As sporting setbacks of the year go, David Millar's in yesterday's centenary Tour de France's opening prologue could well prove a worthy candidate.
A gap of less than a tenth of a second, caused by a jumping chain, separated the Scot from what would have been a memorable win, which went instead to the Australian time-trial specialist Bradley McGee. For the overwhelming Tour favourite, Lance Armstrong, seventh place was completely unexpected.
A winner in the 2000 Tour prologue, Millar was shaking his head, his voice thick with rage as he faced the press seconds after crossing the line here in Paris, all too aware that a mechanical problem had deprived him of his key objective of the season.
"I'm bitterly disappointed," the 26-year-old Scot said. "My chain came off just before I was going into the last corner. And I'm not the only rider in my team who's had the same problem today."
Having set what would remain the fastest intermediate time halfway through the 6.5-kilometre (4-mile) course, five seconds ahead of the German 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, Millar seemed bound for glory. But with less than 500 metres left he began turning the pedals cautiously as his chain slid out of place.
After an agonising few seconds, it slid back into position, more than sufficient to cause a lapse of concentration in the Cofidis rider, who was so focused that before his starting slot he asked his team's directeur sportif to show him signs indicating the time left before he was scheduled to roll down the ramp. Millar battled on bravely round a final right-hander and across the final, interminable section of Parisian pavé, crossing the line less 0.08sec behind McGee.
To lose the stage and the race lead and yellow jersey that came with it by so little must have been a sore blow, particularly given that the Scot suffered another mechanical problem in the 2001 prologue at Dunkirk. A puncture then sent him flying in the final kilometre when he was close to repeating his win from the previous year.
McGee had words of consolation for Millar "I'm a mate of his, my heart goes out to him, and I'll buy him a beer when the race finishes in Paris" but was also delighted at his biggest victory.
"It was a very fast course, and I felt dead nervous before the start, but this is bigger for me than the Olympics," the 27-year-old said afterwards.
But for all that McGee rides for a local team backed by the French lottery, fdjeux.com, his winning ticket was not wholly surprising. The Australian has a string of world track titles in his palmares, as well as an Olympic bronze medal in the same speciality in Sydney.
More puzzling was Armstrong's performance. The four-time Tour winner has twice taken the prologue, but finished yesterday seven seconds adrift of McGee. Last off and having made a last-minute decision to wear the yellow jersey, as tradition dictates the previous winner should do but which the Texan had previously refused to contemplate, he pounded away with his characteristically high cadence but was nine seconds down on Millar at the intermediate split.
By the time he flashed under the finishing gantry, Armstrong had pulled back two seconds but was still five short of his key rival Ullrich and one down on Tyler Hamilton, his former US Postal domestique, now team leader for the Danish squad CSC. Minimal differences perhaps, but they will give pause for thought to Armstrong's rivals, raising as it does the remote possibility that the Texan may not be as strong as anticipated.
"I didn't feel bad but I didn't feel great either," Armstrong said. "I made a mistake not coming in to check the course yesterday but that was my decision."
Doubts sparked by the Texan's performance will only begin to be resolved in the next important date, stage four's team time-trial next Wednesday.Reuse content