One year ago Levi Leipheimer was the defending champion at the Dauphiné Libéré, but lost the prologue by one second to Bradley Wiggins. Fast forward 12 months and the Californian was victorious by the same margin, this time over powerful Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd.
"For sure I'm in a better form than one year ago when I was coming back racing after a break following the Tour of Georgia," said Leipheimer.
He felt at ease on the 5.6 km prologue course around the historical town of Avignon. "I like straight and non-technical time trials," he explained. "When I saw the course I knew it was a good one for me. With a tail wind, it was even better. I felt great. The racing conditions were much better for me against riders like Thor Hushovd who is very good in corners."
The rider from Crédit Agricole was confident he'd win the race when he crossed the line 11 seconds faster than the previous best, then held by Maxime Monfort from Cofidis. "When I heard how big the gap was, I thought I'd win today," Hushovd said. "I know that Levi is a specialist but I didn't think he'd go so well after riding the Tour of Italy. It means he came out of the Giro with a lot of speed in his legs.
"As for myself, I shouldn't be disappointed," added Hushovd. "I didn't prepare specifically for this time trial because I have a few more things to think about at the Dauphiné, like sprinting and finishing the race as a preparation in the mountains for the Tour de France.
"I have won two prologues already this year (at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Catalunya) and I remember I won the prologue of the Tour de France by thousands of a second (to George Hincapie who came 27th here in Avignon). I prefer to win at the Tour de France, but I know, there's no prologue at the Tour de France this year..."
Now Hushovd knows just how well Leipheimer came out of the Giro. "I was on my mountain bike in California when I got a phone call," said the American. "I thought it was a joke, it was Friday or Saturday and I had to be in Sicily by Wednesday. It was stressful. I felt like a student going for an exam without having studied for it. I felt I wasn't prepared, so I had mixed emotions.
"I hadn't done races of the level of the Giro, that's why I wasn't that strong in Italy. But Alberto (Contador) was incredible and I've tried to help him to win. In doing so, I've done a lot of training during three weeks. I have recovered well from the Giro."
With no Tour de France coming up for him, Leipheimer doesn't have the dilemma of whether or not to hold back in the Dauphiné. "The Dauphiné has always been part of my plan for this year," he added. "I've always liked this race. It's a mini-Tour de France. It's a long way to go till the end of the race on Sunday. We've only done 5km. But I'm in good shape, there's no reason I cannot win it again."
The other race favourites showed good form as well with Alejandro Valverde finishing third. "I knew that my time on the finishing line would be a very good one but I did not think that I would be so close behind specialists like Leipheimer and Hushovd," said the Spaniard. "My result is evidence that I am already in very good condition and I hope that I will be achieve a good race here even if it is not the main goal. The Dauphiné is the best preparation for the Tour de France and also the best way to see our rivals' level. But if it is also possible to win a stage, even better!"
Cadel Evans was also satisfied. A sixth place was a relief for him after the doubts following his tendonitis. "I had a good ride apparently," said the Australian. "I felt good from the start. It was a good test to see how the other riders went also. I'm happy for now. It looks like I haven't been affected by my interruption in my lead-up to the Tour. I came to the Dauphiné with no big expectations. It's still a long way to go into this race before I draw any conclusion."
Hushovd fancies his chances of taking the yellow jersey from Leipheimer before Wednesday's time trial, but the hierarchy is clear already: the American from Astana is on the front line with no energy to spare for the Tour de France while the favourites for July are watching their condition not too far behind.
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