Already a winner of the prologue of the Tour de France – 2006 in Strasbourg – Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) was the only rider able to beat the performance of Euskaltel-Euskadi's Markel Irizar, who was close to creating a huge surprise 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).
The changing weather had played a key role in the result of the opening prologue, which did include all the teams originally invited by ASO, even though the International Cycling Union (UCI) had threatened to sanction both teams and riders if they took part in the event. This is part of the ongoing battle between the sport's ruling body (the UCI) and the powerful French conglomerate that owns many of the world's major cycling events. The teams voted on Friday to race and they presented themselves on the weekend, ready to race (see reports).
While many members of the cycling community have seen dark clouds over the sport in the past two weeks, Hushovd remained focused on his job. "I've never been afraid of not riding Paris-Nice after the non-selection of Crédit Agricole for Tirreno-Adriatico," he said. "I'm naturally optimistic. I'm convinced that the people responsible for our sport will now agree on the best way to run the show."
And it wasn't just Hushovd who was relieved to finally start racing, as the sport has been caught in a bitter power struggle between two parties that seemingly have irreconcilable differences on how to develop road cycling's commercial potential.
So even if it started to rain in Amilly during the opening prologue, there was great relief as the racing finally began. Indeed, 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. "It was still slippery, but I manage to direct my bike and I was happy to enter the top 10 considering the handicap we had," said Ukraine's Andriy Grivko (Team Milram) who was the best young rider of the prologue.
"The rain made the course technical," Bradley McGee explained after coming fourth. One of the major news of the day is that the winner of the 2003 Tour de France prologue is 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."
While there were a lot of expectations around David Millar (Slipstream Chipotle - H30), who had won the prologue of Paris-Nice last year, the Scot came 11th while Hushovd took the best of the course. "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."
One of the riders having performed well in the first heat was his team-mate from Crédit Agricole, William Bonnet. Hushovd was informed of his intermediate times. "After the first curve to the right, I held some energy and I was two seconds behind Bonnet," Hushovd added. "But after the last curve I accelerated and I gave everything. I felt a lot of strength in my legs. The last two kilometres were very hard with headwind, but that's where I've won the race."
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."
He's also optimistic for stage one. "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." It would be even nicer with the yellow jersey.
The race resumes tomorrow with a 184.5-kilometres stage from Amilly to Nevers.