The 2011 Tour de France got off to a wild and dramatic start in the Vendee region. The first stage from Le Passage du Gois to Mont Les Alouettes Les Herbiers packed several punches, unexpected fireworks and surprises.
Newly crowned Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert dominated on the uphill sprint finish and Alberto Contador was caught behind several crashes and already finds himself 1:14 behind GC rivals Cadel Evans, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and the Brothers Schleck. That was unforeseen and shocking — mostly for Alberto.
The Spaniard was booed at the team presentation, then boxed and blocked on stage one. A bad start and a rough two days for a man attempting the uber-exhausting Giro-Tour double. He can thank his old Astana team for his misfortune today as Maxim Iglinskiy plowed into a clueless spectator and took down a huge pile of riders with 8.5 kilometers to race.
The crash created the move of the day, a 35 rider front group with all the GC guns except Samuel Sanchez (Eusakatel-Eusaki) and Contador. The day had begun with a procession across the slippery Passage Du Gois where in 1999 Lance Armstrong took advantage of rival Alex Zulle getting caught up in a crash. It was deja screwed all over again and the Americans on Radio Shack did their best to make Contador pay.
Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, along the Brothers Schleck and Cadel Evans all hammered as hard as they would go. Johan Bruyneel’s boys always ride at the front in the Tour, always. Contador appeared isolated and watched helplessly as the gap increased.
“That’s cycling. The race goes on and I jut have to look to the rest of the race,” said Contador. “Today it was my turn for bad luck, tomorrow it could be some one else’s. I’m going to stay optimistic.”
When the TV press jumped Evans seconds after the finish, he was breathing so hard his voice went up an octave and we though he was actually going to cry. A strange one but the Australian has to be thrilled his grand depart.
Last year’s Tour revelation Ryder Hesjedahl was also victimized by the big crash. Both he and Garmin-Cervelo’s other tour hopeful Christian Vande Velde lost 1:55. Vande Velde crashed out of the tour last year on stage three, this year his GC plans took a significant hit on opening day.
The competition for the green jersey also began will all guns blazing. Rule changes mean the one and only intermediate sprint is essential for any sprinter in the hunt. It’s an exciting twist as now there are two full scale battles with flying trains.
Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad squad lined it up along with Lampre and Omega Pharma but the winner was Tyler Farrar who went hard up the left side, appearing to catch the Manxman by surprise.
A good start for the Garmin-Cervelo rider who has endured a rough season after the death of his best friend Wouter Wyelandt in the recent Giro.
The day however belonged to Gilbert who seems to almost toy with opponents. He rides at the front joking, swings back to the team car for chats, acting like a man who owns the race. His team rode hard with even a bandaged Andre Greipel driving the pace. The German, finally riding his first Tour, must have been so excited that he crashed almost the second the stage started.
Only Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) took a shot at beating Gilbert. With no prologue to show off his massive thighs and blazing speed, Cancellara launched with 600 meters to go. Only Gilbert reacted with force to close the short gap, and like Cavendish in the intermediate sprint, the Swiss champion lost interest and faded.
Forced to go earlier than anticipated, Gilbert still had the muscle and tenacity to power up to the finish line. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) did their best to catch Gilbert but failed. It was Cadel Evans who hammered it hard for second, six ticks behind Gilbert.“It’s hard to take in what I’m doing,” said Gilbert. “Liege-Bastogne-Liege was a childhood dream, [and] today was as well. Winning the stage and getting the yellow jersey – I dreamt about it.”
Defending champion Alberto Contador did not have a dream day on the bike. It will be interesting to see if Saxo Bank rallies for tomorrow’s team time trial. Three bad days in a row and life gets incrementally more difficult. As Contador noted himself, “things will get complicated.”