Alberto Contador started his Tour de France title defense in the worst possible manner, losing one minute, 20 seconds to the other favorites after being held back by a crash 9km from the finish of the 191.5km first stage on Saturday.
The stage win and the first leader’s yellow jersey in this 98th edition of the race went to Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert, who surged ahead in the last 400m to snatch his 13th victory of the season.
Recently crowned Belgian champion and No. 1 in the world rankings, Gilbert grabbed more honors with his first Tour stage win and his first yellow jersey.
On the finish line, Gilbert beat the last two road world champions — Australian Cadel Evans, who finished three seconds adrift, and Norway’s Thor Hushovd, who came home six seconds behind.
“It was my goal, I knew I had a great opportunity to win the stage and take the yellow jersey, which I had never done before,” said Gilbert, who had shunned the Tour the past two seasons.
Nine kilometers from the finish line, Kazakh Maxim Iglinskiy rode into a spectator on the roadside and crashed, halting more than half of the main pack. The spectator was unhurt.
While about 40 riders who had already passed the spot were left to battle for the stage victory, Contador was stuck in the delayed half of the peloton.
“In today’s cycling, races are won and lost by seconds and it is going to take some time to make up for the 1:15 I lost to the other favorites,” Contador said.
“It’s one of these unfortunate accidents that often occur at the beginning of the Tour de France,” Contador’s Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis said. “Alberto is simply unlucky now to be behind some of his opponents for the overall victory, but the Tour has just begun and luckily there is a long way to Paris from here.”
The 2007, 2009 and 2010 Tour winner chased with his teammates, but was unable to make up the lost time, especially when a second pile-up quashed his hopes of making it back to the front.
The second big crash involved other favorites such as Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, Briton Bradley Wiggins and Dutchman Robert Gesink, but it took place less than 3km from the finish, meaning they were awarded the same time as the first bunch.
“A stage like this is a great result for us. I always make sure I’m near the front of the peloton in the last 25km,” Schleck said.
Last year, the Leopard Trek team leader finished second overall, losing 39 seconds to Contador after his chain slipped on a climb.
RadioShack team director Johan Bruyneel, who coached Contador in his 2007 and 2009 victories, said: “Obviously, it’s pure bad luck for Alberto. Who would have expected him to lose so much time on such a stage? It proves that on the Tour de France, danger is everywhere.”
Contador was already under a cloud because of the impending appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) next month against his national federation’s decision to clear him of a doping charge for clenbuterol in last year’s Tour.
Gilbert had been so confident of taking the Tour lead that he had put a yellow watch in his bag to match the leader’s jersey.
Evans, the 2009 world champion, reacted too late to beat the Belgian, but was by far the most successful of all the favorites for final victory.
“It was a good day today. I would have loved to win this stage because you only have chances like this every now and then, but it’s not easy,” he said. “What better way to finish the day than by making gaps over your rivals?”
Yesterday’s second stage was a 23km team time trial around Les Essarts.
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