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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) went off last as...

Nibali leads Fab Four after Tour’s Grand Depart

The defending champion was 18 seconds faster than Colombian Nairo Quintana, with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in between

UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) — The window is small, only 18 seconds between them, but Italian Vincenzo Nibali leads the “Fab Four” after the Tour de France’s Grand Départ.

While Australian Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) began to celebrate his stage win, Nibali completed the 13.8km stage in the cycling-mad Dutch city of Utrecht. He ended it in a time of 15:39 minutes, 18 seconds faster than Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar).

Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) slotted in between the two favorites. When you strip out the other riders, the Fab Four classification looks like this: Nibali first, Froome second at seven seconds, Contador third at 15, and Quintana fourth at 18.

Nibali, who suffered through the early season with an injured Achilles tendon and team problems, rebounded just when he needed to. The result was a repeat of 2014, when he zipped away from his rivals for an early stage win and the yellow jersey in Sheffield. Quintana did not start the Tour last year while Contador and Froome abandoned following crashes, and Nibali went on to win ahead of Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).

Pinot might have been the biggest surprise of the short day that kicked off the race in a sweltering hot Utrecht. The Frenchman went two seconds faster than Nibali.

“Looking at the classification, the only one who rode better, who put in a good ride, was Thibaut Pinot,” Nibali said. “He was two seconds fast than me, and gained time on the others. We knew he was in condition, but I am also happy with my effort. I didn’t know how it was at the finish, but now looking at all the times, I can say that I’m satisfied with a day like this.”

The times on the results sheet also showed others like Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) rode well. The results showed Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), sixth overall in 2014, nearly one minute behind Nibali.

And of course, looking only at the Fab Four, would exclude the excellent ride by American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing). While teammate Dennis won the stage, van Garderen made steps towards his ultimate goal of a podium finish in Paris with a time that was one second ahead of Nibali.

“It couldn’t have gone much better, gaining time on some rivals and [his BMC team] taking the yellow jersey,” van Garderen said. “It’s good on all fronts, when things start well, it kind of snow-balls that way.”

Van Garderen said that with teammate Dennis in yellow jersey, the team will automatically slot in the front. “That’s crucial,” he added of the hectic stages ahead.

Froome admitted that that he had hoped for “a better start” over his rivals.

“There’s not a huge difference between the GC contenders,” Froome added. “I’m happy with my time, though. I would’ve taken it if you offered it to me at the start of the day. This is going to be a long three weeks and this is just the start.”

Quintana, finishing last of the four, may have been the wisest. He decided to set off on his Tour ride around two hours earlier. The decision could have saved him from losing more than 18 seconds as Froome, Dennis, and others noted that the winds picked up in the afternoon.

Contador was the most disappointed. “I’m close to my rivals, which is something,” he said, “but I didn’t feel good.”

One can expand these results, reading into their form and how they will perform over three weeks. It could be that Contador paid from the efforts it took to race and win the Giro d’Italia in May.

The results today in Utrecht, however, may mean little when the overall is calculated on the top of Alpe d’Huez on July 25, the last challenge of this year’s Tour de France. By then, Utrecht will likely seem a world away.