Bradley Wiggins came through yesterday's first road stage of the Tour de France with his second place overall intact despite arch-rival Cadel Evans' spirited attempt to split the pack late on and a devastating, if unsuccessful, late attack by race leader Fabian Cancellara.
The 2011 Tour de France winner was in his element in the two kilometre uphill finish at Seraing in Belgium – Evans clinched a victory on the agonisingly steep Mur de Huy climb in the nearby Flèche Wallonne Classic three years ago and took his sole stage win in last year's Tour on the Mûr-de-Bretagne ascent. And yesterday the Australian veteran's prolonged acceleration helped shred the front group to some 45 riders.
Amongst the lead pack, though, was Wiggins, who started the final ascent, a nasty mix of cobbled roads, twists and turns through the grimy backstreets of Seraing, a little further back than was ideal. But the Briton steadily forged his way through the splintering peloton, and completed the stage with no time lost on his rivals and in a respectable 18th place on the stage.
If Evans' ambush failed to catch Wiggins out, the BMC rider was also unable to stop Cancellara from blasting off in style a kilometre from the summit. Well-known as a gifted time triallist and Classics specialist – the Swiss rider has both World Championship and Olympic titles in his palmarès – Cancellara's move was so powerful that only the Slovak up-and-coming all-rounder Peter Sagan could follow.
While Wiggins' Sky team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen made an energy sapping attempt to bridge across to the lead duo, Sagan, on the other hand, cunningly sat on Cancellara's back wheel, thus saving slightly on energy despite the race leader's attempts to get him to collaborate in keeping the gap open.
In the last 200 metres, as Boasson Hagen managed – finally but futilely – to make contact, Sagan was poised to pounce. Cancellara led out the sprint but Sagan, who has now taken a staggering 37 wins in a two-and-a-half year career, surged past to claim the win with what seemed like a minimal effort.
"I'd been here to see the stage finish, checked out every metre of the climb yesterday, and I was determined to try to win something different to my usual time trials," Cancellara said afterwards. "I thought the best way to finally try to defend my lead was with an attack."
"If I had tried to collaborate with Cancellara, I wouldn't have been able to beat him," Sagan retorted, before pointing out that yesterday's shallow but relentlessly steady climb "was a good finish for time triallists like Fabian, me, Evans and Wiggins who know how to pace themselves."
If Wiggins rose to the occasion, one of the greater setbacks for Sky was his team-mate Chris Froome, who lost 1 minute 25 seconds in the closing kilometres after he had a flat tyre with 14 kilometres to go. Second overall in the Tour of Spain and viewed as a second option for Sky's overall classification challenge, Froome's bad luck does not wholly rule him out of the battle, yet, but it does him no favours.
"It was a very fast uphill finish and Chris was very unlucky," Sky's sports director Servais Knaven told The Independent. "He almost regained contact with the front group but then there were so many riders getting dropped he had a hard time getting past them all. Those things you don't have in your hands, you can't control. It's a real shame."
One of the few interest points en route to yesterday's high speed showdown at Seraing was when Mark Cavendish – who in theory has all but ruled himself out of a repeat bid for the green jersey of best sprinter this year – unexpectedly took part in the intermediate sprint at Erezée.
Cavendish was unaided by Sky but the Briton nonetheless netted himself eight points, with his former team-mate Matt Goss just squeezing ahead of him in the pack.
"You never know what can happen in a three week stage race. It [the green jersey] is not a priority but he didn't use up too much energy and this could be important," Sky's other Tour sports director, Sean Yates, explained.
And as Froome's bad luck showed, for Sky to keep as many options open as long as possible is proving a sound strategy.
Wiggins' strong ride yesterday followed a rock-solid performance in Saturday's opening prologue. Even if he did not secure the victory as he had wished in the 6.4km race against the clock, second place behind a time trial specialist like Cancellara nonetheless netted the Sky rider a 10 second advantage on Evans.
Given that this was Cancellara's fifth prologue victory in the Tour in eight years (and second in a Tour start in Liège), to lose to the RadioShack Nissan leader was no disgrace. The Briton's second place – his third in a prologue this year – confirms that his status as bookies' favourite for the Tour is wholly justified, and will provide almost as big a morale boost to the Sky troops as a yellow jersey would have done.
Cavendish, meanwhile, will have his first big chance to add to his points total on today's flat stage to Tournai through western Wallonia, an area where he scored one of his earliest ever victories as a fledgling professional back in 2007 in the late season Circuite Franco-Belge stage race.
Back in 2007 was the 11th pro victory of his career; today if he wins in the Tour de France it will be his 21st in the race – and would make the Manxman the fifth most prolific stage winner in the history of the entire event. As Knaven predicted yesterday: "He will be motivated for sure."
Tour de France 2012 Day One and Day Two details
Tour de France 2012, (Liege (ITT), France Leading final positions after Prologue (Saturday, Liège (ITT), 6.4km): 1 F Cancellara (Swit) RadioShack-Nissan 7mins 13secs, 2 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling at 7secs, 3 S Chavanel (Fr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time, 4 T van Garderen (US) BMC Racing Team at 10, 5 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at 11, 6 B Lancaster (Aus) Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team at same time, 7 P Gretsch (Ger) Argos - Shimano at 12, 8 D Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team at 13, 9 P Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team at same time, 10 A Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team at 15, 11 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling at 16, 12 P Velits (Slovak) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 17, 13 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at same time, 14 V Nibali (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 18, 15 R Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 16 D Millar (GB) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 17 S Cummings (GB) BMC Racing Team at same time, 18 J Voigt (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at 19, 19 A Kloden (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at same time, 20 N Nuyens (Bel) Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank at 20 Selected Other: 41 M Cavendish (GB) Sky Procycling at 23secs
Leading final positions after Stage 1 (Liège-Seraing, 198km): 1 P Sagan (Slovak) Liquigas-Cannondale 4hrs 58mins 19secs, 2 F Cancellara (Swit) RadioShack-Nissan, 3 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling, 4 P Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team, 5 B Mollema (Neth) Rabobank Cycling Team, 6 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Movistar Team, 7 R Gesink (Neth) Rabobank Cycling Team, 8 D Martin (Rep Ire) Garmin - Sharp, 9 R Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Sharp, 10 D Devenyns (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep, 11 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team, 12 S Chavanel (Fr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep, 13 S Gerrans (Aus) Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team, 14 S Dumoulin (Fr) Cofidis, Le Crédit En Ligne, 15 V Nibali (It) Liquigas-Cannondale, 16 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling, 17 J Brajkovic (Sloven) Astana Pro Team, 18 N Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale, 19 P Rolland (Fr) Team Europcar, 20 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team all at same time. Selected Others: 95 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling at 1min 25secs, 128 M Cavendish (GB) Sky Procycling at 2:07, 155 D Millar (GB) Garmin - Sharp at 3:01, 168 S Cummings (GB) BMC Racing Team at 3:41.
General classification after Stage 1: 1 F Cancellara (Swit) RadioShack-Nissan 5hrs 5mins 32secs, 2 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling at 7secs, 3 S Chavanel (Fr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time, 4 T van Garderen (US) BMC Racing Team at 10, 5 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at 11, 6 D Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team at 13, 7 P Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team at same time, 8 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 17, 9 V Nibali (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 18, 10 R Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 11 A Klˆden (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at 19, 12 B Mollema (Neth) Rabobank Cycling Team at 21, 13 M Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan at 22, 14 J Brajkovic (Sloven) Astana Pro Team at same time, 15 C Vande Velde (US) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 16 R Taaramae (Est) Cofidis, Le Crédit En Ligne at same time, 17 J Peraud (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at 23, 18 T Martin (Ger) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time, 19 M Marcato (It) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team at same time, 20 V Gusev (Rus) Katusha Team at 24. Selected Others: 84 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling at 1min 41secs, 106 M Cavendish (GB) Sky Procycling at 2:30, 144 D Millar (GB) Garmin - Sharp at 3:19, 158 S Cummings (GB) BMC Racing Team at 3:59.
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