Alberto Contador (Astana) showed his class once again by winning the opening stage of the 67th edition of Paris-Nice. Contador beat Bradley Wiggins (Garmin - Slipstream) by seven seconds on the 9.3-kilometre course made dangerous by constant rain throughout the day. Spanish champion Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) rounded out the podium. Tony Martin (Columbia-Highroad) finished fourth and leads the young rider classification.
Nobody was surprised about Contador's win - except Contador himself. "I am a good time trialist, but this was a short distance, a flat course, not really my thing, and then against all those time trial specialists..." Contador also blamed the weather for a sub-standard ride. "Moreover, with the rain, I did not take extreme risks in the corners. Of course, everybody had the same bad weather conditions. I am becoming more and more a complete rider."
Despite tests in San Diego and subsequent news that Contador had changed his time trial position, Contador emphasised that he rode as always. "No, I did not change anything on my position on the bike. It is exactly the same as in 2008."
Contador won the race in 2007 and he left little doubt that in 2009 any potential winning candidate must challenge the Spaniard. "For tomorrow's stage we will have to be attentive to defend the jersey," continued Contador. "Although this yellow jersey is nice, it is more important for us to have that jersey next Sunday in Nice."
Chavanel sets early mark
Sylvain Chavanel held the best time for an hour, eventually dropping to seventh. "I cannot be disappointed for not winning because the gaps are significant: 12 seconds on Bradley Wiggins, 19 seconds on Alberto Contador. They are top specialists!"
Chavanel was an early starter, which may not have been beneficial. "There was less wind for the last riders to go. What I learned essentially from this time trial is that the good condition is there for me. I have other jobs to do during Paris-Nice than trying to win the time trial. I expected to be high in the classification but not necessarily winning."
It wasn't a typical Paris-Nice prologue. "Nine kilometre is longer than a prologue and it suits me well," said Chavanel. "The bad weather conditions were also good for me, it doesn't disturb my riding. Now I have good condition, so anything can happen."
The Frenchman revealed his tactics for the remainder of the race. "I'm not sure if I'll be able to compete against the pure climbers in the Montagne de Lure on Friday so it'll be better to try and make them fall into a trap in the earlier stages."
Cervélo TestTeam's Sports Director Jean Paul van Poppel elaborated that small choices made the difference on this rainy day. "On the intermediate check at the 5.3km point, Hayden Roulston was six seconds behind Bradley Wiggins who had the fastest intermediate time to that point. But in the turn there was a headwind and Roulston chose the wrong gear and ended in 30th place down by 35 seconds."
Van Poppel added that the weather for the second stage was supposed to be much better. "The time gaps at the top of the classification are very small so the riders in the right breakaway can take the victory and the leader's jersey."
One rider who became a victim of the weather was Saxo Bank's Gustav Larsson. "Larsson was really strong today, but unfortunately he crashed due to the slippery road when he actually had the second best time," said Sports Director Kim Andersen after the race. "Tomorrow we must keep Fränk [Schleck] and Chris [Sørensen] in front of the peloton because of the strong winds, and otherwise try to get a rider in a breakaway."
Schleck kept his losses at a minimum, riding to a time of 11:41. He was preceded by his teammate and neo-pro Jakob Fuglsang, who scored a 11:37.
Eltink kicks off Paris-Nice
Theo Eltink (Skil-Shimano) was the rider to kick off this year's race at 13:10. He set a 12:28 for the first benchmark, which eventually earned him 155th place out of 159 riders.
The spectator's favourite Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) set the first exclamation point with 11:24. This would give the Frenchman seventh place in the end.
Chavanel's time stood for an hour before prologue specialist Bradley Wiggins pulverised it - he went 12 seconds faster than Chavanel.
Then came all the favourites and things heated up in cold Amilly. Tony Martin (Team Columbia - Highroad) produced an 11:17. He couldn't get past Wiggins, but was second. He wasn't there for long, as Spanish champion Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) slipped in-between Wiggins and Martin.
Then came Contador and he quickly extinguished any hopes from his competitors. Three seconds faster than Wiggins at the first check, the Spaniard picked up speed over the second half of the course to beat Wiggins decisively.
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