The last time there was an opening time trial at the Tour, two years ago, Tony Martin thought he’d done enough to win. He completed the 8.9 -kilometer course around the wet, windswept streets of Rotterdam in 10:10, at a speed of 52.522 kph. It was a great ride, putting him 10 seconds clear of the previous best, a 10:20 by Brit David Millar. But the road surfaces dried out a little before stage favorite Fabian Cancellara entered the start house and the top-form Swiss aced the course in exactly 10 minutes to take the win.
In previous years, Cancellara dominated the 2009 time-trial opener in Nice (that was a 15.5-kilometer test, double the normal prologue distance) and the 2007 prologue in London (where he beat runner-up Andreas Klöden by a whopping 13 seconds over 7.9 kilometers). These wins followed his first prologue victory at the 2004 Tour, when Cancellara was a wide-eyed 23-year-old riding his first Tour, and making a huge impression by beating the eventual Tour winner Lance Armstrong by one second over a 6.1-kilometer course around the streets of Liège, Belgium.
Eight years later, kicking off the 2012 Tour this Saturday afternoon, Cancellara has a chance of repeating that win on an almost identical course. The organizers wanted it to be the same as the 2004 circuit so they could compare times, but roadwork has forced them to make it slightly longer, at 6.4 kilometers. In ’04, Cancellara averaged 53.561 kph around the frying-pan-shaped loop for a time of 6:50. If he averages the same speed this time, RadioShack-Nissan’s multi-time world time trial champ will need to ride the course in 7:10; so that’s the winning time to look for on Saturday afternoon.
Conditions should be the same for all the 198 starters, with no rain in the forecast, 70-degree temperatures and a steady southerly breeze at 20 kph. The wind will give the riders a fast start and middle section alongside the Meuse River, and a tough cross- and head-wind finish around the curving Boulevard de la Sauvenière—the famous street that saw the finish of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic in the Sean Kelly era.
The fight for the stage win (and the first yellow jersey) will almost certainly be between Cancellara and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Martin—who will be eager to get revenge for his loss two years ago. Among the possible challengers for the prologue win are Tour rookie Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale and veteran Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Sharp, while top sprinters Mark Cavendish of Team Sky and André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol could pull off a surprise over such a short distance.
As for the GC riders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma, Klöden of RadioShack and Ivan Basso of Liquigas are the only ones to have ridden the Liège prologue eight years ago, with Leipheimer the best of them in 2004, only 15 seconds behind Cancellara. This time, the best of the overall contenders should be defending champ Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and his main challenger, Brad Wiggins of Sky.
Wiggins could even challenge Martin and Cancellara for the stage win; but he hasn’t always performed at his best in Tour prologues. At the last one, in Rotterdam two years ago, the Sky team management sent Wiggins off in an early spot, in the belief that he would catch dry conditions before the forecast rain arrived. Instead, he caught the worst of the weather and came in a very unhappy 77th, almost a minute slower than Cancellara. Even when the Tour start was in his native London, in 2007, Wiggins underperformed, finishing fourth, 23 seconds behind Cancellara. And that was when the Brit was principally a track racer and only year away from retaining his Olympic individual pursuit title.
When you see the result of this Tour’s prologue, it might be informative to compare it with the result in 2004, especially to compare the time gaps between Cancellara and the other men who raced then and are on the Tour start line again now. This is the 2004 result: 1. Fabian Cancellara, 6.1km in 6:50; 7. Jens Voigt, 0:11; 10. George Hincapie, at 0:12; 13. Levi Leipheimer, at 0:15; 24. Andreas Klöden, at 0:19; 30. Vladimir Karpets, 7:12; 32. Stuart O’Grady, at 0:23; 43. Bernhard Eisel, at 0:24; 52. Sylvain Chavanel, at 0:27; 59. Alessandro Petacchi, at 0:28; 60. David Moncoutié, at 0:28; 70. Ivan Basso, at 0:29.
But the battles everyone is focuses on are Cancellara versus Martin and Wiggins versus Evans. We’ll find out who can gain the psychological upper hand after each of them completes their seven minutes of pain. It’s a great way to start a Tour!