Though he wasn't to know it at the time, Andy Schleck lost the 2010 Tour de France on the opening day, conceding 42 seconds to Alberto Contador in the Rotterdam prologue. Fast forward 12 months, and the Luxembourger now finds himself unexpectedly 1:20 clear of Contador after a fractious finale to the first day's racing.
After the finish atop the Mont des Alouettes in the heart of the Vendée, Leopard Trek team manager Brian Nygaard was keen to keep a lid on excitement at his rider's early gain, warning that the Tour's unforgiving opening week could snatch Schleck's unforeseen bounty away from him just as easily as it had granted it.
"It'll be a question of whether we still have that gap at the foot of the first really big climb," Nygaard told Cyclingnews. "If that's the case, then yes, it's an advantage. But as today showed, we'll have to get there first for this time to really count."
In the build-up to the Tour, Schleck had pronounced that the race would only truly begin with the first bona fide summit finish to Luz Ardiden on stage 12. The Schleck brothers have themselves suffered among the slings and arrows of the first week of the Tour in their time, but Nygaard agreed with his rider's statement.
"Every day is important in the Tour and Andy knows that as well," Nygaard said. "But as we've seen, there hasn't been any Tour that hasn't been mainly or largely decided in the mountains. I think history speaks for itself in that regard."
Contador lost his time after being caught behind a crash that split the peloton with little over 15km to go. Along with Samuel Sanchez's Euskaltel-Euskadi team, he attempted to chase back on, but with RadioShack and Omega Pharma-Lotto driving the bunch up front, he would ultimately lose 1:20 to the other overall favourites.
"We knew it would be a nervous peloton because when we don't start with a prologue everyone can go not just for the stage win but also for the jersey," Nygaard pointed out. "All the teams here want their guys to be at the front but there's no room for all of them and crashes happen."
The Schleck brothers each have a high quality chaperone on the Tour's flat stages, with Stuart O'Grady riding shotgun with Andy and Fabian Cancellara keeping tabs on Fränk. Nygaard was pleased that his Leopard Trek outfit was balanced enough to defend Schleck on stages such as this one.
"There's no scenario where you can 100 per cent avoid crashes," Nygaard said, before perhaps making a veiled reference to Saxo Bank-SunGard's efforts to bring Contador back on after the split. "But you can try to have a team that's strong and versatile enough to be there on these kinds of finishes as well and not just on the climbs."
For a brief moment on the final drag to the line, it looked as though Fabian Cancellara might repeat his winning run on the Tour's opening day, but the Swiss rider had to give best to the flying Philippe Gilbert. Nonetheless, Nygaard felt that his efforts augured well for Sunday's team time trial, where a well-drilled Leopard Trek team will have another chance to put time into Contador.
"Today was about staying safe and getting up there and maybe even going for the win like Fabian did," Nygaard said. "It put us in a good position for tomorrow. We've been really looking forward to the team time trial because we believe we have a very strong possibility both to gain time and to take the stage win."
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