GLORY IN ENGLAND. What an incredible day of racing through the streets of London! Hundreds of thousands of Londoners turned out for the tour depart. The 8-kilometer Prologue of the Tour de France wound its way past such historic places as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace. London has never shined quite like this, nor has it been treated to such a spectacle--the world's best 189 cyclists going flat out through the old city to launch the 94th Tour de France. (photo: a cyclist flies past Buckingham Palace)
WHY A PROLOGUE? The Prologue is a short time trial, each rider out on the road alone, competing against the clock. Its role in the Tour is to set the stage, giving an initial time and placement for each rider before the 20 stages begin. At 8 kilometers, today's course was short and fast--less than 10 minutes! Tomorrow's Stage 1 will be over 200 kilometers from London to Canterbury--a multi-hour ordeal. The Prologue rarely predicts the race winner, but few Tour de France winners ever finish outside of the top 20 of this first test.
HOW IT UNFOLDED. After two Russians--Vladimir Karpets and Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel)--laid down a challenging time for the top contenders, the fireworks started. German Andreas Kloden (Astana) set a new, seemingly unapproachable mark--12 seconds better than Gusev. American George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) rode well to finish third on the day, proving he's made his way back after a broken wrist in the Tour of California. All London cheered as its native son, Bradley Wiggins, crossed the finish line just hundredths of a second behind Hincapie's time. But the day's glory went to the current world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (in photo). The CSC rider from Switzerland blistered the course, finishing in 8 minutes, 50 seconds--13 seconds better than Kloden. He will wear the Yellow Jersey as the race leader tomorrow.
TOP TEN AFTER THE PROLOGUE. Here are the top 10 finishers for the Prologue, along with the marks of other pre-race contenders for the tour win:
1. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland - CSC - 8'50")
2. Andreas Kloden (Germany - Astana - -13")
3. George Hincapie (America - Discovery Channel - -23")
4. Bradley Wiggins (England - Cofidis - -23")
5. Vladimir Gusev (Russia - Discovery Channel - -25")
6. Vladimir Karpets (Russia - Caisse d’Espargne - -26")
7. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan - Astana - -30")
8. Thomas Dekker (Netherlands - Rabobank - -31")
9. Manuel Quinziato (Italy - Liqui gas - -32")
10. Benoit Vaugrenard (France - Francaise des Jeux - -32")
11. David Zabriskie (America - CSC - -32")
17. Cadel Evans (Australia - Predictor/Lotto - -36")
21. Oscar Pereiro (Spaing - Caisse d'Epargne - -37")
26. Levi Leipheimer (America - Discovery Channel - -40")
27. Denis Menchov (Russia - Rabobank - -40")
32. Alejandro Valverde (Spaine - Caisse d'Epargne - -43")
56. Christophe Moreau (France - AG2r Prévoyance - -49")
92. Carlos Sastre (Spain - CSC - -56")
95. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg - CSC - -57")
WHAT IT MEANS. The Prologue, being a short time trial, is a day for cyclists that specialize in time trials to shine. However, the Tour de France is won by riders who can achieve well in all three types of stages: (1) time trials, (2) flat stages with sprint finishes, and (3) mountain climbs. For instance, Carlos Sastre is nearly a minute behind Fabian Cancellara. Sastre's specialty is mountain climbing. Cancellara is no worry to Sastre. He will easily eclipse Cancellara's time when the Tour gets into the mountains next weekend. But Alexandre Vinokourov IS a worry to Sastre. "Vino" is a great mountain climber AND he did well in the time trial. Sastre's mediocre performance in the time trial means he has to find a way to make up 26 seconds just to be even with Vino. Every second counts. The Tour de France is usually won, after over 2,000 miles and 21 stages, by less than 40 seconds.
VINO IN THE CATBIRD SEAT. It seems to me that Alexandre Vinokourov (in photo) put himself in the catbird seat with his 7th-place finish today. The rest of the best will be chasing for more than a week just to try to make up the time gap he opened over them. It will be Vinokourov's race to lose. If this long-time lone ranger can discipline himself to work with his very talented Astana team, he should win the race. If he impulsively "goes off," as he typically does, the podium in Paris is wide open.
AMERICAN FARING. George Hincapie powered his way into third place today. It's a great start. Hincapie is also a good mountain climber. But he's not the designated "team leader" for Discovery Channel. That's Levi Leipheimer, who finished 17 seconds behind Hincapie in the Prologue. This is a good time trial finish for Leipheimer, but he will have to do better in subsequent time trials and bring his best-ever game to the mountains in order to make the podium. David Zabriskie finished 11th today; he won the Prologue in 2005.