Bradley Wiggins got his Tour de France challenge off to a solid start as he rode to second place in the opening prologue time trial in Liège. Although beaten by the Olympic time trial champion, Fabian Cancellara, Wiggins finished ahead of all of his rivals for final overall victory in the 6.4-kilometre test along the sweeping boulevards of the so-called City of the Prince-Bishops.
Given the brevity of the time trial, the margins between the contenders were accordingly tight, but Wiggins can still be pleased with his afternoon's work. The Sky leader gained 10 seconds on the defending champion, Cadel Evans, 11 on Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and 28 over a lacklustre Frank Schleck.
Perhaps more significant than the time gained, though, was the message delivered. Wiggins's run of victories to date in 2012 had prompted some of his rivals to suggest that the Briton had committed the cardinal error of peaking too soon ahead of the year's main event, but this assured performance suggested otherwise.
The early signs for Wiggins were not promising, however. A study in concentration as he waited on the start ramp on the Avenue Rogier, the Briton quickly tucked into his familiar aerodynamic position once underway, but he trailed Evans by one second at the midway point of the course.
Wiggins had elected to approach the uneven roads of the opening half with due prudence, and such caution was justified as the world time trial champion, Tony Martin, lost his hopes of victory when he punctured after hitting a pothole early on.
Scarcely breaking from his metronomic rhythm throughout, Wiggins began to regain ground on the short rise that climbed from the River Meuse towards the finish, precisely as his rivals were starting to feel the strain of their efforts, and he crossed the line with the day's provisional best time of 7min 20sec.
At that point, with 10 more riders still to finish, it was already clear that only Cancellara – the master of the discipline for the best part of a decade – could threaten Wiggins's time. Along with the Sky team leader, the Swiss rider was the only man to pitch his effort perfectly over the second half of the course, and he duly maintained his seven-second midway lead to the line.
There was no shame for Wiggins in being soundly beaten by a rider of Cancellara's calibre. Starting with victory as a raw 24-year-old in 2004 – also in Liège – Cancellara has never been beaten in a Tour de France prologue in his career, and has now ended the Tour's opening day in yellow on no fewer than five occasions.
"It's phenomenal to win here eight years later, I watched the video of it recently and a lot of things have changed," said Cancellara, whose early season was ruined by a broken collarbone in April. "I'm very proud to take the win after all the problems I've had this year. There was a lot of pressure on me out there."
The old cliché states that the Tour de France is a marathon rather than a sprint, and Wiggins can be quietly pleased with the fledging steps of his three-week endeavour. The 32-year-old has honed his form with a series of lengthy training camps at Mount Teide in Lanzarote under the watchful eye of his Australian coach, Tim Kerrison, who only came to cycling in 2010 after a successful spell at British Swimming.
Their collaboration has been something of a novelty in the sport, with Wiggins prioritising training over racing as a means of sharpening his form ahead of the Tour. With victories at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, their approach has yielded rich dividends thus far, but the acid test is still to come.
Tipping the balance in Wiggins's favour at the Tour are the 100 kilometres of time trialling featured on the route, an area in which he will expect to build a significant time advantage over his rivals. Wiggins is backed by a redoubtable Sky team, who were hugely dominant at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné.
While the burden of defending the yellow jersey will be carried by Cancellara's RadioShack-Nissan team, Sky's men in black are likely to a constant presence on the front even before the mountains loom into view next weekend, and Edvald Boasson Hagen (5th at 11sec) and Chris Froome (11th at 16sec) were also strong performers in yesterday's prologue.
Sunday's opening road stage, from Liège to nearby Seraing, is a deceptively difficult 198km trek through the Ardennes. As ever in the Tour's early exchanges, space will be at a premium at the head of the peloton, as 198 pairs of fresh legs compete for the best positions, and the short, sharp hills that litter the course are an additional hazard that will require extra vigilance from the overall contenders.
A tough climb to the line on stage one means that Mark Cavendish may have to wait until Monday's flat stage that culminates in Tournai for his first real chance of victory. The world champion finished the prologue in 40th place, and was bullish about his chances of adding to his tally of 20 Tour stage wins this week, even if his Sky team are devoted almost entirely to helping Wiggins become the first Briton in history to win the race outright.
"We're here to win the yellow jersey, we have to do that first and foremost," Cavendish said. "I might not be as dominant as other years, but I think I can win stages, otherwise I wouldn't be here."
Today's stage Liege–Seraing (198 kilometres)
Features nasty little 2.5-kilometre uphill finale. Staying close to the front to avoid splits in the bunch is crucial for Wiggins.
Stage to watch this week Tuesday 3 July: Stage 3 Orchies–Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Crosses rolling wind-blasted plains of northern France with a tough little uphill finish that often features in the region's premier bike race, the Four Days of Dunkirk. Expect crashes and splits in the peloton as the race hits the coast roads and no less than five short punchy climbs in 35 kilometres.
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