The opening shots in the battle for the Tour de France yellow jersey were fired in Monaco on Saturday, with the first stage time trial leaving some contenders already playing catch up.
Switzerland’s Olympic time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara claimed the first victory of the 96th edition, winning the 15.5km race against the clock in 19 minutes and 32.14 seconds to hand his Saxo Bank team the yellow jersey.
But the bigger picture shows the Astana team of 2007 champion Alberto Contador and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong are already the ones to beat.
Contador finished second to Cancellara, but only 18 seconds adrift, on an unforgiving and technical course that left many big specialists struggling.
Australia’s two-time runner-up Cadel Evans stayed in touch with a fifth place finish at 23 seconds behind the Swiss, while Tour contenders Denis Menchov of Russia and defending champion Carlos Sastre both finished over a minute in arrears.
With four riders in the top 10 — Contador, fourth-placed Andreas Kloden, sixth-placed Levi Leipheimer and Armstrong, who was 10th — Astana have already thrown down the gauntlet.
Any disappointment Contador felt at not taking the race lead will be shaded by the fact that he is now undoubtedly the man to lead Astana’s charge towards the yellow jersey.
The Spaniard, absent last year because Astana were not invited, now has a 48 second lead on Sastre, who finished in 21st place, and a 1:13 lead on recent Tour of Italy champion Menchov, who finished in a modest 53rd place.
Saxo Bank team leader Andy Schleck was slightly better off at 42 seconds behind Contador.
Although Cancellara is not an overall yellow jersey contender, Saxo Bank said they would do everything to hold on to the lead at least up until the team time trial tomorrow, the race’s next big rendezvous.
On Saturday the race will head into the Pyrenees for three days of climbing, with Contador expected to try to further distance his rivals.
Contador, who was set to go into yesterday’s second stage wearing the best climber’s polka dot jersey, admitted he had lost out to the better man on the day.
“I’m not disappointed at all, I’m very happy with the result — Cancellara is a big champion,” said the 26-year-old Spaniard, who was quick to play down rumors of discord between him and Armstrong over the team leadership.
“The media talk about conflict but our relations in the team are strong, we have great riders with Levi Leipheimer and Armstrong and we’re going to try and win the Tour together,” he said. “I’d like to switch this jersey for the yellow one.”
Evans meanwhile was disappointed at coming fifth, but he will also be buoyed at finishing ahead of Menchov and Sastre, and not too far behind Contador.
Sastre had little to say after what must be seen as a mediocre result, despite the fact he is not as strong in the time trial as Contador and Evans.
But his team manager Alex Sans Vega was quick to play down talk of any damage being done.
“It’s never good to lose any time, but for us this isn’t a catastrophe,” he said. “He doesn’t have as much punch as younger guys like Contador. He needs some days in the mountains before his body starts to fire up. In the third week, when it matters, he will be up there.”