What appeared to be a relaxed opening stage of the 2011 Tour de France descended into chaos within sight of the finish line as favourites Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck were caught up in a series of crashes.
It started out looking like a typical first stage with a small breakaway of riders establishing a gap which survived up until about 15km to go when the peleton decided to reel them in.
They stood no chance and merely served to give the contenders a target and act as a disincentive to other more serious breaks.
But at 9km to go, the chaos began.
An Astana rider clipped a spectator who was looking the wrong way, bringing down a large chunk of the bunch, including Contador and Schleck.
At the head of the field, the pace was on and did not let up to allow the fallen riders to catch up leaving them to expend a lot of energy trying to minimise the damage, until that too took its toll and led to another crash with about 2.5km to go.
Phillipe Gilbert of Omega Pharma-Lotto eventually took out the stage after Fabian Cancellara made a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to sneak away and claim the stage win, but went too early and cost himself a place in the top 10.
Team BMC’s Aussie leader Cadel Evans kept out of trouble to claim second place at three-seconds behind with the main bunch a farther three seconds back.
This could be just the start that Evans needs to give him the confidence for a big result. Suffice to say that luck and Evans are usually complete strangers.
The story of the day, however, is going to be the damage done to the early favourite’s chances.
It wasn’t clear whether either Contador or Schleck actually crashed or whether they were merely delayed. Either way, they finished 1:20 behind Gilbert and that’s a big deficit to pick up on the first stage—particularly if either of them actually ended up coming off their bikes.
Tomorrow is the team time trial, so there will be no way to hide any injuries or soreness and, although it’s comparatively short at 23km, it will require riders to push hard right from the outset.
So, 2011 is off to a surprising start with the field being shaken up from the very start. Whether or not it will have an impact on the outcome of the race remains to be seen, but it’s certainly added an element of early interest that few would have been expecting.
1. GILBERT Philippe 32 OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO 4h 41' 31"
2. EVANS Cadel 141 BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 03"
3. HUSHOVD Thor 51 TEAM GARMIN - CERVELO + 00' 06"
4. ROJAS Jose Joaquin 88 MOVISTAR TEAM + 00' 06"
5. VAN DEN BROECK J. 31 OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO + 00' 06"
6. THOMAS Geraint 117 SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 06"
7. KLÖDEN Andréas 74 TEAM RADIOSHACK + 00' 06"
8. TAARAMAE Rein 151 COFIDIS + 00' 06"
9. HORNER Chris 72 TEAM RADIOSHACK + 00' 06"
10. MARTIN Tony 175 HTC - HIGHROAD + 00' 06"
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