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Cancellara takes Tour prologue

Lance Armstrong was just two seconds shy of winning the Tour de France prologue and taking the yellow jersey on Saturday. But by finishing second to Swiss Tour debutant Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) in the 6.1km time trial in Liège, he still dealt a first blow to his main rivals for a sixth overall victory. On a flat, windswept course, Armstrong took 15 seconds and more out of German Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), American Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Spaniard Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Ullrich surprised everyone by placing only 16th, while Hamilton was 18th, conceding 16 seconds to the

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Armstrong finishes second

By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Cancellara was confident once McGee fell short

Cancellara was confident once McGee fell short

Photo: AFP

Cancellara takes Tour prologue

Cancellara takes Tour prologue

Photo:

Lance Armstrong was just two seconds shy of winning the Tour de France prologue and taking the yellow jersey on Saturday. But by finishing second to Swiss Tour debutant Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) in the 6.1km time trial in Liège, he still dealt a first blow to his main rivals for a sixth overall victory.

On a flat, windswept course, Armstrong took 15 seconds and more out of German Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), American Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Spaniard Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

Ullrich surprised everyone by placing only 16th, while Hamilton was 18th, conceding 16 seconds to the defending champion, and Mayo was a further five seconds back.

The U.S. Postal team had more reason to feel happy by taking the day’s team prize by placing four of its riders in the top 20. They were second-place Armstrong, George Hincapie (10th at 12 seconds), Floyd Landis (17th at 0:18), and Viatcheslav Ekimov (19th at 0:19), all riders who will be strongmen for the team time trial next Wednesday.

Armstrong – who did not wear the yellow jersey, as the defending champion is supposed to – was quick to accept the early jump on the three rivals with cautious appreciation.

“I am a little surprised but it is a long, long race,” he said. “You don’t know, they may be more prepared for the longer and harder climb. Jan will be super. Trust me.

“It’s disappointing to lose the yellow jersey by a couple of seconds. I felt strong. I felt good. I knew warming up I was having a good day.”

Also giving cause for Americans to cheer were former Tour podium finisher Bobby Julich (CSC) and podium hopeful Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank), who finished ninth and 13th at 12 and 15 seconds, respectively, after both produced fast halfway splits.

Julich started hard and was in fifth place at six seconds as he passed the 3.1km mark, where he just avoided falling. Later, he said he still had fuel in the tank.

Strong performances by Hincapie and other Posties brought the squad today's team prize

Strong performances by Hincapie and other Posties brought the squad today’s team prize

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“I slid out of the turn a little at the roundabout,” said Julich. “Otherwise I was feeling good. But I was not 100 percent confident of giving it 100 percent. I had more to give. But it was over so quick.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Postal directeur-sportif Johan Bruyneel anticipated a top ride from Armstrong. And he rated it as top against such masters of the short time trial as 23-year-old Cancellara and third-placed Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Illes Ballears) of Spain, who was at eight seconds, followed by last year’s winner Brad McGee (Fdjeux.com) from Australia, who was fourth at nine seconds.

“Lance was in the running to win. The fact he almost won is a good sign,” said Bruyneel. “Physically he is a lot better. Last year he was not 100 percent strong … he never was during the Tour de France.”

As last man to start, Armstrong knew the mark he had to beat – Cancellara’s 6:50 – and that it was going to be a tough task. That neither Gutierrez nor McGee were unable to improve on it was as clear a sign as Armstrong needed.

Cancellara, in his fourth season as a professional, was the 142nd rider to start the prologue. He was sublime in his performance, racing through the 3.1km mark in 3 minutes and 19 seconds.

The last rider to mark his Tour debut with a victory on the first day was Scotland’s David Millar in 2001, when (in a year with no prologue held) he won the first long time-trial stage at Futuroscope

The last Tour debutant to win a prologue was England’s Chris Boardman at Lille in 1994 in a record average speed that still stands – 55.152 kph over a 7.2km course.

And before that, Tour history goes back another 11 years to Belgian Eric Vanderaerden, who won the prologue at Fontenay-sous-Bois in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris.

Understandably, Cancellara had the biggest grin of anyone in the 188-strong field after watching 46 riders try to better his blistering time and its average speed of 53.561kmh.

He said he sensed he would hold on for the win after McGee crossed the line after a ride the Australian labeled as “not perfect, but solid.”

Asked if he was worried about Armstrong’s threat while watching the American, Cancellara said: “I was quite sure (of winning), but not completely. The favorite was McGee, but when I saw he finished at nine seconds I knew I had a really good chance to win the prologue.”

Cancellara, who played soccer before taking up cycling at age 14 when he found his father’s bike in the family garage, has ambitions to prove himself as more than a specialist against the clock.

“I don’t want to be considered as just a time-trial specialist,” he said. “It is important to win other stages and races. But it is still great to have the yellow jersey in my first participation of the Tour de France.”

Until Saturday, Cancellara said the highlight of his road-racing career was winning the opening stage of the Tour of Qatar this year.

“The most important day of my career was winning a stage on the first day. It was my first win in a road race, rather than just a time trial. It is important to show I can win them.”

Rough day at the office for Aussies

Two riders who were not smiling after the prologue were Aussies Matt White (Cofidis) and Mick Rogers (Quick Step), teammates on the Olympic road-race squad.

White’s Tour ended before it began. He broke his right collarbone and took had four stitches above the eye after a crash while warming up several hours before the prologue.

While upset to miss out on his first Tour after near-misses in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003, White is still confident of being available to ride in next month’s Olympics at Athens.

“It is not a bad break,” said White, who also sported swelling and bruising to the right of his face. “I am in perfect condition and still have six weeks.

“I could also have started the Tour and maybe last a week or even two. But to do so would ruin my shoulder for the rest of the year and my season would be over. I have to look after myself and see where I go from here. But hopefully I will be racing again in three weeks.”

Rogers, aiming for a top-15 finish overall, at least got to start the Tour. But he crashed at the roundabout after 3km. While escaping serious injury, he estimated that the fall cost him at least 30 seconds.

“The Tour is long and there are still plenty of mountains and a long time trial to come,” said Rogers who placed 121st at 40 seconds.


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