Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara demanded that he be seen as a symbol for a new cycling after scorching the opening prologue here Saturday to grab the Tour de France's fabled yellow jersey.
The CSC rider clocked the only sub nine-minute time from the 189-strong field, beating Germany's Andreas Klöden by 13secs to secure his second prologue win after his victory in Lille in 2004. It was a poignant moment in more ways than one for the reigning world time trial champion, whose solo speed skills played a major role in his victory on the tough Paris-Roubaix one-day classic in 2006.
CSC team manager Bjarne Riis ruled himself out of attending the race due to his recent admission that he had used the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) to win the Tour de France in 1996.
"This yellow jersey represents a new chance for cycling," said the 26-year-old Cancellara from Bern, who alluded to the doping affairs which have left cycling battling for its credibility. "Everyone is aware of the (doping) problems in cycling. But I'm doing this sport to show that I can be an example for the future."
While Astana team rider Klöden gave a glimpse of his form - his team leader Alexandre Vinokourov finished seventh at just 30secs behind Cancellara - American George Hincapie was devastated with his third place. The big New Yorker finished 23sec adrift with home favourite Bradley Wiggins crossing the line in the same time in fourth.
"I'm disappointed, very much so," said Hincapie. "I wanted to win the prologue here and I'd worked very hard for it. But I gave it all I had."
Russian Vladimir Karpets, who finished in a promising sixth place for his Caisse d'Epargne team, admitted Cancellara - and Klöden - were simply a notch above the rest. "My performance wasn't too bad, but Klöden and Cancellara were amazing," said Karpets, who is programmed to help the yellow jersey bid of Alejandro Valverde while aiming for a top finish himself.
"I'm still motivated, and I hope to play a major role in this Tour."
England's pre-race favourite, reigning world and Olympic track pursuit champion Wiggins came over the finish line visibly upset.
He later lamented his failure to claim an historic win on the streets on which he used to cycle as a teenager. "I gave it everything. I thought I'd really had the perfect race. I didn't brake at all throughout. But I couldn't have gone any faster," said Wiggins.
Scotland's David Millar, the prologue winner in 2000, was a little more philosophical after finishing a respectable 13th at 33secs behind Cancellara. "To tell you the truth I didn't really have too many hopes that I could win it today, especially with the condition I've had in the past two months," said the Saunier Duval rider. "I'm happy with my performance, and my time. As I said, I didn't have the greatest of form coming into the race."
The Scot added: "I'm disappointed more for Brad than for me, because I think he really could have done something today. I don't know if he'll get the chance to win another stage. But for me personally, the Tour is far from over. I'll be going for another stage win."
Cancellara, sporting a recent beard - because his lost luggage has not yet arrived - came into the prologue with huge expectations on his shoulders, and admitted he had felt the pressure. "Having the rainbow jersey and being one of the favourites for the
prologue: how could I not feel the pressure?"
But that was lifted in a matter of minutes as he sped his way to the fastest time of the field, including Klöden and Hincapie, at the 4.5km mark. In the end he finished with room to spare, and able to give his watching manager Riis a welcome smile.
"I'm like a Swiss clock," said Cancellara. "I know how to race against the clock, and like all Swiss people, I'm pretty determined."
The yellow jersey, however, may not stay on his shoulders for long. The first and second stages are likely to finish in bunch sprints, giving the likes of Norwegian Thor Hushovd, who is 41secs behind Cancellara, a sniff - if he can manage to claw a few seconds back from intermediate sprints, and grab vital bonus seconds at the finish line.
"The important thing is to have the yellow jersey. I really hope I'll be returning to France with it," finished Cance.