Tony Martin and local favourite Tom Dumoulin may be the men most widely-tipped to don the first yellow jersey in Utrecht on Saturday afternoon, but they will both be keenly aware that it is now fully a decade since Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) suffered his last – and to date only – defeat in an opening day time trial at the Tour de France.
That statistic is mitigated in part by the fact that the Tour has, under Christian Prudhomme’s stewardship, increasingly dispensed with a prologue, yet Cancellara’s record remains an impressive one. Stretching back to his debut victory in Liège in 2004, he has won five of the six opening time trials he has ridden at the Tour. The lone off-note, incidentally, was a seventh place finish in the longer, 19km test to Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile at the 2005 Tour.
“They’ve all been special in different ways, none of them are the same,” Cancellara said on Thursday of his wins in Liège, London, Monaco and Rotterdam. “They have all been crazy somehow. In the end, they were just special days.”
After dominating the discipline through his late twenties, when he landed four world titles and an Olympic gold medal, Cancellara has scaled back his commitment to time trialling in recent seasons and has won just twice against the clock in the past two years. In his two most recent time trial outings, at last month’s Tour de Suisse, he was beaten by Dumoulin on each occasion.
“In the past, it has always been a successful start for me with the time trial,” Cancellara said. “I had some tough times at the Tour de Suisse but now I’m confident and looking forward to Saturday. I’m used to dealing with pressure and ambition. It’s just you and your bike on the parcours, at maximum effort for 14 kilometres.
“Tony Martin, Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin are the names who should be up there too. Dumoulin has the most pressure of all, riding at home, and he showed big form at the Tour de Suisse.”
The success or failure Cancellara’s Tour will not hang on one quarter of an hour in Utrecht, of course, and he will be expected to be to the fore on Tuesday as the peloton tackles the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix en route from Seraing to Cambrai. Three times a winner of the Hell of the North, Cancellara missed the chance to join Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck atop the roll of honour this year when a crash ended his Classics campaign prematurely, though he demurred at the idea that the Tour’s jaunt over the pavé would provide a do-over of sorts.
“Paris-Roubaix’s in April and we’re in July now: the Tour de France is different to Paris-Roubaix,” Cancellara said. “But it’s clear that the experience I have on the pavé can help. We’ve seen last year and in 2010 that anything can happen and for some riders the Tour could even be over.
“There are other things beyond the pavé, too, because the course gives us a lot of possibilities in general this year. We’ll see day by day. The first two days are very nervous, a lot of stress. We’ll see how things change tactically on account of that. But right now, the first objective is Saturday and we’ll see how things go there.”
Cancellara famously shepherded Andy Schleck into the front group on the pavé in 2010 and while he is likely to have a freer role this time out, at other points during the opening week he will doubtless be called into the service of his Trek Factory Racing teammate Bauke Mollema, who is among a clutch of riders harbouring ambitions of a top five finish in Paris.
“Every day is going to be different. It starts with the time trial, there’ll be wind on the stage to Zeeland, then there’s the Mur de Huy.” Cancellara said. “That’s a really short stage, and the shorter the stage the more nervous the race. There are a lot of riders on this Tour and a lot of guys who want to be in front, so it’s going to be chaotic. Then we go to Mur-de-Bretagne, then the team time trial. Every day there’s something.”
There seemed a mix of wariness and weariness in Cancellara’s voice. Certainly, his devotion to the Tour is not what it was during his time at CSC. Two years ago, for instance, he skipped the Tour completely, while last time around, he left the race early to focus on his preparation for the World Championships. Openly mulling retirement when his current contract expires at the end of 2016, Cancellara was non-committal when asked if this, his tenth Tour, might also prove to be his last.
“Nothing is decided yet because in cycling you never know how your programme can change,” Cancellara said. “It’s my tenth Tour and at the moment it might look that it will be the last but in the end I am focused on what is now, and next year is far away.
“I have thought about how this could be my last participation and my last possibility to ride to Paris and that’s also on my mind. I have my goals and ambitions and I’ll also try somehow to enjoy the race.”
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