The Big Picture Behind a Little Prologue

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So, how important can an eight-minute effort be in the grand scheme of an event that lasts 23 days? With all the challenges ahead of the riders in this year’s Tour de France, it may seem like they wouldn’t pay much attention to an event as short as a seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) prologue—but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ostensibly, stage races begin with a short prologue in order to showcase all the riders and establish leaders in the various jersey competitions before the first long road race. In reality, it’s the riders’ only chance to make a big first impression. There’s always a lot of talk before the Tour de France (and with the Spanish doping scandal exploding over the past few days and weeks, there’s been more talk than usual), but the prologue becomes the point where the rhetoric meets the road. You can talk all you want, but eventually you have to roll off that start ramp and put a time up on the board.

Thor Hushovd from the Credit Agricole team stormed over today’s short, technical, and windy course to establish himself as the first leader of the race. He’s a sprinter and the winner of last year’s green-jersey points competition—and he’s obviously in great shape again this year. He recently won the sprint to the finish line of the final stage of the primary pre-Tour tune-up race, the Dauphine Libere, and he’ll be hunting for stage wins in the first week of the Tour. He’s likely to keep the yellow jersey for a few days, perhaps all the way through the first week, because there are time bonuses for the top finishers on each of the flat stages. So long as he finishes in the top three, he gets bonus seconds that will help keep him in the yellow jersey.

The “Thunder God” from Norway knows he won’t keep the yellow jersey for long, and for the men hoping to wear it into Paris, the prologue was the first in a long series of psychological and physical battles.

American George Hincapie, Discovery Channel’s new leader now that Lance Armstrong has retired, continued Lance’s tradition of delivering a strong message to all contenders for the overall victory. And even though he didn’t win the prologue, he was the fastest of the favorites. He served notice that he’s ready to race hard from the first kilometer to the last, and that anyone planning on winning the 2006 Tour de France is going to have to come through him first.

The Spanish doping scandal that removed last year’s second- through fifth-placed finishers from this year’s start list means that the Tour de France is wide open. As you can read in my Tour de France preview article, several men who last week were just hoping to earn third place or a position in the top five are now looking like potential Tour de France champions. Hincapie is one, as are his countrymen Floyd Landis from the Phonak team and Levi Leipheimer from the Gerolsteiner team. Landis, however, was slightly delayed at the start of the prologue today, which may have cost him a chance to beat Hushovd for the first yellow jersey of the race. Nevertheless, he didn’t lose much time and hopefully he won’t be slowed down by any more glitches.

Leipheimer, on the other hand, looks like he simply didn’t have a good day. He finished 21 seconds behind the day’s winner, in 34th place. What’s more, he was slower than a lot of riders he normally beats in short prologues and long time trials. That can be something that eats at a rider’s confidence, and since the yellow-jersey contenders don’t face another significant test until next Saturday, Levi will have plenty of time to think about today’s performance. The 20 seconds themselves are less of a problem than what they can do to a rider’s confidence in his conditioning and power. In Levi’s case, I think it was just a not-so-great day rather than a sign of weakness or leftover fatigue from digging deep to win the Dauphine Libere a few weeks ago.

From here, the race progresses into a week of road stages that will be dominated by breakaway attempts and fast sprint finishes. While it’s an exciting week for the fans and sprinters like Hushovd, Tom Boonen (Quickstep), Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), Erik Zabel (Milram), and others, it’s a nervous week for the yellow-jersey contenders. There are a lot of crashes in the first week, one of which sent Leipheimer home early with a broken hip a few years ago, and the contenders’ primary goal in the coming days will be to just stay out of trouble. Hincapie’s Discovery Channel team is well versed in this exercise, having safely shepherded Lance through the chaos for the past seven years. For the others, protection is the name of the game, because it’s very difficult to win the Tour de France in the first week, but it’s very, very easy to lose it at any moment.

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