TDF prologue will help decide the final yellow jersey
At 2pm on Saturday, June 30th a nervous bike racer will roll off a plastic and steel start- house, down a ramp and sprint out of the Parc d’Avroy in the centre of Liege to begin the 2012 Tour de France.
This is the prologue time trial; a 6.4-kilometre rush of lactate and pain that leaves every rider tasting blood, collapsed and hardly able to breathe when they cross the line.
It will be the first shuffle of the cards for 2012.
The prologue was invented in 1967 as a device to bring order for the first stage by letting a short time trial decide who wore the first yellow jersey, and what order the team cars followed the race, but nothing more.
Now there are bike racers who make their whole year, whole careers even, out of winning the prologue time trial of the Tour de France. But I think this will be one of the most important prologues ever in deciding the eventual Tour winner.
What does it take to win? Physical characteristics come first, but there’s a whole lot of mental attitude and preparation involved in winning a prologue.
Prologues are short time trials, where the racers start at equal intervals and the fastest around the circuit wins. The shortest Tour prologue was one kilometre in Pornichet-La Baule in 1988, and the longest was 10.4 kilometres in Roubaix in 1969. The Tour has started with a longish time trial, like the 19-kilometre one in 2005, but that’s not really a prologue.
Prologues are made for endurance track racers. The best prologue racer ever, GB rider Chris Boardman, was Olympic and world champion at the individual pursuit and still holds the world record for the event. Boardman did three of top five fastest ever Tour de France prologues, including the best; 55.152 kph in Lille, 1994.
Prologues also suit powerful time triallists, particularly time triallists who can attack late in a race and hold off the whole field to win. The Swiss racer Fabian Cancellara can do that, and when the prologue was last held in Liege in 2004, Cancellara won it.
He’ll be the favourite on Saturday, because the course that suits him. It doesn’t have many corners and is mostly flat, apart from one drag away from the river. It will come down to horse power, attitude and good technique; Cancellara has all three.
As multiple world time trial and reigning Olympic champion, he has the horse power. He also has the attitude and technique. I interviewed him about time trialling a while back and he told me. “I learn the course and let it play like a film in my head over and over. I really focus and try to feel what I will feel when I’m riding; the wind, the drag on my legs of a big gear or a hill, how it will feel in the corners, everything.”
Cancellara plays the film when he thinks about the race, and during his warm-up. He’ll ride for a couple of hours on the road on Saturday morning, have lunch then put his time trial bike on a static trainer about 30 minutes before his ride. All Tour riders do a turbo trainer warm-up, slowly racking up the intensity until they are pedalling to nowhere with their bodies at race pace.
Most listen to music, inspiring stuff to up their arousal. Some specialists even have warm-up playlists. Magnus Backstedt, the Swedish winner of the 2004 Paris-Roubaix and a good prologue racer, says; “My playlists depended on what sort of time trial it was. You don’t want to be too revved up before a long time trial, music that does that can make you go off too fast, but my prologue playlist always had lots of boom.”
Warmed up and revved up, each rider makes his way to the start house and sits down, waiting for the one in front to go. Then they mount up, settle and focus.
The riders are clipped to their pedals, held up by a man stood behind clutching their saddle; balanced, ready.
The countdown comes. An official counts backwards to zero; showing five, four, three, two and then one finger to each rider.
Then they are on the course. “You take each 1.5-kilometre section and focus on it, riding it as you’ve planned to ride, riding as fast as you can. You tick that one off and move to the next,” says Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, one of the favourites to win the Tour.
The Liege prologue will suit Wiggins but not his biggest rival Cadel Evans; well, not as much. It’s a short one, 6.4 kilometres, and it’s flat. It favours a former track champion more than a former mountain bike champion.
Six point four isn’t much in a race of 3,479 kilometres, but it will tell a lot.
Wiggins must beat Evans. If he doesn’t then his confidence will take a big hit. But Evans must get close to Wiggins. If he doesn’t Wiggins’s will soar, and the Tour could fly out of the Australian’s reach.
Prologues are important in modern Tours because margins of success have never been smaller, but the Liege prologue will be one of the most important ever.
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