By Jean-François Quénet in Amilly
Changing weather played a key role in the result of the prologue at Paris-Nice, the race that was the subject of much controversy all last week in the ongoing battle between organizers ASO and the UCI. Euskaltel-Euskadi's Markel Irizar was one of the first 40 riders who started before the rain came in. At the end, it was dry again for the last 40 riders.
Despite continued threats from the UCI to sanction both teams and riders if they took part in the event, the event got underway with all invited teams on the start line. In the lead up to the event the UCI's Pat McQuaid threatened riders who start Paris - Nice with a six month suspension and possible sanctions against their teams.
Organisers of the race, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) has opted not to participate in the ProTour and instead of running the event under UCI sanctioning, Paris-Nice is being run under the rules of the French federation. After a meeting held on the Friday before, the teams defied the UCI (see reports) and decided to take part in the race. It is not yet known whether the UCI will follow through on threats they made to sanction riders and teams.
Already a winner of the prologue of the Tour de France – 2006 in Strasbourg – Thor Hushovd was the only rider able to beat the performance of Irizar, who came close to what would have been a huge surprise win in the inaugural 4.6-kilometre time trial of Paris-Nice in Amilly. The 30 year-old Norwegian took the yellow leader's jersey with four seconds over the Spaniard and five over German Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) .
"When I saw it yesterday, I realised it was a good course for me," the winner explained. "This morning, my team manager, Roger Legeay, added that the rainy weather was also in my favour. I hadn't prepared myself for winning that prologue. I came here mostly in preparation for the Classics with the idea of winning a stage on Monday or Tuesday."
With a stage win at the Tour Méditerranéen and a third place at the Het Volk, Hushovd is having a much better start for the 2008 season than he had last year with no win until stage four in the Tour de France. "Last year, I waited with the idea of peaking for Milan-Sanremo, but I got sick and I was always in search of my form. I've had no problems this year. I also trained with more intervals earlier than usual. I did it again this week and it pays off now."
"The rain made the course technical," Bradley McGee explained after coming fourth. The winner of the 2003 Tour de France prologue was back in business on the road after training for the pursuit with the Olympics in mind. "I didn't feel at my best, but I was really calm and physically, I delivered a good performance. I'm in a much better condition than two years ago when I finished third in the prologue of Paris-Nice, and I had to go home two days later; I don't expect anything like that this week."
"These short prologues are always weird because they end up so close with tiny margins deciding the outcome," added McGee according to team-csc.com. "But I actually felt really good out there so I'm very satisfied with today's result. It's a good platform for the rest of the season. I didn't get any rain, but the roads were wet and I think it was the same for everyone."
Hushovd was optimistic about stage one Monday with its 184.5km from Amilly to Nevers. "I know about the final 800 metres uphill with a gradient of seven to eight percent, but I think I can make it. Philippe Gilbert is the main danger if he attacks with 200 or 300 metres to go. I'm still here for winning on Monday or Tuesday."
See Cyclingnews' complete coverage of the Paris-Nice prologue.