Catch your breath everyone this is the Tour de France!!! Generally I would have expected to write this somewhere in the final week of the tour, but such was the start itself that frankly it leaves me short of finding the right expletives. Not that Contador fans would see it that way, but am tempted to say that someone released a woman fan among the peloton, and she did her best to stir things up.
What happened was as the peloton barrelled under the 10km to go mark, a careless spectator drifted oh-so-little onto the road with her back to the action. Her shoulder brushed an Astana rider, and considering the speed the peloton was doing, it caused a massive pile up. This split the lot and the escapees – including all the top contenders sans Alberto – continued to step on the gas.
Though mainly ushered by team BMC and Radioshack, this reaction may have had a little to do with Contador’s reputation in the peloton after last year’s chaingate scandal. At the end of the day then, the defending champion was left with a significant deficit of 1’20” to the leader. It might not be the deciding factor, but to lose such a large chunk of time so early in the Tour definitely messes up with his strategy.
The day began though in much serener conditions at the west of France with the riders negotiating a packed causeway to make for a truly unique beginning. Almost as soon as the flag dropped, three riders broke free to form the first breakaway. Sadly if they had any intentions of glory, 3,430.5km stood between them and Champs-Elysees, and at the very least they had 191.5km to negotiate for any glory on the given day.
Average speed for the first hour was a leisurely 42.3km/hr as the riders got the pent-up tension out of their system. The first week of Le Tour is always marked with a lot of stress. No one wants to crash early and hence everyone tries to bunch up, which only increases the nervousness and never seems to reduce the chances of a crash.
First action of the day came early as Jurgen Van de Walle hit the deck trying to warn the peloton about a nasty stretch of tarmac. Ironic though it was, as only happens on the Tour, the Belgian remounted and continued with a torn kit without much fuss. Thereafter it was mostly a procession till things heated up momentarily as the peloton approached the intermediate sprint mark. Mark Cavendish went all guns blazing but was caught unawares by Tyler Farrar of team Garmin.
The breakaway was reeled in – as always is – with just under 20km to go. It makes me wonder always why riders go through all the pain of riding solo, only to be caught right before the line. All it does is get their sponsors some dedicated air time! But now the peoloton was really speeding and the pace was taking its toll on a lot of the participants. The main contenders were being well looked after and it seemed all action would come for the dash to the line.
That all changed as the bewildered enthusiast gave us a bizarre twist, thankfully though no one was seriously injured in the massive pile up. While the front pack had all the big names, no one can pretend they failed to notice the absence of the defending champion. There was a second crash two kilometers from the finish and this time it held up Cavendish, Wiggins, Andy Schleck and Basso. They were in luck however, as Regulation 20A in the rulebook stipulates that in flat finishes, any rider with a mechanical failure / crash within 3km of the finish is allotted the same time as the group he was with when the incident happened.
So if anything, it prevented Cavendish a shot at the stage finish, but otherwise would not have bothered any of the riders affected. The survivors continued to race ahead and it was team Katusha which mounted the first attack for glory. Stage favourite Philippe Gilbert was not fussed, but when Cancellara pounded ahead with venom, it forced the Belgian to respond.
And he did do with the grace of a striker controlling the ball at his feet, taking time sizing up the shot, and thundering a shot in the corner of the net. Gilbert countered and the Swiss had no answer to it, which spurred Cadel Evans to take up the mantle and finish second behind the Omega Pharma Lotto rider. Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo) took third, but it was Gilbert who seems to have carried his dream run that began in April, into the Tour.
Finishing with a time of 4 hours 41 minutes and 31 seconds, he had the honour of donning the maillot jaune and earning the green and white jerseys as well (to be worn by other riders). Stage 2 is a team time trial, so it is not expected he will hold on to it longer, but it is an achievement to be proud of while it lasts. The team time trial might jumble things up further, but for Contador, he cannot afford to lose any more time on the top riders. It is a short stage with just 23kms on the road, but an extremely technical one. I can’t wait for it, as personally I relish the time trials (though only second to the climbs). So till tomorrow then…