Bradley Wiggins' chances of becoming Britain's first Paris-Nice winner in more than four decades got off to a near-perfect start as he took second place in the race's opening time trial, one second off the pace.
It was a defeat, but only a relative one. Yesterday Wiggins was the fastest of all the favourites for this eight-day event, which in France is second in importance only to the Tour itself and which riders often consider to be a "mini-Tour" in terms of speed, difficulty and prestige.
Wiggins, third overall last year, was faced with two options when the heavens opened midway through the hilly and technical 9.4km time trial: avoid risks in torrential rain, or go for broke.
Easing back was the option taken by most of the pre-race favourites, including last year's winner, Tony Martin, who finished 28th, and the Tour de France contender Andy Schleck, who was a lowly 142nd. But Wiggins rode a near-faultless course despite the conditions and only Sweden's Gustav Larsson – who was lucky to start before the rain – stayed outside his grasp.
In a race that is often won by seconds rather than minutes, Wiggins' courage has ensured a 24-second lead on Martin. Other expected contenders, like the German veteran Andreas Kloden, second last year, and Schleck are all but out of the running.
For the next three, flattish stages Wiggins' mission will be to stay close to his rivals and out of trouble. The Briton's next big chance to strengthen his position comes on Thursday, when stage five ends in a blisteringly steep 3km ascent to Mende airfield.
In the Tour of Murcia, Devon's Jonathan Tiernan-Locke came within a whisker of continuing his brilliant series of early-season victories, finishing second overall.
The Endura rider is cycling's breakthrough story for the new season, having to his name a run of five wins that have included defeats of the Belgian Classics star Philippe Gilbert and the 2011 Tour de France leader Thomas Voeckler. In yesterday's 12km trial, the 27-year-old added two more scalps – the top Dutch rider Robert Gesink and the Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez. Only Columbia's Nairo Quintana outpowered the Briton.
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