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Peloton sees ‘nervous’ return to racing at Étoile de Bessèges

Geraint Thomas on opening stage: 'It was crazy in the end'

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The peloton saw a “nervous” return to racing as some of cycling’s top stars aligned Wednesday for Europe’s first stage race in 2021 at the Étoile de Bessèges in France.

Crashes, tension, and jittery legs jolted everyone back into action after a short winter slumber on the first day of the five-day stage race in the hilly country in France’s Gard region.

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“It was good to be back in the group, but it was a nervous race,” said Ineos Grenadiers’ Geraint Thomas. “There was a lot of braking hard and people shouting. It wasn’t too hard, but it was a bit crazy in the end. We got to the front early and stayed out of trouble. I enjoyed it, it’s nice to be back to racing.”

Big names such as Thomas and Ineos teammate Egan Bernal, Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo), and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) all debuted their respective seasons. The entire Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise team did not start after one of the team’s staffers was diagnosed with COVID-19, with follow-up tests scheduled for the entire team.

Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) came around Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) to win the sprint in a rising finale, and claim the leader’s jersey.

Two crashes marred the closing kilometers, however. Officials later said all riders involved in both pileups were given the same time as third-place Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) because it was too difficult to discern which riders were involved in the mishaps.

EF Education-Nippo rider Michael Valgren sustained fractures to both the second and third metacarpals in his left hand and will undergo surgery Thursday, officials said.

“The last lap was very hectic,” said Israel Start-Up Nation’s Sep Vanmarcke. “It was a bit special because everyone expected everyone would go at the bottom, but it turned out to be a sprint. We rode [well] for the first time as a team, and personally, I felt good. It’s a good start to the season.”

There’s another sprint stage on tap for Thursday, so many of the pack’s top riders are working out the kinks ahead of more important targets down the road.

“I’m mainly here just to get back into it,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema. “The legs feel OK, but this is not an ideal race for me because it’s mostly flat. The time trial [Sunday] will be a good test to go all-out there. The upcoming French races have better terrain for me.”

The 51st edition continues Thursday with the 154km second stage from Saint-Geniès to La Calmette across rolling terrain that should see a bunch sprint.