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Wiggins gets early jump on Evans, Lancaster stars in Greenedge debut

1 July 2012

In a race that lasts for three weeks and covers 3946.9km, 10 seconds on day one wouldn't seem to count for much.

But it was enough to spark lively debate about whether the challenger had delivered a meaningful blow to the champion as the 99th Tour de France got off to an intriguing start.

Answer: Not really.

When England's Brad Wiggins had that margin to spare over Australia's Cadel Evans in the prologue, a 6.4km time trial around the streets of the Belgian city of Liege, some commentators labelled it a massive psychological advantage in the war between the two race favourites.

Others saw it as a small and totally predictable hiccup for Evans as he set about defending his crown.

That's the more realistic view at this embryonic stage of proceedings.

And it's certainly how Evans himself saw it after finishing 13th, with Wiggins second, seven seconds behind the winner, Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara, who is not a contender for the general classification.

"It's not good, not bad," Evans said. "This isn't really my thing.

"It's not my specialty. I didn't want to lose time and it's not too bad.

"I expected to lose time to the GC riders. I've lost a couple of seconds on specialists like Wiggins. This was good to normal for me.

"It doesn't change much.

"We've got the tour started. Now I've got to keep going."

It was a calm, collected response given that he braked sharply after crossing the finish line and rode in a couple of tight circles apparently to prevent himself being swallowed up by the waiting media pack, who immediately suspected his mood might have been darker than it actually was.

He had led Wiggins by a second at the halfway point but struggled to maintain his rhythm to the finish.

The new Orica-Greenedge team had an encouraging debut appearance at the world's greatest bike race, thanks mainly to one of the Olympic champions in their ranks.

Brett Lancaster, a track gold medallist at Athens in 2004, was the 68th rider off the ramp and seized the lead with the first meaningful time of the day, 7 min and 24 sec.

It was good enough to leave him sixth at the end of the day despite losing a bit of skin in a minor crash during a warm-up ride.

"I did three laps of the course to warm up and I was going through a roundabout when the back wheel came off," he said.

National road race champion and winner of the Milan-San Remo classic Simon Gerrans, who will make his Olympic debut after the Tour, had the privilege of becoming the first Greenedge rider to compete in the great race.

With No 201 pinned to his outfit and setting out at 2.01pm as the second of the 198 starters, he was cheered by scores of Australians in the big crowd as he completed the circuit quickly enough to hold the virtual lead for a few minutes.

"Not many can say they have led the Tour de France so that was definitely a thrill," he laughed.

Team captain Stuart O'Grady, who is preparing to make his sixth appearance at the Olympics, also put in a strong ride to be fourth-best of the record 12 Australians, with only Lancaster, Evans and Richie Porte going faster than his 7.36.

"It never gets any easier," said O'Grady, who is riding the Tour for the 16th time, one fewer than American George Hincapie, who is setting a new record with 17.

O'Grady admitted he was trying to ignore the sense of occasion while at the same time soaking it all in because he didn't know whether he might be doing it for the last time despite having a contract for another year.

"It's pretty much impossible to ignore it - it's like wearing the baggy green cap for the first time," he said, alluding to the iconic headwear so treasured by all Australian Test cricketers.

O'Grady gave his team-mates a pep talk before they went into battle for the first time, telling them not to do anything silly because it is a three-week race and a lot can go wrong - but to enjoy the experience too.

"I don't want to come across as an old schoolmaster slapping them on the wrist because they are mostly experienced Tour riders," he said.

"When they do something bad, I tell them and when they do something good I tell them.

"I just want to help the boys get through it all the best I can.

"If they do a good job there will be nothing to complain about."

Greenedge owner Gerry Ryan spent the entire day at the team bus, encouraging his troops while his guests enjoyed a lavish hospitality suite with his chair remaining empty.

He had every reason to be as satisfied as he was with day one of this grand adventure - the team are hoping sprinter Matt Goss can bring them their first stage win. The mood in the camp is highly optimistic.

Ron Reed
In Liege, Belgium

** Ron will provide regular updates from Le Tour for Olympics.com.au and be a key writer for the Australian Team A.S.P.I.R.E. magazine and Olympics.com.au in London. **

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