The God of Thunder strikes in Strasbourg

Thankfully, after the dramatic events of yesterday, there was something else to talk about. Flying...

Thankfully, after the dramatic events of yesterday, there was something else to talk about. Flying down Strasbourg's Avenue Herrenschmidt and passing through the arrivée with a time of eight minutes seventeen, Crédit Agricole's Thor Hushovd set a magnificent average speed of 51.429 kilometres per hour, surpassing 176 others and earning the right to wear the first maillot jaune of the 93rd Tour de France.

"In my mind, I did the perfect time trial," stated the 28 year-old Norweigan. "To win a prologue, you have to be in good form, and I've been really confident the last few weeks, the last month, because I knew my form was here. And with the experience from other years, I'm quite sure this is my best form ever.

73 hundredths of a second separated Hushovd from second - but he had to wait until the very last coureur to find out, as it was Discovery Channel rider George Hincapie's time that almost saw the 33 year-old American from South Carolina steal the maillot jaune from under Thor's nose.

Responded Hushovd about beating a host of prologue specialists: "Yeah, I'm surprised, but I knew I could win. In 2004 [Tour de France], in Liège, I was fifth, so that shows when I have good form, I can do well in prologues."

Providing some indication as to just how tight this Tour will be, four riders - David Zabriskie (Team CSC), Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) and Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) - all finished four seconds behind Hushovd.

No doubt, the biggest surprise packet here is Valverde; it appears the versatile sprinter/ climber has added another arrow to his quiver of talents, and his skills against the clock have now improved to such an extent, the 26 year-old Spaniard has become a world-class prologue rider.

Out of this quartet, Lang and O'Grady would be thinking about collecting enough bonus seconds for a bite at yellow, and the following stages provide plenty of opportunity. But Hushovd isn't thinking about letting it go.

"For the team, and as well for me, it's really important to try and keep this jersey as long as possible, and I'm sure we will try and defend it as many days as we can," he said. "The perfect day for us tomorrow is to let a few guys go away, and then we are going have a few other sprinters' teams help us [chase down the break]... then the big fight between me, Boonen and McEwen starts - and then we see who is fastest."

Other good performances came from world time trial champ Michael Rogers (T-Mobile Team), Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), seventh to tenth respectively. And Joost Posthuma's 23rd placing was enough to give the 25 year-old the opening maillot blanc as best young rider.

The former winner of a stage in last year's Paris-Nice had the fastest split time, but couldn't maintain his efforts till the end, finishing 16 seconds of the mark. "The motor switched off and there's a really nasty wind blowing out there," said Posthuma to Cyclingnews.

""I know that I'm a specialist and started off full gas. I'm really dead now, so that's a good sign... I couldn't do it much faster," he said. "With Menchov, Rasmussen and also Freire for the sprints, I think our team might surprise many people in the Tour de France."

Has this set the scene for a clean, interesting, watchable Tour de France?

"I really hope the public will follow us, and the atmosphere in the Tour will be really nice," said Hushovd. "Of course, with what's happened in the last days, it's not easy; it's not nice when something like this happens before the start of the Tour. I think it's very sad for cycling, but I think it's sometimes good to clean things.

"You also have to think about [all of] us still here. We really worked a lot to be selected for the Tour, and cycling is our life... we really like our sport, and I just hope the public will keep on supporting us."

So maybe not totally clean, but certainly cleaner than it was one day ago. Interesting? Yes; instead of two outright favourites, there are now at least eight contenders with a shot at winning overall.

And watchable? Le Tour should never be missed.

How it unfolded

The 93rd Tour de France opened today with a fast, completely flat and somewhat technical 7.1km rush through the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg. Starting in the Square de Tivoli, the course headed east and then makes a right and left turn to head along the Parc de l'Orangerie, then made another left to head south along the Basssin des Remparts canal with an intermediate time check after 3.7km on the Quai des Belges.

700m later, the prologue made a sharp right after 4km into the city streets, where the course got more technical for a kilometre. With 2km to race, the parcours burst back onto the wide Boulevard d'Anvers and finished on the Avenue Herrenschmidt in front of the Palais de la Musique et des Congres.

On a beautiful sunny afternoon with temps around thirty degrees and a northwest wind 10-15km/h, Frenchman Cederic Coutouly (Agritubel) first of 176 riders off at 1:15 CET, and early fast time was set by Phonak's Ralph Grabsch at 8'31.890" at 1:33. American Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) got within one second of Grabsch, but the Phonak man held on to the lead as the clock passed 2pm. But fifteen minutes later, his German countryman Seb Lang (Gerolsteiner) hammered home 10" faster in 8'21.80, a 51.0km/h average.

German TT champ Lang stayed in the lead, as O'Grady got within two-hundreths of a second, while best GC rider to that point was Caisse d'Epargne's big Russian Vlad Karpets in 8'27". Wearing dossard #11 as CSC team leader, Paris-Nice prologue winner Bobby Julich, who started fast but finished out of the top 10 up to that point. Discovery Channel's Yaro Popovych finished in 8'37", 10" behind Karpets for a decent time, while next up was French TT champ Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), but the Frenchman slowed in the final.

Lang had held the fastest time for over an hour and as the westerly increased during the course of the afternoon, making the two last kilometres of the Tour prologue became harder and harder. Discovery Channel's Giro d'Italia prologue winner Paolo Savoldelli screamed home to third fastest time, just ahead of Karpets, while Saunier Duval's Mr. Clean David Millar came through the time check 8" behind the best time, showing a little lack of power after his long absence from competition. Millar's average was 50km/h and his time was excellent, just 7" behind Lang.

After almost two hours in the lead, Seb Lang saw giant Viking Hushovd (Credit Agricole) power home with the new fastest time of 8'17.01", an average speed of 51.4km/h. It would be difficult to best Hushovd's time, but the Tour de France's best riders were still yet to race. ProTour leader Valverde got close with his 8'21.92" but was just twelve hundredths behind Lang for third fastest at that point. Big bad Boonen was next up and the Quick.Step world champ had a strong ride to finish in 8'28".

Looking like a giant preying mantis with his outré Oakleys, Phonak's Floyd Landis had a clumsy start, losing an estimated 8-10 seconds as his team mechanic changed his cut tire just before the start rather than risk a flat on the road. Crouched his Obree-esque TT position, the American powered to 8'26", showing his great form as the Tour starts, and his mechanical may have cost Landis the maillot jaune. Next up was a compact, focused Leipheimer, who clocked a respectable 8'38.61, just under 50km/h.

Yet another Yank hit the road, as CSC's pre-race favourite David Zabriskie (CSC), winner of the 2005 Tour stage 1 TT was quick out of the start house, and at the intermediate time check on the Quai des Belges, was just 0'01 behind leader Hushovd. '01 Tour Prologue winner and AG2R leader by default Christophe Moreau then came home with a good 8'30, while T-Mobile's World TT champ Mick Rogers crossed the line in his rainbow jersey in 8'23.31, still 0'06 behind Hushovd.

As Zabriskie was streaking towards the finish over the last two kilometres, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie was off to a great start in the prologue. Big George was 1" behind Hushovd and equal with Dave Z at the intermediate time check and tongue akimbo, powering a huge gear, Hincapie was simply flying through the streets of Strasbourg. At the finish line on Avenue Herrenschmidt, Zabriskie missed beating Hushovd by 4.22 seconds and it was now just down to Hincapie to unseat the Norwegian from the lead.

Under the flamme rouge with 1km to go, Hincapie looked like he could grab the first maillot jaune of the 2006 Tour, but as he threw his bike at the line, the digital chronometer above the finish line revealed that the Discovery Channel rider had lost by just .73 hundredths of a second. Thus, the honour went to Credit Agricole's 28 year-old Norwegian from Grimstad, Thor Hushovd, who had won Gent-Wevelghem and a stage of the Volta a Catalunya this season and took his third Tour de France stage win for the biggest win of his career.

Although the 7.1km Prologue won't make a difference in the final general classification, it's a good indication of which favourites are in good form at the start of the three week Grand Tour. GC riders George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Floyd Landis (Phonak), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Christophe Moreau (Ag2r), Andreas Kloden (T-Mobile) and Bobby Julich (CSC) all finished in the top 30 within 20" of new maillot jaune Hushovd.

Further back were Discovery Channel's Popovych (32nd @ 20") and Azevedo (49th @ 20"), Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer (36th @ 21"), Rabobank's Denis Menchov (56th @ 26"), while Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) lost 41" to finish 126th. But with 3,650km and three weeks of racing to go, the 2006 Tour de France is still wide open.

Sunday, July 2 - Stage 1: Strasbourg-Strasbourg, 183 km

Sunday's flat sprinters' stage starts and finishes in Strasbourg, with a 30km incursion into Germany at the end of the stage. After heading north for 30km to the rolling hills of Kocherberg, the parcours turns south after the first sprint in Saverne along the narrow, winding Route de Vins, then through Molsheim, the home of Bugatti just before the feed zone.

The Tour heads south for another 15km until the one and only GPM of the day, a Cat 4 climb on the 1.1km Cote de Heiligenstein with 83km to go. Then it's due east, then due north for another sprint in Plobsheim, across the Rhein River into Germany, through Offenbach and yet another sprint in Kehl at the Franco/German border with 9km to go before heading back to France to finish on the Avenue de la Foret Noire.

Sunday should be a tight, tense day with plenty of crashes as always to set-up a big battle between Boonen's Quick.Step, McEwen's Davitamon-Lotto and Zabel's Milram teams to knock off maillot jaune Thor Hushovd and his Credit Agricole squad and win the first en ligne stage at Le Tour '06.

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