LES HERBIERS, France (VN) — Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) won a crash-filled kickoff to the 2011 Tour de France on Saturday, while defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) found himself nearly a minute and a half in the hole after getting caught behind a massive pileup with 8km to race.
It was the first Tour stage win for the Belgian national champion, who easily countered a late attack by Swiss champ Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) in the final kilometers to take the victory.
BMC’s Cadel Evans popped out of the lead group for second with Garmin-Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd third.
“It was a magical last 100 meters,” said Gilbert, who had prepared for this day by dying his hair blonde and bringing along a yellow wristwatch (he started the day wearing a timepiece in his Belgian national championship colors).
“I had a yellow watch in my finish bag that my soigneur brought along, just in case.”
Evans didn’t get a jersey, or even a watch, but he was pleased with his first day’s work.
“First place is always better, but second is not too bad,” he said. “It’s a good start, a pleasant surprise.”
World champion Hushovd, meanwhile, said he didn’t have good legs in the finale.
“It was a hell of a hard day,” he said. “Our team was working hard to chase down the breakaway with Omega Pharma and in the end I think there was a lot of teams who wanted to make it hard for riders like me. I was dead for the sprint.”
“But when Gilbert goes like that,” he added, “no one can hold onto him.”
A gentle beginning
The 191.5km race from the famous Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes gave riders a gentle introduction to this year’s Tour. The course was mostly flat until the 120km mark, when the road began a gradual rise up some small rolling hills. There was just one rated climb, the Category 4 ascent to the finish in Les Herbiers.
The Tour hasn’t included the Passage du Gois since 1999, when the peloton hit it mid-stage, and it proved to be quite decisive. The road, which is submerged by high tides twice a day, is pretty rough and obviously slick in spots. There was a huge crash out there and several of that Tour’s top contenders, including Alex Zülle, lost more than six minutes to the man who would eventually win that Tour, Lance Armstrong.
This year’s crossing of the Passage was less decisive. It came as part of a long neutral section, and thus provided little more than a photo opportunity.
The break du jour
Once across, Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil) and Europcar’s Perrig Quemeneur gave it the gas and quickly took time on a relaxed peloton, which was clearly enjoying the warm, sunny start to the Tour. The trio built a lead of more than six minutes in 20km.
The peloton then woke up and took some time back, closing the gap to just under five minutes with 150km to go.
Jurgen Van De Walle (Omega Pharma-Lotto) hit the deck, catching out a few other riders, HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss among them. Both men remounted and rejoined the bunch, with Van De Walle looking somewhat the worse for wear.
Roy took the 20 points awarded the winner of the intermediate sprint at 87km, followed by Wiestra and Quemeneur. Behind, HTC tried to deliver Mark Cavendish to the fourth-place points, but Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar outfoxed him, grabbing the 13 points on offer. Cav’ could only manage 11th for five points.
The leaders’ advantage was down to 3:30, but once the bunch settled down it went back out again, to 4:30. The bunch was in no hurry to bring them back; Omega Pharma took the front and the gap gradually grew from three minutes to five with 70km remaining.
Garmin subsequently came forward to lend a hand, and with 55km to race the leaders had once again been pulled back to within three and a half minutes. Another mishap saw Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Linus Gerdemann (Leopard Trek) roll off the road. No harm, no foul, and both were soon back in the bunch.
Ten kilometers later the chase had taken back another 45 seconds on the rolling roads leading toward Mont des Alouettes. And with 40km to go Roy and his mates were just two minutes and change up the road, with the battered Van De Walle still on the sharp end of the peloton.
The catch … and the crashes
Twenty-five kilometers from the line the gap was down to a half-minute and the peloton was closing in fast, the leaders in their sights. Five kilometers later it was all over — the three leaders congratulated each other for a job well done, and then Omega Pharma set about organizing itself on behalf of Gilbert.
Europcar was next to move forward, showing the flag for Thomas Voeckler (and perhaps for its nearby company headquarters, too).
Then a huge crash at midfield — caused by an Astana rider’s collision with a stray spectator — shattered the peloton with 8km to race, leaving perhaps 50 riders off the front — none of them Contador. RadioShack and BMC promptly put the hammer down, though Johan Bruyneel said afterward that the team did not know Contador had been caught out.
A second crash at 2km from the line trimmed the lead group yet again, to perhaps a couple dozen riders, and in the final kilometer, Cancellara tried to catch the others by surprise with a strong acceleration. But Gilbert easily followed his move and it was no contest — the Belgian champ left the big Swiss behind and rode to the stage win, while behind Evans shot out of the chasing pack to take second with Hushovd third. RadioShack’s Chris Horner was the top American, finishing ninth at six seconds back.
“I dream of winning big races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel or Flèche Wallonne, but to win here on the Tour de France is also something very special,” said Gilbert.
“In the final I knew that Cancellara was going to attack, and I knew he’d attack where he did. With the big engine he has, he is capable of coming from the back and taking everyone by surprise.
“And when I saw that he was up the road on his own, that’s when I knew I could go.”