The 2011 Tour de France started with that special blend of the predictable and the unpredictable that makes cycling such an enticing spectacle. The predictable first: some crashes, some inadequate commentry from ITV4 and a certain Belgium champion washing out the red and black from his national colours on the podium. Phillipe Gilbert capped his first ever Tour de France stage win with the yellow jersey. The margin of his victory, whilst not entirely predictable, wasn’t a surprise. He was able to kiss his jersey and throw up his arms whilst his nearest competitor remained a distanced blur behind him.
Top favourites Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez lost 1’20 after a crash between a spectator and Contador’s former teammate Maxim Iglinskiy with about 10km to go. Just like the 2010 Tour the early days can see champions’ chances of victory fall to the road like riders from their bicycles. Hopefully, for Contador, stage 1 poses only a risk to his margin of victory rather than to the crown itself.
A second crash under the 2km to go banner held up Bradley Wiggins and Andy Schleck who finished the stage in the same group as the Spanish armada of Contador and Sanchez. It wasn’t until the decision of the chief commissaire Jean-Francois Pescheux, which annulled the losses suffered by those caught in the second crash, that the exact shape of the general classification was clear. One of the few rules of cycling is that when there is a crash in the run in to the finish those affected do not lose time. So in this case, despite crossing the line together, Wiggins and Schleck were actually 1’14 ahead of Contador and Sanchez.
Given the new format for the sprinters’ classification the intermediate sprint 87km in was going to be unpredictable. The uphill finish was unlikely to allow the big sprinters to open their accounts so this was their chance. After the three breakaway riders rolled through there were 12 placings with a maximum of 13 points were left. Tyler Farrar took the bunch sprint having taken a good leadout from Julian Dean. The combination of Farrar, Dean and world champion Thor Hushovd make Garmin-Cervelo a team to reckon with in the sprint. Cavendish managed to take just 5 points starting this grand tour, as is customary for him, a little sluggish. His leadout looked fast though, albeit starting from a disadvantaged position and leaving him short of the line.
All in all, Stage 1 delivered Gilbert to superstardom, he was able to cap an incredible Classics hattrick with an ultimate win dressed in his country’s colours. Given the gladiatorial aesthetic increasingly associated with pro cycling, the teams presentation at the Puy du Fou theme park was appropriate. The race’s opening crossing of the Passage du Gois, where the riders seemed to be almost riding out of the sea, was fitting in this respect too. The finish of the stage was also worthy of a Grand Depart.
At the finish it was Fabian Cancellara, Swiss champion and timetrial extrodinare, that made the biggest move and perhaps the biggest mistake on the Mont des Alouettes. Not a rider that usually looks back, he sprung away from the group and isolated himself and Gilbert. He then sat up and swung over which allowed Gilbert to stick the nail in the coffin and mortify his combatants with his brilliance. I think that even despite the expectation of Gilbert’s victory, Cancellara should have taken him to the line and perhaps, settled for second place. Maybe Cancellara was playing a card for the Schlecks and when they couldn’t match him he settled down with thoughts of the team timetrial the next day.
Of the G.C. contenders Cadel Evans was the day’s winner. He finished strongly for second place, in the middle of the 6″ timegap that Gilbert gained over the field. It was Evans’ strength in punchy finishing climbs such as this one that took him to victory in Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year. However, following a poor Paris-Nice it remains to be seen whether he can climb in the mountains well enough to stay an overall contender.