Wow! THAT is what the TdF is all about! Great opening stage today that netted a worthy winner in Alejandro Valverde.
The opening stage of this year's Tour was a traditional road stage, rather than the usual prologue time trial. Some purists have complained that this would remove some of the beauty of the Tour. Though I see their point, I don't think anybody would argue that today's winner was deserving. Plus, with no time bonuses in this year's race, every second truly counts and the racing was aggressive all the way to the line.
An early break of 8 riders set off for the finish line in Plumelec- which sits at the top of a challenging climb (not good for the true sprinters). Included in the break was fan-favorite Thomas Voeckler, who coincidentally won the GP de Plumelec earlier in the year on the very same roads and finishing climb. The group stayed away for most of the day and the last two riders were not caught until 7km to go... then things got heated.
Team (boring kit) Columbia took control of the pace setting for their teal leader Kim Kirchen. The pace was fast enough that nobody seemed really capable of taking things over, or they were just complacent to let Team Boring Kit do all the work. The finishing climb was challenging enough that it did a good job of breaking up the field and keeping things together for a final effort by Kim Kirchen with just 250m or so to go. Amazingly, it looked like Kirchen would win until Valverde- resplendent in his Spanish champion colors and matching bike- shot from the field and through the final turn on the climb. He made the field look sill-slow! His speed around that final turn was impressive and he overtook Kirchen and had enough of a cushion to sit up and celebrate the win. Belgian Classics specialist Philippe Gilbert (FdJ) was 2nd with Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) in 3rd. Valverde slipped on his first ever yellow jersey and also took the first Sprinter's jersey as well (though it will be worn by Gilbert tomorrow).
The ever-clever Voeckler did just enough work on the day to earn himself the first KOM jersey of the Tour and will be smiling in the polka dot jersey tomorrow. Sadly, the winner of that jersey last year, Mauricio Soler of Barloworld, was involved in a crash with less than 10km to go and had to chase feverishly with two teammates... but was unable to catch the field and lost 3:21 by the finish. As a podium contender before the race, this puts him at a huge disadvantage- he can't rely on time bonuses won on mountain finishes to close that gap. Another sad loss on the day was the abandonment of Herve Duclos-LaSalle (the son of Paris-Roubaix winner Gilbert) of Cofidis; he crashed in the very early kilometers of the race and had to leave with a broken wrist. His crash came in the first feedzone of the race with another rider's mussette bag became tangled in his front wheel. Feedzones are like minefields and you have to be extra attentive- for reasons like this.
The stage was marked, as usual, by several crashes. Some of which might prove to be very significant in the coming weeks. Soler now finds himself with a huge hole to climb out of and Cadel Evans could be in trouble, as his main support rider was involved in a crash as well. Even though Yaroslav Popovych got up and finished the stage, every crash takes a toll on a rider. With the real racing far ahead, it is possible that "Popo" can recover in time to be useful to Evans. Still, you have to believe that Cadel will be worried. As is tradition in a Grand Tour, the early stages are frequently filled with crashes as nervous riders make mistakes of inattention. Many riders, knowing they are not contenders for the GC or likely to finish strongly at the end of three weeks, will slaughter themselves to try and get a win early before they are forced into hard labor for their team leaders. The product of all that nervousness and anxious energy is endless crashes. In recent years, many riders have had their GC hopes dashed in the first week of the race. If nothing else, the main contenders this year, minus Soler, have passed the test today.
Tomorrow's stage rolls through the Brittany region- famous for being the birthplace and home of 5-time winner Bernard Hinault- over several smaller climbs. Four rated climbs will greet the riders, though three are Category 4 climbs and one is a Category 3. Still, it's enough to sting the legs of riders if the pace is high... which it will be. Expect to see another break go early and try to build a lead over the numerous hills. A perfect stage for a rider like Jens Voigt (CSC). However... the finish is flat, after a short hill, and should suit the sprinters just fine. I'd personally expect to see a break caught before the line and the sprinters out banging elbows. Some are calling it an uphill finish, but it has enough of a flat and short enough climb that the sprinters should be there... unless a suicide break makes it to the line first. So we'll see what happens.
Valverde has stamped his intentions on this race already. Cadel looked very good riding smart at the front of the field and the team looked strong supporting him. We might be seeing a nice tete a tete between these two over the next 3 weeks... I hope.
Until tomorrow, au revoir.