LES HERBIERS, France (VN) — Cadel Evans (BMC) suggested Friday that the only way to beat Alberto Contador was to have a head start going into the mountain stages.
No one expected that opportunity to come as early as Saturday’s 191km opening stage at the 2011 Tour de France, when Contador got caught up behind a crash in the bunch with about 8km to go and lost an unexpected 1:20 on the stage.
Most of his GC rivals — including archival Andy Schleck — came through at six seconds behind stage winner Philippe Gilbert, but the damage was done. Contador will need to go on the attack even more so if he hopes to erase the difference to win this Tour.
“These are things of the race and today it happened to me and tomorrow it could be someone else,” Contador said, who ends the Tour’s first stage in 82nd place. “I didn’t have very good luck today, but the Tour is long. One must be optimistic and remain motivated, that’s the most important thing.”
Contador is hardly ready to throw in the towel, but no one missed the significance of the turn of events. That’s a lot of time, especially considering Contador has won two of his three Tours by less than one minute. That’s certainly something that wasn’t lost on Evans.
“We’ll see what happens when we get to Paris,” Evans said when asked about the time difference to Contador. “You’re talking to a guy who lost the Tour by 23 seconds.”
Contador was the major victim of the pileup, but others lost time, too, including last year’s fourth-place man, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and both of Garmin-Cervélo’s GC hopes, Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal, who both forfeited 1:55.
The road was completely blocked when a rider in the front-middle of the pack collided with a fan standing on the side of the road with about 8km to go. Riders toppled like bowling pins and completely blocked the road. Only 27 made it clear, and the rider who’s won the past six grand tours he’s started was not among them.
“It was a very complicated stage, very tense,” Contador explained. “I was very close to the front of the group, but the crash happened right in front of me. Even though I managed to brake in time, I had to pick my way over the bikes as best I could. When I wanted to start up again, the lead group was already very far away. At this moment, I only had the help of one teammate (Richie Porte).
“Cycling is like that, the race continued at top speed to the finish line and that’s it. Now all you can do is look ahead.”
Contador’s bad luck at least came early in the race, giving him nearly three weeks to recoup the loss. But he could even lose more time in Sunday’s team time trial. Saxo Bank-Sungard will field a solid squad, but many expect the likes of RadioShack, BMC and Liquigas-Cannondale to perhaps take more gains against the Spanish climber.
Johan Bruyneel, who helped direct Contador to Tour victories in 2007 and 2009, said the Spanish rider’s tough start in Saturday’s stage will make it rougher going in the coming weeks.
“It’s a big gap at stage 1. He’s in good shape, and he’s a fighter. Mentally, he is very strong, he can handle a lot, but it’s definitely not a good start,” Bruyneel said. “And I would imagine the spirits are going to be down and tomorrow they may lose more time in the team time trial.”
Contador enters this year’s Tour as the five-star favorite, but losing 1:20 in the opening stage provides a glimmer of hope for many GC rivals who were suggesting the race was on for second place. Bruyneel suggested the time lost Saturday could come back to haunt his former protege.
“It could be a factor. I don’t think any of the favorites would have expected to have more than a minute on Contador after stage 1, but it’s proof that anything can happen in racing,” Bruyneel said.
“In the mountains, there’s nothing you can do against Contador, so you have to try to take time on him on the flats, in the time trials or in the cross winds. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that no one is happy with, but obviously, if he isn’t there, and you are, you have to take that time. You can find yourself in that position and no one is going to wait.”
Bruyneel’s comments underscored the unwritten rule that when the race is on, no one waits for anyone, especially with the finish line only 8km away and everyone hammering the big ring for victory.
One of those who didn’t wait was Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek). He missed the Contador pileup, but got caught up in another crash with less than 3km to go.
Schleck actually rode into the finish with the Contador group, but the 3km rule saw to it that he conceded only six seconds to Gilbert.
The Leopard-Trek rider— who lost time to Contador last year in the Pyrenees when he dropped his chain — was seen shadowing his rival across the line, a gap of more than a minute already yawning between them.