World Champion Cancellara conquers Maillot Jaune
Two years after the tragic terrorist events of July 7, 2005 London welcomed the Tour de France to England for Le Grand Départ in Angleterre. On a simply super summer Saturday, Swingin' London was cycle city UK as over one million spectators lined the 7.9-kilometre course through central London for the best attended and most festive prologue ever in the history of the Tour de France. As Big Ben rang out at 1500 Italian Enrico Degano was first off on a spectacular course that started in Whitehall, past the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace then through the green heart of London via Green Park, Hyde Park, along the Serpentine where the stately swans swam unperturbed as the cyclists sped by at 50 kilometres per hour. Then it was back for home through Green Park, over the gentle rise of Constitution Hill and in with a run along The Mall.
Three years ago in Liège, Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara shocked defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong by winning the Tour prologue by two hundredths of a second, and today, resplendent in the rainbow jersey of World Time Trial Champion, he produced a powerful performance worthy of his nickname "Raging Bull." The CSC man pounded through the intermediate time check on South Carriage Drive fastest and consecrated his effort with a huge final kilometre to ride a 8'50"740, the only rider under the nine minute mark to take the first Maillot Jaune of the 2007 Tour de France.
Cancellara explained post-race that "Today is the second prologue win for me at the Tour; the last time I won in Liège and beat Lance and today it was great to win here in London as a race favourite. In Liège, no one really talked about me as a winner but here it was different and I had a lot more pressure because I am World Champion. I showed already that I was in good condition in the Tour de Suisse. And I also think that it's a great thing for cycling that the Tour starts in London with such great crowds."
Although CSC team boss Bjarne Riis was declared persona non grata by Le Tour, the enigmatic Dane was out and about anyway today in London as a private citizen. Cancellara commented that "Without Bjarne, it's different on the team, but we have good directeurs and we are all going the same way on this team. It's the number one team in the world. Yes, it's really hard that he's not with us but we are old enough to handle this and are professional bike riders, after all. It's important for the team and the sponsors to show what we can do and here. CSC has a headquarters in London and we've showed that the team is ready for the Tour."
Cancellara continued his positive message in London and explained, "I want to set an example for the other riders, for the young riders and for the future by my performance here. I have always given the maximum to my sport and I think that when you give it your all and work hard it can pay off." But the bemused Maillot Jaune then explained why he had a five o'clock shadow by saying "I have a message for British Airways," joked Cancellara. "I haven't shaved because I don't have anything to shave with! I'm still waiting for my suitcase that hasn't showed up yet so I hope I get it back soon!"
Runner-up today was one of Astana's overall Tour de France favourites Andreas Klöden. The slim German has deceptive power in his elegant style, resulting in a superb ride, second, a long 13" adrift from Cancellara but the best of all the 2007 Tour's GC contenders. "Things went pretty much the way I had hoped. I am very happy with my performance and I am also happy I put time into my main GC competitors," said Klöden after his run. Quite clearly in superb form, but still a further 10" behind Klöden in third place was American George Hincapie of Discovery Channel.
Likely riding his final Tour for Discovery before he goes to T-Mobile in 2008, the US Road Race Champion didn't disappoint. But Hincapie himself wasn't so pleased with his ride in London. "Yeah, I'm disappointed," Big George told Cyclingnews. "I wanted to win today. I worked very hard to try to win today and so third place is not a good thing. During the race, I went very hard. I pushed it all the way. He [Klöden] must have really flown."
Hincapie reflected, "I got second last year so it was a disappointment not to win today. I gave it my all. I felt like I left a little bit for the end, but in the last kilometre I was really on the limit." But Hincapie had shown he is back and bad; a real strongman for the Tour de France in 2007. "Yes, the prologue was one of my objectives. I am in great shape, I am fresh and I reckon I will be lucky one of these days in the Tour."
It was close but no cigar for Londoner Brad Wiggins, who finished just behind Hincapie in fourth. The World Individual pursuit champion, just didn't fire on all cylinders in his hometown today. Fifth place went to another Discovery Channel rider, Russian Vladimir Gusev, who came home 25" behind the Maillot Jaune and gave the Disco boys two riders in the top 10. Gusev was quick enough to be first in the competition for the Maillot Blanc of best young rider. Just behind Gusev in sixth was another talented Russian, Caisse d'Epargne's Vladimir Karpets. Based on his excellent prologue ride today, the long, lean Karpets, recent winner of the Tour de Suisse, is now a dark horse overall contender.
Astana's Alexander Vinokourov ended up seventh with a discreet ride today, 30 seconds behind Cancellara and just ahead of Rabobank's young talent Thomas Dekker. As for the best of the rest, US Time Trial Champion Dave Zabriskie was just outside the top 10 in 11th, a decent performance that was somewhat slower than expected from the Z-man. And despite waves of adulation from the gathered masses, in London, it wasn't Millar time today as Saunier Duval's pre-race favourite David Millar could only manage 13th. Millar told French TV post-stage that "I tried to win but I didn't have the form. I am satisfied with the way things went. It was a magic day anyway and it's far from finished for me since I want to win a stage at the Tour. Today is so special with all the English people who came out to see the Tour."
Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador was the first pure climber in today's totally flat prologue and the Tour sophomore finished an excellent 15th place today, just ahead of Astana's dangerous Kazakh Kashechkin. While Contador's Discovery team leader passed the finish line with a chagrined look and a sub-par performance in 26th place, 40" behind Cancellara and already 27" behind rival Klöden in the race for the Tour de France title.
Another Tour contender who may in fact be a pretender is Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde, who had a poor ride today to finish 32nd and lost a half-minute to rival Klöden. Today's La Gazzetta dello Sport repeated the possible Operación Puerto evidence relating to the Spaniard whose team doctor during his years at Kelme was Eufemiano Fuentes, the same doctor at the heart of the doping affair. Page three of the investigation documents published on June 27, 2006 referenced blood bags with a "VALV. (PITI)" code name. Further, Valverde was linked with the "18" that was used in the Puerto shelving documents issued by Spanish judge Antonio Serrano March 8 of this year, however, the Spanish cycling federation has always denied that the code number related to the cyclist.
Needless to say, the 2006 ProTour winner showed he was clearly feeling the pressure today in London. Post-race Valverde was not too worried, "I felt good but it was really a course for the specialist but I am pleased with my performance."
How it unfolded
After torrential rains and disastrous floods put a furrow in the brow of organisers and racers alike in the weeks before the start, the magic that is the Tour de France shined on the prologue in London and fans and riders were treated to crystal clear blue skies and mild temperatures for the 7.9-kilometre route through central London.
All 189 riders took the trip down the start ramp and sped past Buckingham Palace to the delight of massive crowds stacked five deep along the roads of London. Even Rabobank's Oscar Freire soldiered through a painful cyst to take on the prologue.
Enrico Degano was the first rider to set out onto the sometimes bumpy, sometimes technical parcours, but Crédit Agricole's William Bonnet, the young French rider who took second to prologue favourite Bradley Wiggins, set the most durable early fast time with a 9'26. It wasn't until Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Mikel Astarloza rode two seconds faster that Bonnet could step down from the 'hot seat.'
CSC's Paris-Roubaix champion Stuart O'Grady was setting the new fast time at the intermediate sprint, but he took one of the last turns too hot and clipped a barricade. The contact set him off course into another of the dividers, and he tumbled dramatically to the pavement. Not seriously injured, he climbed back onto his machine and finished the race with his number flapping in the wind.
After 25 minutes atop the leader board, Astarloza was unseated by the American time trial champion David Zabriskie, but Dave Z's lead ended before he could climb off his bike when Russian Vladimir Karpets smashed his time by six seconds with a 9'16".
Karpets enjoyed a cool half-hour on the hot seat before another Russian Vladimir, Discovery Channel's Vladimir Gusev, man-handled his time trial bike to a time less than one second faster than Karpets.
As GC prospects Alejandro Valverde and Fränk Schleck gingerly worked his way to the finish to avoid any accidents on the tight turns, and the sprinters muscled their way through the course in an attempt to stay within time-bonus distance of a yellow jersey. Gusev enjoyed his time on top but he could only sit back and watch in dismay as Astana's Andreas Klöden rocked the house a full 13 seconds faster in 9'03.
Hometown heroes Bradley Wiggins and David Millar couldn't touch Klöden's time, much to the disappointment of the British crowds. Wiggins came within ten seconds, but was pushed down a rung on the board by Discovery's George Hincapie by a fraction of a second.
After Levi Leipheimer, Stefan Schumacher and Cadel Evans failed to unseat the German's seemingly unreachable time, CSC's World TT champion Fabian Cancellara was on the course tackling every turn with perfect lines and making his rainbow jerseys a blur to the spectators. He demolished the intermediate time check a full seven seconds faster than Klöden, and continued his domination to the line taking 13 seconds out of the Astana rider to win his second career Tour prologue (first in 2004).
Stage 1 - Sunday, July 8: London - Canterbury, 203km
After a roll-out through London across the Greenwich Meridien where stage one officially starts, the peloton heads east along the Thames, then south across the North Downs and eventually back east across Kent to the finish within sight of the famous cathedral of Canterbury.
A rolling course that will favour an early break that will then be pulled back before the finale, where sprinters like Petacchi, McEwen, Freire, and Boonen will be looking for the first victory.
Climbs: Km 94.5: Côte de Southborough: 2.3 km climb @ 4.1% avg. grade / 4th Cat. Km 121: Côte de Goudhurst: 1.6 km climb @ 5.3% avg. grade / 4th Cat. Km 183: Côte de Farthing Common: 1.1 km climb @ 6.1% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Sprints: Km 46: Gillingham Km 76: Teston Km 140: Tenterden