LANDERNAU, France (VN) — Screeching brakes, the inevitable thud, and then the sounds of the impact of bodies, bikes and pavement.
The opening stage of the 2021 Tour de France turned into carnage Saturday with two high-speed crashes in the final hour of racing that sent riders scattering like dominoes.
Riders were relieved to arrive in one piece at the top of the hilltop finale, at least the ones who didn’t crash.
“I have to look at the positive and I made it the finish in one piece,” said Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who could not deliver the win many expected. “I’m glad I was spared bad luck.”
Opening stages at the Tour de France are always nervous, but this one even more so.
Narrow roads and crosswinds down along the rugged Brittany coast raised tensions. With fans back along the edges of the roads after the peloton raced “behind closed doors” in 2020, the nerves were ratcheted up even higher.
It was a young fan’s poster held up in the roadway to say hello to her grandparents that provoked the first crash with under 50km to go.
Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin was taken out by the sign when it hit hit handlebars and right arm, bringing down riders behind like pins in a bowling alley.
“It’s nice that spectators are back, but it immediately makes everything more hectic,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert. “It was far from ideal for us, but Primoż’s chances are still alive.”
How not to watch a bike race!
A crazy fan causes chaos on stage 1 of the Tour de France. pic.twitter.com/nydkPZWvXm
— GlobalCyclingNetwork (@gcntweet) June 26, 2021
Somewhat surprisingly, most of the five-star favorites managed to evade serious calamity.
Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič surged to third to claw back valuable time bonuses, with defending Tour champion Tadej Pogačar trailing across sixth. 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) was 10th, but two of his teammates — Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart — were not so lucky.
Both were caught up in a second crash within 10km of the finish line, with Porte giving up 2:16 and Geoghegan Hart ceding 5:33, meaning that Ineos Grenadiers is quickly down to two leaders, not four.
“I was concentrating on staying on my bike,” Thomas said. “I was happy to get through it. I’m a bit gutted to see Richie and Tao to get caught up in the those crashes.”
Almost no team came away unscathed.
Michael Woods, who started as Israel Start-Up Nation’s protected leader, might have to slip into stage-hunting mode on the first day after losing nearly nine minutes. It was even worse for four-time winner Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), who grimaced on the road, and nearly finished last at more than 15 minutes back.
— Sporza 🚴 (@sporza_koers) June 26, 2021
Pre-race favorite Miguel Ángel López (Movistar) lost 1:49 along with some skin, but co-leader Enric Mas saved the day.
“These are stages with a lot of speed, tension, narrow roads,” said Movistar’s Carlos Verona. “Losing time with López is a big blow. He was caught up in the first one, and we tried chasing back, and then he crashed again in the second. At least we kept Mas out of trouble, so we were 50/50 on the day.”
In these harrowing crashes on narrow roads, it is often luck of the draw. Even staying in the front isn’t a guarantee to stay out of trouble. A crash on one side of the road might mean salvation on the other.
EF Education-Nippo avoided the spills, and slotted Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Higuita into the front group.
“For our team, we had a lot of luck,” Urán said. “Above all in these opening stages, it’s not a question of being a better bike-handler, but it’s a matter of being in the right place and avoiding the crashes. It was a good day for us.”
Almost no Tour sees all of the GC favorites escape the first week unscathed, and the 2021 Tour is already proving costly.
With a few more stages on the gnarled roads of Brittany followed by the wind-blown flats of central France, the peloton will be relieved by the time the bunch rolls into the Alps next weekend.
A beyond-category climb will never have hurt so good.
Roger Kluge expects up to eight sprint stages
Sprinters will get their chances in this Tour de France, with ace lead-out man Roger Kluge expecting up to eight mad dashes to the line.
Kluge’s charge is Aussie sprinter ace Caleb Ewan, and the German veteran believes the first chance will come in stage 3.
“There could be up to eight sprint stages this Tour, which are a lot after the last few years, so we are happy about that,” Kluge said at the start Saturday. “There are many chances this year for sprinters. Caleb is ready and we want to win at least one, and then we will go from there.”
Kluge is also heading to the Tokyo Olympic Games, where he will compete in the omnium and the Madison, which returns after being out of the Olympic program since 2008.
“I will think about the Olympics when this Tour de France ends,” he said. “It’s nice to have the Madison back. Now we need to bring back these nice events like the points race and the individual pursuit.”
Stage 2: Wall of Bretagne, one for the ‘puncheurs’
Julian Alaphilippe was already playing down his chances for doubling up, and suggested that it will be someone else in yellow by day’s end.
“It’s not my favorite finish,” Alaphilippe said. “I’ve raced it a few times, but have never won there. If I lose the yellow jersey, then I will be back in the rainbow jersey, so there would be worse things.”
— Le Télégramme (@LeTelegramme) June 25, 2021
The steep finish is back for its fourth time in the Tour. Cadel Evans won in 2011, and Alexis Villeumoz won in 2015. Dan Martin was first in 2018. Michael Matthews won there in 2020 when the stage was featured in the Bretagne Classic.
Matthews was second Saturday to Alaphilippe, so could it be Bling’s big chance?
The wall is typically a tad too steep for the likes of Peter Sagan, and it will be a day off for the pure sprinters, who will save their matches for Monday’s hilly third stage that should end in the Tour’s first bunch sprint.
The wall is a pure puncheurs finish, so watch for the likes of Michael Woods and Martin, now teammates, as well as Pogačar and Roglič, who will be chasing time bonuses and keeping a close eye on each other.