Fabian Cancellara put a season blighted by injury and illness behind him in Monaco, winning the opening stage of the 96th Tour de France to confirm his status as the best time triallist in the world.
Even on a course that was not best suited to his talents, with the tough climb of the Cote de Beausoleil coming at half-distance, the Olympic time trial champion annihilated the opposition. Behind him, clusters of riders were separated by one or two seconds – but there was clear daylight to Cancellara, who was some eighteen seconds faster than the second-placed overall favourite, Alberto Contador.
"It’s a special moment and I’m very proud to be one of the favourites and to win," said Cancellara, who won the prologues in 2004 and in London two years ago. He explained that his strategy on the course had taken the climb into account: he was five seconds down on Contador at the summit, but made up the deficit, and built his lead, in the second half.
"With the first uphill section the tactic was to take it easy, and not give it my maximum and use up lactic acid," said Cancellara. "On the flat afterwards I knew I could make the difference. Bjarne Riis told me I started strong, he could see the splits, but also that I was riding at my own pace.
"I want to keep the yellow jersey for as long as possible, but there’s 3,500km to the finish. I will look to keep it to the team time trial [on Tuesday], but take it day-by-day. I don’t want to give [yellow] back. Like [after] London, it would be nice to keep it for seven days, but a lot can happen. There are tactics, and we have our goals over the coming weeks. I want to enjoy the moment but still focus on what’s coming."
Cancellara admitted that he had struggled to overcome the illness and injuries that wrecked his spring campaign, including his bid to win the Tour of Flanders. Since then, he said, he has done "a lot of training, [made] a lot of sacrifices. I needed to rediscover my form, but I knew the season was long and that it wasn’t finished. Flanders was my main goal for the spring but I didn’t have form.
"My choice was to ride the Giro, get kilometres in my [legs], then ride with the team in the Alps, ride behind the motorbike, and then the Tour of Switzerland." He confirmed he was back with wins in his national tour and national road championship. “I’ve come from the back,” he said, "I’m getting stronger and stronger – now I’m really back."
As he said, yesterday he was able to “put the hammer down, and get everything out."
"I had an unlucky period in April," he added, “but I had to cope with that situation. I had three or four years with just victories, but I got through this period with lots of help from my team and family. It makes me even prouder [to win], and shows that I’m [mentally] strong."
Cancellara also revealed that he had lowered his saddle by a millimetre just before the start – "I felt I needed to," he said. And he finished by adding his support for his countryman, Roger Federer, in Sunday’s Wimbledon final: "We’re a small country, but we’re good at sport!"