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By Agence France Presse
Tour de France organizers might not be regretting their decision to give the cycling-mad Belgians the chance to see some close-range drama on the race’s first stage proper on Sunday.
However, some of the 188 riders in this year’s 91st edition would probably see things very differently after a nearly calamitous first day over 202.5km of undulating terrain from Liege to Charleroi near the Ardennes.
Belgium is the home of cycling’s greatest champion, Eddy Merckx, and a number of the world’s best-known one-day races are held here. Thus, as an homage to the country, and especially the region of Walloon, Tour organizers decided last year that they would have the prologue and the first three stages of the race in Belgium.
On Sunday, the Belgians, who know their cycling well, wouldn’t have been disappointed at seeing everything a race should have – breakaways, crashes, punctures, big-name riders struggling at the back and little-known riders forging ahead at the front.
An attack initiated at the 4km mark by Walter Beneteau (Boulangere) led to an 116km breakaway of five riders, who were eventually caught by a peloton driven by Alessandro Petacchi’s Fassa Bortolo team.
Moments after that attack, flamboyant Italian Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) crashed after tangling with Spain’s Oscar Sevilla (Phonak), the right-hand man of Tour contender Tyler Hamilton. Both got back on their bikes and were soon snuggled in with the rest of the peloton, which included all the main contenders for the yellow jersey – Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal), Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel).
Up front, as the five-man break battled for sprint and climbing points, the clouds that had been gathering all morning burst and the rain came down.
Australian Bradley McGee (Fdjeux.com) found the going tough all day, dropping off the bunch on the fourth climb of the day. It later emerged the 28-year-old was riding with severe back pain and had to be escorted to the finish by his teammate, Australian national champion Matt Wilson, a gesture that drew the warm applause of the crowd as the pair ambled over the finish line 10 minutes behind everybody else.
Another Fdjeux.com teammate, Bernhard Eisel, was part of the five-man break – until he fell while riding at more than 40 kph. The Austrian was talking to one of his managers driving alongside him in the team car when his front wheel touched the back wheel of Estonian Janek Tombak and he came crashing down. However, the 23-year-old Eisel showed his mettle, getting back up on his bike, catching up with his fellow escapees, then flying ahead of them to grab all the points in the first of the stage’s two intermediate sprints.