowned when he crossed the line in 7:20 and when Philippe Gilbert, David Millar and Andreas Klöden all failed topple the Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider, France dreamed of their first opening day win since Jacky Durand in 1994.

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