July 02, 2012

SERAING, Belgium (AP) -- Tour de France yellow jersey holder Fabian Cancellara has overcome many difficulties since an awful crash in April sidelined him for weeks and nearly kept him from racing in cycling's showcase.

"There were many hard moments - for sure when I was lying on the ground in the feed zone after the crash, that was hard," the Swiss rider said a day after he capped a triumphant comeback to the sport by dominating the Tour's opening time trial.

The four-time world champion time trialist had to be operated on in early April after a crash in the Tour of Flanders one-day race left him with a triple fracture of his right collarbone.

Cancellara finished second behind Peter Sagan in Sunday's stage, a hilly, 123-mile race through the Ardennes in southern Belgium. The reigning Olympic time trial champion kept the yellow jersey by 7 seconds over race favorite Bradley Wiggins.

The rider, nicknamed "Spartacus" by cycling fans because of his imposing stature, said that the hardest part of his comeback from injury came when he restarted training weeks after the crash.

"That's when I saw how fast you can lose your condition," said Cancellara, who says he'd been in the best condition of his career before the crash.

The RadioShack Nissan racer says he will try to keep the yellow jersey in Monday's stage, a flat 129-mile run from Vise to Tournai, Belgium, a stage likely to end in a mass sprint.

The race returns to France for the third stage on Tuesday, and Cancellara says he thinks he can keep the yellow jersey at least until then. "I'd like to bring this jersey back to France as I have done the other years," said Cancellara, who has won the Tour's opening prologue a record five times, each time in years when the Tour began outside of its home country.

Sunday's stage was won by rising cycling star Sagan of Slovakia, while title contenders Wiggins of Britain and defending champion Cadel Evans trailed close behind in the pack after the loop from Liege to suburban Seraing that featured five low-grade climbs.

The 22-year-old Sagan, the second youngest rider in the 2012 Tour, collected his first Tour stage win in a three-man sprint ahead of Cancellara in second and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway in third. It was a spirited defense by the Swiss rider of the yellow jersey that many expect he'll lose in the mountains later in the race - if not earlier.

The top standings among the leading pre-race contenders didn't change much, though some speedsters who fared well in Saturday's brief prologue lost ground. Cancellara, who won the prologue, leads Sky's Wiggins in second and France's Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quickstep in third another seven seconds back.

Evans, the Australian leader of the BMC team, trails 17 seconds behind Cancellara, but rose to eighth overall as others slipped back in crash traffic or because of a hilly final climb that split the pack in the last two miles.

At least two crashes marred Sunday's stage amid escalating tensions within the pack near the finish, where roadside crowds drew in to get a glimpse of the cyclists.

High-profile riders including Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez and Michael Rogers of Australia went down in one late spill, but got back up. The bad luck continued to stalk Germany's Tony Martin, who went down in a crash early Sunday before recovering. The world time-trial champion had a flat and lost in the prologue the day before.

At one point, with his BMC team leader Evans riding in his wake, Marcus Burghardt of Germany caused his bike to jump to avoid a plastic bottle in a downhill patch about 11 miles from the finish.

Six breakaway riders jumped out of the pack after the first mile, and held onto a lead until less than six miles to go - when the speeding pack overtook all the escapees.

Wiggins wore the best-sprinter's green jersey after placing second in Saturday's prologue - an honor granted to him because Cancellara cannot wear both the green and the yellow jersey.

Evans said a conservative start by the pack set the stage for a "hectic" finish up the final climb. He took a chance with a burst of speed with about a mile and a half to go, after team scouting report led him to believe he could nibble some seconds from his main rivals. But to no avail: instead, he ran into a headwind and the pack was able to keep pace.

"The first stages of the Tour: Everyone's so keen to get going, and everyone's so nervous," said Evans, thanking his BMC teammates to help keep him near the front and away from the jitters in the peloton.

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