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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
The Tour de France peloton did its best to impersonate crash test dummies in today’s first stage won by AG2R’s Jaan Kirsipuu, while Fabian Cancellara of Fassa Bortolo just retained the yellow jersey.
The 202.5km stage from Liege to Charleroi lived up to apparent Tour tradition that the first day of racing be marred by numerous crashes — and, often, costly injuries.
Little wonder then that American Tour champion Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal) admitted to being more than a little nervous in a bunch that had to race in cool, wet and often slippery conditions.
“I was very nervous because of the wind and the crashes. It was just your typical day of Belgian racing. But I felt okay,” said Armstrong who raced in the green points jersey for the second time in his career; the last time Armstrong wore it was in 2000 when Scot David Millar took the yellow jersey by winning the opening time trial at the Parc du Futuroscope.
Meanwhile, Kirsipuu’s win in a bunch sprint over Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) was the 114th of his career.
The Estonian sprinter brushed off the statistic which cements his place as the third winningest active rider, by saying: “It is not the number of wins that is important, but how important those wins are.”
In his trail was a pack that contained many battered and bruised riders who had fallen victim to several crashes throughout the day.
The ‘Comminque Medical’ later listed the names of 10 riders who needed attention during or after the stage, thankfully most without any gravity.
The last crash — just inside the last four kilometers as the pack raced at helter-skelter speed — took out two sprinters Kirsipuu would normally need to account for: Italian Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) and Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis).
But they were not alone in ruing what had gone wrong in a stage that saw a five-man group come together after 15km, on the descent of the first of five climbs, the Cote de Florze.
The break was made up of Germany’s Jens Voigt (CSC), Italy’s Paolo Bettini (Quickstep), Frenchman Franck Renier (Brioches La Boulangere), Estonian Janeck Tombak (Crédit Agricole) and Austrian Bernhard Eisel (Fdjeux.com).
It soon became clear the stage was to be a dangerous one, with the slippery roads and early Tour nerves leading to falls in the break and peloton.
Among the victims in the main bunch was American Tour contender Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) who took a tumble at about 100km.
“I went down with one of the Posties,” said Hamilton who remounted quickly and rejoined the peloton, fortunate to suffer nothing more than abrasions to his right.
“I was coming around a corner, there were five guys on the ground and I had to go off the road.”
Ten kilometers later on the Cat. 4 Cote de Ocquier, the day’s last climb, Australian Nick Gates (Lotto-Domo) crashed, hitting his knee on the handlebars and left to ride the last 90km to the finish alone.
Gates, in his second Tour, was later ruled out of the race for finishing outside the stage time limit of 5 hour 5 minutes and 44 seconds — he was 5:23 late.
With the break, whose maximum lead of 3:45 at 55km had by now fallen to two minutes, it was Eisel who took the most unglorious of spills on live TV.
While talking to his directeur sportif, whose car was to his right, Eisel touched wheels with Reiner and went down, again fortunate to suffer only abrasions.
His efforts were all in vain though, as the Fassa Bortolo-led peloton had already kicked into gear and was cutting the lead group’s time advantage down, a chase that would break the heart and legs of some.
On the fourth climb, the Cat. 3 Cote de Borlon, Cipollini and Australian Brad McGee (Fdjeux.com), who was suffering with a lower back and hip problem, were both dropped.
They rejoined the peloton on the descent, but with others were left behind again on the final climb, the Ocquier at 107km, as the peloton continued to close in on the leaders.
The peloton’s pace certainly did not settle down after the five-man break was caught at 131km under the impulse of Fasso Bortolo, which was working for its superstar sprinter Alessandro Petacchi.
With the break in the pack’s grasp, the battle for bonus points and time bonuses for the yellow jersey began at the second of three intermediate sprints.
Hushovd, starting the day in fifth place overall at 10 seconds, won the sprint at Modave at 114km from Cancellara. With 6, 4 and 2 seconds bonuses going to first, second and third place in the sprint, the win brought him within eight seconds of the Swiss race leader.
In the next sprint at Wanze, 18km later, O’Grady was first from Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and Cancellara.
It was soon after that last sprint that the final two-man break of Belgian Marc Wauters (Rabobank) and Dane Jakob Pill (CSC) escaped. The pair got a maximum of 1:45 lead on the pack with 25km to go before they were reeled in by the pack.
That chase was again too much for some, including McGee, who was dropped for the third time and left to finish 6:05 back.
Leading the chase for their respective key sprinters were Fasso Bortolo (Petacchi), Lotto-Domo (McEwen) and Crédit Agricole (Hushovd).
Wauters and Piil fought bravely to try and stay away as their lead plummeted with every pedal stroke from the chasing peloton. With the gap down to 20 seconds with 5km to go, the duo did well to hang on until finally being caught with 1400 meters to go.
From there the bunch sprint was set in place. And for a time it seemed that Fassa Bortolo riders would reap the reward for all their hard work in the day — topped by the yellow-jerseyed Cancellara’s mighty lead-out for Petacchi in the last kilometer.
Hushovd was the first of the sprinters to let fly for the line with about 500m to go, but it was too early. Then Kirsipuu bolted with 300 meters to go, leaving his rivals to jump onto their pedals and follow in a criss-cross of cycling mayhem.
McEwen was the fastest finisher, coming up through the middle and then forcing his way into and through a gap to his left which allowed him to pass Petacchi and enjoy a free run to the line — which his bike throw left him inches short of catching Kirsipuu.
“I just ran out of road,” said the Aussie.
“I had a pretty bad first part of the stage but as it went on I started feeling better,” said 34-year-old Kirsipuu, who has now won three stages on the race, his last being in 2002 at Rouen.
“I got a bit more confidence by the time of the final intermediate sprint. I had good legs – I can still manage to sprint all the same, and it was a perfect finish for me.
“On the sprint I was feeling really good. Of course, you need a bit of luck as well. I got a bit worried when I saw McEwen coming up on my left. I saw he wasn’t happy, but that’s the way it goes.”
Hushovd, who comes into the race hoping for stage wins and the green jersey, got his campaign off to a great start by pulling on the jersey for the points classification.
He now sits second overall in the general classification, four seconds behind Cancellara with Lance Armstrong, the 32-year-old five-time winner, in third place.Resultsare Posted
To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply open up our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.