Petacchi wins as crashes ignite 4th of July fireworks

Stage 1: Rotterdam > Bruxelles (223.5 km)

If yesterday’s prologue in rainy Rotterdam was, literally, a damp squib, then today’s finish in Brussels delivered fireworks befitting today’s date: the Fourth of July. After an incendiary finish in which three separate crashes wiped out much of the pack in the final two kilometres, it was Lampre‘s veteran sprinter Alessandro Pettachi who claimed a fifth career Tour win.

The Tour de France is a race steeped in tradition and ritual, from the distinctive jerseys worn by the leaders of the various competitions to a variety of conventions and unwritten rules designed to achieve nothing in particular other than fulfil a long-established sense of propriety and honour. It was no coincidence that today’s stage passed by the home town of the legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour, who celebrated his 65th birthday last month.

At least four boxes on the traditional Tour de France bingo card were ticked off on today’s stage alone:

1. On the race’s first long, flat stage, an early break slipped away from the peloton and pulled out a sizeable lead, only to be reeled in well before the finish. Today’s three riders giving their sponsors valuable TV exposure as the race passed from Holland into Belgium were Rabobank’s Lars Boom (a Dutch rider on a Dutch team), Quick Step‘s Maarten Wynants (a Belgian rider on a Belgian team) and Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Alan Perez (as a Spaniard on a Spanish team, the odd man out).

2. A random animal incident. Today’s involved a dog and Ivan Basso, also bringing down Britain’s David Millar (third overall) and Levi Leipheimer. As Leipheimer commented on his Twitter feed:

Hit the deck today after someone brought their dog to the race without a leash.

3. A rider being allowed to ride just ahead of the peloton as the route passes through or near their home town, so they can greet their family and receive the adulation of the crowd. Today, it was Sky‘s Belgian rider Serge Pauwels.

4. A big crash as nerves beset the sprinters’ teams, all of whom are jostling to assert themselves over one another in these early days of the race.

Stage 1 winner Alessandro Petacchi

And so it came to pass. On a day which was always going to centre on a pack of sprinters all keen to draw first blood in the green jersey competition, tensions were bound to run high in the closing kilometres once the break had been hauled in. Combine this collective twitchiness with a tricky uphill drag to the finish, and it appeared that all sprinters’ teams wanted to be around the head of the peloton without driving the pace too hard too early. As a result the field, normally strung out into a long, thin line on the run-in to the finish, remained bunched up. As the peloton swept into a tight, downhill, right-hand corner less than two kilometres out, it appeared that Mark Cavendish ran slightly wide and triggered a domino effect which brought down several riders and slowed everyone behind.

There then followed two more crashes inside the closing kilometre – the first of these ripping through the pack like a tidal wave – taking out, among others, yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara and Tyler Farrar, the Garmin-Transitions sprinter who is based in nearby Ghent and was desperately seeking a win on his ‘home’ turf. But the American was taken out from behind by AG2R‘s Lloyd Mondory, and with hardly any of the serious sprinters left, the 36-year old Petacchi led a somewhat muted charge over the line to claim his first Tour de France stage since he won four of the opening five individual road stages in 2003.

As the rest of the field trickled across the finish unhurriedly in dribs and drabs (in situations where a crash occurs in the final three kilometres, time losses are nullified, effectively freezing the GC order), many were left to lick their wounds and assess the damage.

Cavendish himself seemed relatively unruffled as he rode past reporters without stopping, saying:

I’m OK It’s just life, isn’t it?

But it will be interesting to see how much blame is ascribed to the Manxman, particularly after his role in the crash at the Tour de Suisse which left several riders injured and forced Heinrich Haussler out of the Tour. To me it looked like one of those things: Cav possibly over-cooked the corner and had nowhere to go in a pack which was much more tightly bunched than normal. These things happen at the Tour, particularly in the first week before an informal hierarchy and understanding between the teams and riders – another Tour tradition – establishes itself.

All in all, it was a bad day for Cav. A golden chance to win and stake an early claim to the green jersey – and with it the opportunity to settle his nerves – has gone, with no points he has lost significant ground to Petacchi and Thor Hushovd (who finished third), and his HTC-Columbia team will be hoping that a scan on an injury to Adam Hansen, one of his key lead-out men, does not confirm a suspected broken collarbone.

For Petacchi and Lampre, however, their aspirations for the entire Tour have already been fulfilled. The Italian refused to devalue his win, claiming he might well have beaten Cavendish anyway:

I did a very risky sprint. I attacked from far out, despite the head wind and the false-flat road. I’m not sure that Cavendish would have beat me if he’d been there at the end because I’ve really done a great sprint.

As the race passed from Holland into Belgium, hundreds of thousands of local fans – including Richard Tulloch in Rotterdam – lined the roads enthusiastically to catch a few brief moments of the high-speed rainbow that is the Tour peloton streaking by. The reception certainly left an impression on many of the riders, with BMC’s Brent Bookwalter posting on Twitter:

Wow! Now I’m beginning to understand all the fuss about the Tour de France. Never seen so many people, ever, anywhere. A tunnel of noise and colours all day.

And Liquigas’s Manuel Quinziato added:

Never seen so many [people] watching a bike race! Millions! Made me proud to do this job! Once again!

Lance Armstrong, who has seen pretty much everything there is to see when it comes to the Tour’s vagaries, perhaps summed up the day best when he said:

Total mayhem, definitely in the finish. It was a typical first stage. Everyone wants to be in the front.

Millions and millions of people on the road is a blessing and a curse. It’s so great to have so many supporters but it makes the guys super nervous.  The guys are always dodging people.

And on these tight roads you saw in the final it shouldn’t be any surprise that there would be some crashes there.  Everybody is okay [on Team RadioShack]. It just shows you how crazy it’s going to be on Tuesday [over the cobbles]. You saw the nerves today. We’ll have the same situation on very small roads. The nerves and intensity will be high.

Tomorrow sees the race finish at the town of Spa, well-known for its historical Formula 1 circuit. The up-and-down nature of the final 50 km on stage two could present some tricky challenges for the unwary. A bit like today, really.

For full coverage of the Tour de France, I would recommend either the official website or alternatively as your one-stop shop for race reports, photos and videos.

And for alternative, well-informed views on the race, please visit Todd Kinsey’s blog.

Stage 1 result:

1.  Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 5:09:38

2.  Mark Renshaw (Columbia) same time

3.  Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) s/t

4.  Robbie McEwen  (Katusha) s/t

5.  Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ) s/t

6.  Daniel Oss (Liquigas-Doimo) s/t

7.  Jose Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) s/t

8.  Christian Knees (Team Milram) s/t

9.  Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t

10. Jürgen Roelandts  (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) 0:10:00

2. Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) +0:10

3. David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) +0:20

4. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +0:22

5. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:23

6. Alberto Contador (Astana) +0:27

7. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) +0:28

8. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +0:28

9. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) +0:32

10. Linus Gerdemann (Milram) +0:35

Selected others:

23. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:39

70. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) +0:55

72. Denis Menchov +0:56

75. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:56

77. Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:57

119. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +1:09

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 35 pts

2. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) 30

3. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 26

4. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 24

5. Matthieu Ladagnous 22

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

No points yet.

Stage 2 preview:

Start & finish: Bruxelles > Spa

Distance & type: 201 km, hilly

Prediction: A lumpy stage featuring a number of short but steep climbs used in the Ardennes classics. The category three pair of the Col de Stockeu and Col du Rosier are likely to decimate the sprinters well before the finish. This could end up being a small bunch sprint contended by some of the Tour hard men or even a free-for-all. There is also a chance of splits in the peloton allowing a small group to escape and stay away to the line. Fabian Cancellara and Saxo Bank will have their hands full if they want to retain the yellow jersey.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

%d bloggers like this: