The opening stage of the seventh Tour of Britain was won by Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia) in a full bunch sprint alongside Blackpool's pleasure beach after 82 miles of racing on a stage that saw all four seasons in one day and seven cattle grids to negotiate.
Before the action started, 102 starters lined up in the shadow of Rochadale town hall as the clouds were gathering overhead. Before the start proper at the 'Bus Stop' on the A680, the heavens had opened. The foul weather, however, didn't put off an early trio of breakaway leaders led by Jack Bauer (Endura Racing), who was joined by Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) and Wout Poels (Vacansoleil). The threesome were already a minute clear at the first of three climbs the day, a third category King of the Mountain at Deerplay Moor after 15 miles.
After just over an hour of racing, the lead of the attacking trio had reached five and a half minutes, prompting Team Sky to move to the head of the bunch to begin to organise the chase. As the race headed through the beautiful and rugged Trough of Bowland Team HTC-Columbia added weight to the Sky chase and were also helped by Skil-Shimano.
The pressure at the front began to tell, and Bauer dropped off the pace to leave his breakaway companions to go it alone which they managed until 12 miles to go when they were swallowed up by the now racing bunch. However, by this time Porte had done enough to put himself into the sprints jersey at the end of the day and Poels had mopped up all the points in the King of the Mountains competition to ensure he was presented with the climbers jersey in Blackpool.
While the picture was starting to unfold at the front of the race, the hopes of Jonny Bellis came to end, for this Tour of Britain, when he packed after 54 miles. Despite the huge cheers of encouragement from the large crowds who had turned out to watch Bellis the pace proved too much for the 24-year-old Manxman who was in a critical condition in Italy less than a year ago following a scooter accident.
With just over 30 miles to go, Greipel suffered his first of two punctures although his team brought him easily back to the group. With a 31-mile run-in to the finish, it was only the wind (and rain) that made it hard work for the riders but bad luck again hit Greipel with five miles to go when he punctured for a second time.
The entire HTC Columbia team dropped back to help Greipel, who is the winningest rider in the peloton this year with a 17 professional victories to his credit and amazingly, they not only got him back to the bunch with 2.5 miles to go, but he was also led out by Mark Renshaw and Tony Martin after their big effort to get him back. Manuel Belletti (Colnago-CSF Inox) wasn't going to let the 28-year-old German have an easy run to the line and only a tyre's width separated them, leaving Greipel no time to celebrate his win. Despite the rainy weather and seven cattle grids, the race averaged 25mph.
After his 18th win of the season, Greipel said of his first win in his first Tour of Britain, "It's always something to win the first stage because you get the leader's jersey. It was our aim to win the stage here." The questions quickly turned to the weather, and once again Greipel was matter of fact about it. "The weather was not the best today; one minute it was warm and then it was cold again and then it was raining again."
Asked if he could keep the jersey he said, "There are a couple of good teams here so for sure they will try to drop me on the climbs."
This was also Porte's first Tour of Britain and the 25-year-old said afterwards, "I thoroughly enjoyed it today. I had to attack because if I want to ride for classification the only way I can do it is go up the road and take some climbs."
Tomorrow's 100-mile stage from Stoke to Stoke is hillier than today's with three climbs, two of which are first category, but another bunch sprint is in the cards.