Tour de France starts in Belgium

Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland strains as he crosses the finish line to win the prologue of the Tour de France cycling race, an individual time trial over 6,4 kilometers (4 miles) with start and finish in Liege, Belgium, Saturday June 30 2012. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

LIEGE, Belgium - Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland won the Tour de France prologue for a fifth time on Saturday, dominating the time trial around the gritty city of Liege.

"What a great opening — again!" he said after his seven-second win.

Giro D'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria was tied for 14th place, 18 seconds back.

Britain's Bradley Wiggins was second over the winding 6.4-kilometre course, and France's Sylvain Chavanel was third, also 7 seconds back.

Cadel Evans of Australia began his title defence in 13th place, 17 seconds behind the Swiss winner.

"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 at an average speed of 53 km/h. "It's a great feeling and this certainly takes some of the pressure off."

The race harkened back to Cancellara's first Tour prologue victory in the same Belgian city in 2004, and over a similar course. The four-time time trial world champion has also won every Tour opening-day time trial on foreign soil — in London in 2007, Monaco in 2009, and Rotterdam in 2010.

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

Despite jittery first-day nerves, only a few riders ran into mishaps. Tony Martin, one of the world's best time-trial riders, 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.

Promising young Slovak rider Peter Sagan briefly skipped off the road and lost time.

The victory offered a bright spot for Cancellara's RadioShack Nissan Trek team, which is without its leader Andy Schleck of Luxembourg — out nursing a spinal injury sustained in the Criterium du Dauphine this month. The team is also without manager Johan Bruyneel, who's been listed in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency doping case also focusing on seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. Bruyneel chose to stay away so as not to be a distraction.

Cancellara said the victory, which he dedicated to his pregnant wife, was doubly rewarding because he broke his collarbone in the Tour of Flanders in April.

As defending champion, Evans had the honour of riding last among the 198 competitors who rolled down the starter's ramp for the race against the clock in the cycling-crazed city, where untold thousands of fans lined the route.

Sunday's first stage takes riders over a mostly flat, 198-kilometre loop from Liege to the nearby town of Seraing.