- Associated Press - Saturday, June 30, 2012

LIEGE, Belgium — Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland won the Tour de France prologue for a fifth time on Saturday, beating title hopeful Bradley Wiggins of Britain by seven seconds.

“What a great opening — again!” said Cancellara.

France’s Sylvain Chavanel was third, also 7 seconds back, after the winding 4-mile time trial in Liege.

Cancellara is unquestionably the world’s best time-trial rider, but the veteran isn’t considered a Tour contender because he, unlike Wiggins, often struggles in the mountains.

Cadel Evans of Australia began his title defense in 13th place, 17 seconds behind Cancellara.

“I did the most I could. It’s not always easy. I always do the maximum,” Cancellara said after winning in 7 minutes, 13 seconds. “It’s a great feeling and this certainly takes some of the pressure off.”

All of Cancellara’s prologue victories have been outside France. The first came in the same Belgian city in 2004, when he beat seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong by 2 seconds, then in London in 2007, Monaco in 2009, and Rotterdam in 2010.

At the first time check, around the midway point, he led Chavanel by one second then accelerated to the finish.

Wiggins, a three-time Olympic champion who is hoping to become the first Briton to win the Tour, said going into the prologue that Cancellara was “the best in the world” when it comes to time trials.

“I finished second, so that’s a good thing,” said Wiggins. “Physically I felt fantastic. I didn’t take any major risk because there were a lot of tricky sections.”

Evans, too, said he’d expected to be outclassed in the short prologue, and put his ride into a broader perspective.

“Not good, but not bad,” the Australian said. “Of course I’d rather concede less seconds, you never want to lose time … I’ve got one (general classification) rider ahead of me, but I was kind of half-expecting that. Wiggins, what his background is, is these short efforts.”

“For me the real racing starts tomorrow,” Evans added. “I’m just happy to get it going, and looking forward to some good racing. … It’s like 6 kilometers out of 3,500 or so, so in that regard it’s a small comparison.”

The Tour start offered a welcome return to racing — three weeks of criss-crossing France, nosing into Switzerland and scaling climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees before the July 22 finish on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.

Despite jittery first-day nerves, only a few riders ran into mishaps. Tony Martin, the reigning world time trial champion, was the day’s highest-profile casualty. The German rider got a flat tire, raised his hand to his team staffers, and had to change bikes — and crossed 15 seconds back of Chavanel, who was leading up to that point.

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