Prologue analysis: A test of form?

The prologue traditionally reveals one or two clues but it can also be the master of misdirection. So what did we learn in Liège?

Words: Richard Moore in Liège

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Some prologues can be real indicators of form, and it is possible that the 6.4km test in Liège on day one of the 2012 Tour was one of them. The course was long enough to provide a serious test; it was not technical; it was all about strength, power, speed and endurance. The only thing it didn’t provide any indication of was climbing ability.

Fabian Cancellara put it best, if characteristically idiosyncratically: “It was like being in a 6.4km velodrome. It was like being in a tunnel, just look ahead, no left or right.”

There was a clue in the fact that Sylvain Chavanel – hardly a time trial specialist – occupied the hot seat before Bradley Wiggins, who in turn was usurped by Cancellara, the master of this type of effort. Behind them, the top ten was notable for the presence of other Chavanel-type riders: Edvald Boasson Hagen and Philippe Gilbert. The only one missing was Peter Sagan, but that’s because he took one roundabout like a speedway rider, and was lucky not to end his debut Tour before it had really started.

These riders are stacking like planes over Heathrow before stage one, with the uphill finish to Seraing possibly providing a platform not only for the win, but also for splits and time-gains – and a yellow jersey. The consensus is that this climb is not to be underestimated. While Boasson Hagen, Gilbert and Sagan are obvious candidates, the fourth-placed Tejay van Garderen suggested that Cadel Evans, the defending champion and van Garderen’s leader at BMC, could “claim a few seconds back” – perhaps with the kind of effort he managed on the Mur de Huy to win Flèche Wallonne in 2010.

But this is the most revealing aspect of a prologue such as this one. It was not, as Cancellara acknowledged, the kind of course that required technical ability or agility (unless you mis-judged a corner a la Peter Sagan). As well as testing strength, speed and power, it told us about the most precious and elusive of all qualities: form.

The prologue tells us that Wiggins is in form. The verdict is less clear on Evans. As van Garderen suggested, there was some disappointment that he wasn’t closer. In fact, van Garderen’s comment perhaps revealed more than he intended: will Evans really try to nick some time on stage one? Will he feel that he needs to?

At the half-way checkpoint, Evans was six seconds down on Chavanel in 10th place. That put him exactly level with Wiggins, but while Wiggins pulled those six seconds back by piling on the pressure in the second half, Evans conceded another second to finish 13th. “Not great, but not bad,” was his verdict.

But it isn’t all about Wiggins and Evans. The results suggest there are other overall contenders who have arrived in form. Denis Menchov, in 8th, is one of them. Chris Froome, 11th, is another; then there are Vincenzo Nibali and Ryder Hesjedal, with solid rides for 14th and 15th.

It is perhaps unfair to expect similarly stellar performances from riders as uncomfortable in a time trial as Andy Schleck, but among those with Schleck-esque performances were Robert Gesink (65th), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (77th), Levi Leipheimer (80th), Ivan Basso (90th), Thomas Voeckler (109th), Alejandro Valverde (116th) and… Frank Schleck (136th). Not forgetting Samuel Sanchez, who is said to be out-of-sorts and proved it by finishing 145th.

Does it matter? Andy Schleck finished 121st in a similar prologue time trial in Rotterdam in 2010 and was eventually declared the winner (albeit only in June this year – but he finished 2nd to Alberto Contador at the time). There is always the proviso mentioned at the top – that the prologue tells us nothing about climbing ability. And that, as everyone knows, could be what ultimately decides the Tour.