LIEGE, Belgium — Fabian Cancellara gave some joy to his troubled RadioShack Nissan team as the 99th Tour de France began on Saturday, winning his fifth opening-day prologue at cycling’s premier race in the same Belgian city where he edged Lance Armstrong eight years ago.
The 31-year-old Swiss rider proved he’s positively dominant in time trials over the 4-mile race against the clock in Liege. This time, Cancellara outclassed another Tour title favorite: Bradley Wiggins, aiming to become the first Briton to win the Tour, was 7 seconds behind in second.
Cadel Evans embarked on his title defense in solid form, finishing 13th – but importantly, 10 seconds back of Wiggins, who many see as the main threat to the Australian’s hopes of a repeat.
Cancellara is unquestionably the world’s best time-trial rider, but isn’t considered a Tour contender because he often struggles in the mountains.
“What a great opening – again!” Cancellara said. “I did the most I could. It’s not always easy. I always do the maximum ... It’s a great feeling and this certainly takes some of the pressure off.”
The Tour start offered a welcome return to racing – three weeks and 2,168 miles criss-crossing France, nosing into Switzerland, and scaling climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees before the July 22 finish on Paris’ Champs-Elysees. Two other individual time-trials await.
RadioShack, built on the remains of teams that Armstrong led to a record seven Tour victories, has faced a rough patch.
Its current leader, Andy Schleck, is staying home to nurse a spinal injury he sustained in a crash in the Criterium du Dauphine in June; team manager Johan Bruyneel – Armstrong’s longtime mentor – is staying away to avoid being a distraction to the team and the race.
In a further embarrassment, Enrico Carpani, a spokesman for cycling governing body UCI, said it received information from several RadioShack riders that they’d faced delays in receiving some salary payments. Team spokesman Philippe Maertens said he believed they had been paid.
Brushing aside the team’s issues, Cancellara said he was focusing “on what I have to do – and that’s riding my bike.” He said the victory, which he dedicated to his pregnant wife, was doubly rewarding because he broke his collarbone in the Tour of Flanders in April and wasn’t sure he’d be at his best for the Tour prologue.
Cancellara has now earned the leader’s yellow jersey for 22 days in his career, equaling the marks of other Tour greats, including two-time winner Laurent Fignon. of France, American triple champion Greg Lemond and Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. All of Cancellara’s prologue victories have been outside France: He beat Armstrong by two seconds in Liege in 2004, and also won in London in 2007, Monaco in 2009, and Rotterdam in 2010.
Wiggins, a three-time Olympic champion, said he believed going into the prologue that “there was a man who could beat me: There is always Fabian, he is the best in the world when it comes to time trials.”
Evans, too, said he’d expected to be outclassed in the prologue, and put his ride into a broader perspective.
“Not good, but not bad,” the Australian said. “Of course I’d rather concede less seconds, you never want to lose time ... I’ve got one (general classification) rider ahead of me, but I was kind of half-expecting that. Wiggins, what his background is, is these short efforts.”
“For me the real racing starts tomorrow,” Evans added. “I’m just happy to get it going, and looking forward to some good racing. ... It’s like 6 kilometers out of 3,500 or so, so in that regard it’s a small comparison.”
His American team, BMC, had some bright spots.
In addition to the Australian’s solid performance, Tejay van Garderen, a 23-year-old American, placed fourth – 10 seconds behind Cancellara – and earned the white jersey for the best young Tour rider. Near the other end of the cycling career lifespan, 39-year-old compatriot George Hincapie began his 17th Tour – setting a new record. He placed 22nd.
“It hit me on the podium, I probably should have been thinking about the effort,” said Hincapie. “The priority is helping Cadel.”
Wiggins’ 10-second gap over Evans was double that of the margin he put into the Australian in the slightly shorter opening time trial in the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month – a weeklong stage race seen as a key warm-up for the Tour.
Despite jittery first-day nerves, only a few riders ran into mishaps. Tony Martin, the reigning world time trial champion, was the day’s highest-profile casualty: The German rider got a flat tire, raised his hand to his team staffers, and had to change bikes – and crossed 15 seconds back of Chavanel, who was leading up to that point.
Promising young Slovak rider Peter Sagan briefly skipped off the road and lost time.
As defending champion, Evans had the honor of riding last among the 198 competitors who rolled down the starter’s ramp for the race against the clock in the cycling-crazed city, where untold thousands of fans lined the route.
Sunday’s first stage takes riders over a mostly flat, 123-mile loop from Liege to the nearby town of Seraing.