Stage one analysis: Gilbert first. The rest, nowhere

Crashes, and one of the strongest uphill sprinters ever seen in cycling, wrought carnage in the Vendée.

Words by Edward Pickering in Les Herbiers

Saturday July 2, 2011

During the French Revolutionary Wars, Republican and Royalist forces fought pitched battles around the Mont des Alouettes, which was a key strategic battleground, and this small hill, rising gradually out of the town of Les Herbiers in the Vendée, may yet prove to be no less important to the final result of the 2011 Tour de France. ASO’s decision to replace the traditional prologue with a road stage did shake the race up, but not necessarily in the way they intended.

A defending champion of the Tour has surely not suffered as much on the opening day of the race since Pedro Delgado missed his start in the Prologue in 1989. In the bright warmth of an early summer evening, Alberto Contador rode up the Mont des Alouettes over a minute behind some of his biggest rivals.

A huge crash in the final 10 kilometres had cleaved the peloton into two pieces. Contador was one of many who found themselves wedged into a mass of stationary humanity and bikes after an Astana rider caught the shoulder of a spectator on a narrow road between two fields. Riders toppled like dominoes across the road, and with Europcar and Omega Pharma riding hard at the front, their day was already cast to the Atlantic winds.

The situation was further complicated by a crash in the front group, which brought down Bradley Wiggins and Andy Schleck and delayed them enough to mean they finished alongside Contador. This was inside three kilometres to go – riders suffering crashes this close to the finish are given the same time as the group they were with at the time of the incident, and for 30 minutes the race jury scratched their heads to work out which riders should be given the same time as the front group.

Ahead, Philippe Gilbert was busying himself proving that he is unmatchable on an uphill finish, taking yellow, green and polka dot jerseys along with his 13th win of the season, despite a spirited but ultimately overambitious attack by Fabian Cancellara inside the final kilometre. Cadel Evans gained time on all his rivals with a canny sprint to finish second, while Thor Hushovd was third.

ASO have made a complicated series of changes to the minor classifications for the 2011 Tour. The points systems for the green and polka dot jerseys have been tweaked, with pundits scratching their heads to try and work out how the changes will affect the competitions. But neither caused as many headaches as the coming-together of the casualties of the two crashes – Contador, Schleck and Wiggins were initially given a deficit of 1-20 to Gilbert, before revisions reduced the deficit of the latter pair to six seconds, the same as Hushovd.

Contador now sits 1-14 behind Andy Schleck. For a while in the last few kilometres, as the Spaniard’s group tried to pull back the leaders, it looked as if he’d lose around 39 seconds, which would have been seen by Schleck at least as poetic justice for the time he lost to Contador during last year’s controversial ‘dropped chain’ incident. But even better for the Luxembourger, the gap suddenly ballooned to a minute, then more, as the lead group chased the stage win. Schleck had promised before the Tour that he wouldn’t wait for Contador if he suffered misfortune, and he was as good as his word.

The Tour began in the morning by riding across the eerie, atmospheric causeway of the Passage du Gois, which had sown carnage in the 1999 race, when crashes on the slippery concrete surface put several favourites out of contention. Almost by way of apology to the peloton, ASO neutralised this section of the race, with the official start happening back on dry land at Bellevue.

Three riders designated themselves the hares for the day, with Perrig Quemeneur, Jeremy Roy and Lieuwe Westra escaping early. Their pursuit and eventual catch during the course of the day were as inevitable as Gilbert’s victory. As inevitable also, some might argue, as the crashes which broke the peloton into winners and losers as early as the first day.

1 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 3sec
3 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Garmin-Cervélo at 6sec

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