Cycling: Millar best of the Brits

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A decade after he won the Tour de France's opening time-trial, Britain's David Millar rolled back the years in yesterday's prologue here when he stormed to a fine third place behind the overwhelming favourite, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.

Largely forgotten in the media excitement over the new British team Sky making their Tour debut, the 33-year-old Scot was just three seconds down on the early leader, Germany's Tony Martin, at the midway checkpoint. His tall, painfully lean figure crouched over the bars of his time- trial bike, the Garmin-Slipstream rider said later he had barely touched the brakes as he screamed round the corners of the rain-soaked 9km city-centre course. He finished just 20 seconds down on the Olympic time- trial gold medallist Cancellara, the closest he has come to repeating his surprising victory as a rookie Tour rider 10 years ago.

"I knew it would be difficult to beat the top times but I wanted to have a good try anyway," Millar, who remains Britain's last Tour leader, said later.

"I had a bad fall earlier this spring so I've learned not to take too many risks, but riding fast in the rain has always been one of my strong points. Today I could take advantage of that."

Millar was the best of Britain's eight starters – the highest number since 1968 – pipping the British national champion, Geraint Thomas, who ended up fifth, by three seconds.

In contrast, Bradley Wiggins had a low-key start, finishing 56 seconds down on Cancellara. The 30-year-old Londoner started three hours before the majority of the favourites and hoped to take advantage of the humid, hot air that usually precedes thunderstorms, which were forecast for Rotterdam yesterday evening.

Scientists working for British Cycling prior to the 2008 Olympics had discovered that such conditions can save as much as a tenth of a second per kilometre. But the heavens suddenly opened and Wiggins's early start saw him ploughing through sheeting, torrential rain. Wiggins's overriding goal switched from trying to gain time on his rivals to the more mundane one of avoiding crashes.

The weather then dried up slightly, providing an opportunity Millar was quick to use.

Sky team officials later said that Wiggins had got through the stage without any mishaps – no small achievement considering that two riders quit the race in ambulances after skidding on the treacherous surface. But Wiggins felt that his performance was only a minor setback. Differences between the overall favourites when the Tour finishes in Paris on 25 July will be measured in minutes, not seconds.

"I always said it wasn't going to be about the prologue," Wiggins said. "There was no point in taking risks and losing three minutes."

British success in the Tour's opening weekend now hinges on HTC- Columbia's Mark Cavendish, the Manx sprinter who will be looking to secure the 11th Tour stage win of his career this afternoon in Brussels.