Philippe Gilbert’s remarkable year continues at the Tour de France. The newly crowned Belgian national champion, with his freshly dyed blond hair, duly fulfilled his favourite status on stage one, deploying his trademark uphill kick to devastating effect on Mont des Alouettes, to claim one of the most impressive victories in his already glittering career, as well as his first yellow jersey.
If this achievement ranks higher than any of the three Ardennes Classics the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider claimed in the spring, then it owes to the burden of his billing as the overwhelming favourite. The expectation and pressure on Gilbert was enormous, yet he appeared completely unfazed.
In the final uphill kilometre, with his team having done an immense job, Gilbert sat, calm and poised, like a lion about to devour its captured prey. When Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) jumped hard with 600 metres to go, Gilbert pounced, hunting down the Swiss and then counter-attacking as Cancellara began to flag.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) led the pursuit of Gilbert, but they could make no inroads as the Belgian sustained his effort to the line to win by six seconds from Cadel Evans (BMC).
“It’s hard to take in what I’m doing,” admitted 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.”
Gilbert, who said he drew strength from the pressure, added: “With 500 metres [to go] I knew that I could get a gap, then it was like a mini time trial. Before the line I saw that I’d won but I tried to gain as much time as possible. I’m almost sure that I will lose the jersey in the team time trial but I can maybe get it back on the Mûr-de-Bretagne [stage four on Tuesday, which is also Gilbert’s 29th birthday].”
Late crash causes havoc
Sadly for Gilbert, his first stage victory is likely to compete for the headlines with the day’s other main event, which saw the defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) held up by a crash. He conceded one minute, fourteen seconds to rivals including Evans, Andy and Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas).
The damage was done as the tightly packed peloton raced towards the finish on roads that were narrower and rougher than the wide open, pan flat Vendée coastal road that featured in the first part of the stage.
In the final 10km, as the 198 riders fought to be close to the front, battling for every centimetre of tarmac, they passed through corridors of spectators and seemed to inhale en masse - or at least those watching did - until, finally, there was a collision.
It happened with 8.5km to go when Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) clipped a spectator and went down heavily. Since he was close to the front, the domino effect took a terrible toll, wiping out all the riders closest to him. The resulting mass of metal and limbs formed a highly effective roadblock: only around thirty riders got through. The Schleck brothers, Evans, Wiggins and Basso were among the fortunate ones, with Contador and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) the main losers.
Quiet start to the race
Until those final 8.5km it is perhaps fair to say that it wasn’t the first stage the organisers had hoped for.
The peloton appeared afflicted by a strange torpor, though that was maybe understandable given that all most were thinking and talking about was the finishing climb, and the anticipated Gilbert ambush.
You would have got very short odds on the possibility of a rider from the local team being among the first attackers, and featuring in the very first break of the 2011 Tour. And, indeed, it seemed surprisingly straightforward for Perrig Quemeneur, Europcar’s 27-year old from just north of the region, Brittany.
And in bets about the constitution of the first break you might have got equally short odds on the other team to feature: Vacansoleil. The Tour debutants appear determined to make an impact, and to do so by doing what they do best - attacking.
It was the Dutchman Lieuwe Westra who joined Quemeneur, with another Frenchman, Jérémy Roy (Francaise des Jeux), making it a trio. According to one report, the break was established just 53 seconds after the official start. And within 10km, as the three riders committed fully to their bid for freedom - and valuable opening day TV exposure - and the peloton ambled along the coast, they gained three minutes.
The other certainty about the Tour’s opening day is that some one will crash, and the honour of first man down fell to André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto). The German sprinter hit the deck on the treacherous Passage du Gois, the causeway that wrought such carnage on the Tour’s last visit, in 1999. This time the Passage featured during a ceremonial start rather than, as in 1999, as the climax to the stage. And Greipel, nursing a bloody elbow, was back up and in the peloton before the flag had been dropped.
Huge crowds lined the flat roads as the riders embarked on a U-shaped route, taking them inland to the town of Les Herbiers, and the 2.5km, gently rising Mont des Alouettes.
As the leading three riders built a lead that approached seven minutes the peloton showed little interest. There were more crashes with Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Andrey Amador (Movistar), the first Costa Rican to ride the Tour, tumbling early on, and then, more seriously, Jurgen Van De Walle (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who fell heavily.
Yet he too was quick to reappear at the front and report for domestique duties as the team containing both Gilbert and green jersey contender Greipel began to gather at the front, their thoughts turning to one of this year’s main innovations, the big intermediate sprint.
Coming after 87km, this mega sprint has replaced the more numerous intermediate sprints that awarded small quantities of points to the green jersey competition. Now there is just one; and the points on offer - 20 points to the winner, down to one for fifteenth - make it an attractive, perhaps even essential, feature for anyone with designs on green.
It was certainly enough to finally stir the peloton into life. As they approached the five kilometre banner, Mark Cavendish’s HTC-High Road team began to get organised. Then, as Roy took the sprint from his two breakaway companions up ahead, Alessandro Petacchi’s Lampre squad also appeared at the front.
At one point HTC-Highroad occupied one side of the road, Lampre the other, but Greipel and his team were still in the picture, as was Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Cervelo.
And as Cavendish was unleashed, it was Farrar who emerged to take fourth place - and thirteen points – ahead of Greipel. Cavendish, on the other hand, faded badly, as though his heart wasn’t really in it. Certainly the Cavendish who contested this mid-stage sprint appeared a pale imitation of the Cavendish who sprints for stage wins.
After this odd interlude the gap to the break opened again, while Gilbert demonstrated just how relaxed he was by dropping back to the team car for a chat. When he wasn’t talking to Marc Sergeant, he was at the front laughing and joking with the world champion, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo).
Eventually, though, it was Gilbert’s team that reeled the three men in, finally closing the gap with 18km remaining.
A little over nine kilometres later came the unexpected twist to the day’s plot, with the crash reducing the front group to around 35 riders. BMC and RadioShack, with Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Janez Brajkovic and Yaroslav Popovych all in the front split, were well represented. And, when they realised that Contador wasn’t among them, they showed no mercy, driving the group and quickly carving out a forty-second advantage. Behind, Contador seemed isolated.
He conceded another thirty seconds on the run-in, even as a second crash held up Andy Schleck and Wiggins, which meant they finished in the same group as the Spaniard. But because their spill had happened in the final 3km, they were given the same time as the group that came in on the coat tails of Gilbert.
Contador’s disastrous first day carries faint echoes of the 1989 Tour, when his countryman Pedro Delgado, the defending champion, lost 2 minutes, 40 seconds, turning up late for his prologue time trial. From then the Tour resembled a pursuit race for Delgado, but he couldn’t make back the time and eventually finished third in Paris, behind Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon.
Like Delgado, who had tested positive during the 1988 race, but was exonerated of any drugs offence, Contador has started this Tour under his own doping cloud, with his positive test for clenbuterol during last year’s race due to be decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in early August.
Despite that distraction, Contador started this Tour as the big favourite. Yet, as day one demonstrated, the plot doesn’t always adhere to the pre-race predictions - unless your name is Philippe Gilbert.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.