Tour de France stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 1: Passage du Gois La Barre de Monts to Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers, 191.5km

The 2011 Tour de France got off to an eventful start as a crash-laden stage was won, as widely expected, by Philippe Gilbert. The acknowledged King of the Classics – he won the three Ardennes classics of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the space of eight days earlier in the season – may race in the black, yellow and red Belgian national champion’s jersey, but it might as well be a blue-and-red suit with a big ‘S’ emblazoned on the front when it comes to any race such as this one with a punchy uphill finish. Gilbert claimed his 13th win of 2011 and first ever at the Tour on a day when defending champion Alberto Contador, Samuel Sánchez and Ryder Hesjedal (fourth and seventh last year) were caught on the wrong side of a crash and lost over a minute to their key rivals for the yellow jersey.

The most wonderful time of the year

Regardless of the scandals, allegations and thinly veiled suspicions which continue to circle over the sport like vultures over a dying animal, there is something about France in the month of July to thrill the casual viewer and warm the heart of even the most jaded and cynical of fans. (Personally, I am somewhere between the two extremes.)

It is a time to marvel at the endurance and courage of these men who ride on all terrains and in all conditions – many of whom are paid less in a year than top footballers earn in a week – as they sweep through the telegenic French countryside and small villages dressed up in all their finery. From the familiar images of châteaux and sunflower fields to the farmers who create large-scale bicycles out of hay bales and ride quad bikes in circles to create the illusion of moving wheels just for the sake of the TV helicopters, there is no mistaking this is the Tour de France.

It is not so much a cliché as like being reunited with an old friend. The harsh realities of police raids and pending hearings can go and be damned for the next three weeks.

As seems to be the case in most years the race started in perfect weather conditions, with temperatures of 25°C and bright sunshine smiling upon the thousands of fans who had gathered in the Vendée region to welcome the 198-strong peloton on to the narrow tidal causeway of the Passage du Gois in the neutralised zone before the official start.

The peloton crosses the Passage du Gois before the official start of stage 1 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Chute! Crashes galore on the first day of term

Straight from the flag, a three-man breakaway group formed. It came as no surprise to see a Europcar rider in the escape, as the team’s sponsor is based in the Vendée. Perrig Quemeneur was joined by fellow Frenchman Jérémy Roy of FDJ and Vacansoleil’s Lieuwe Westra. A disinterested peloton allowed them to shoot off into the distance as they wended their way south along the coastal road.

Other than the usual string of crashes resulting from first-day-at-school nerves – the first of which saw Omega Pharma sprinter André Greipel tumble to the ground while still negotiating the neutralised zone – this turned out to be a relatively straightforward day of bait-and-catch. The break built an advantage of 6:45 before the pack decided to ease them slowly back in, with the only excitement coming at the intermediate sprint.

A new system this year means the first 15 riders score points, with the leader earning 20. The revised rules add a new dimension to the mid-stage sprints, where previously only the top three were awarded points, meaning the break of the day generally swept up the bonuses. Here, however, after the break had taken the big points there were still 13 points available for fourth.

With the sprinters’ teams jostling for position, it appeared that HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish was in pole position to take those points. However, he appeared not to go full gas and as Tyler Farrar swept past him to take fourth, he sat up and earned just five points for 11th place. It seemed an odd piece of decision-making by Cavendish, who was never likely to contest the uphill finish anyway and had little reason to conserve his energy.

The peloton continued to reel in the three breakaway men, completing the catch with 18km to go. Europcar then drove hard at the front of the pack to prevent any counter-attacks and to set up team leader Thomas Voeckler for an assault on the finish.

However, the decisive moment of the stage – and one which will seemingly shape the race deep into its second week – came with 9km to go, as an Astana rider in the middle of the peloton clipped a spectator who was leaning into the road and delayed all those behind him, including Contador. With the defending champion isolated – and with BMC and RadioShack forcing the pace at the front – there was no chance of the deficit being recovered, despite a further crash which delayed other key contenders such as Andy Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. That second crash, however, crucially occurred inside of 3km from the finish. After some initial confusion, race rules dictated they would ultimately be given the same time as the group they were with at the time.

Gilbert claimed his 13th win of a spectacular 2011 season

On the final 2km climb of the Mont des Alouettes, Omega Pharma took up the pace-making, and after speculative attacks by a Katusha rider and Alexandre Vinokourov, world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara surged out of the remaining pack of perhaps 25 riders with around 700 metres to go. Gilbert responded to the threat, calmly eased his way up to the Swiss rider’s wheel, and after a moment’s hesitation and a glance over his shoulder decided to accelerate onwards once he had caught his rival. Even though the slope of the final 200 metres took the sting out of his finish, the fast-closing Cadel Evans never drew near enough to seriously threaten him. The Australian was second, three seconds behind, while Thor Hushovd led the chasers across the line six seconds down on the stage winner.

Europcar, the ‘home’ team who had worked so hard throughout the stage, went away empty-handed as Voeckler’s effort faded in the closing stages. Contador limped home with the main pack 80 seconds in arrears of Gilbert, and more importantly 77 behind Evans and 74 behind the Schleck brothers and Wiggins. The Spaniard won last year’s race by just 39 seconds.

For Gilbert, the first yellow jersey of the race, victory was a dream come true:

I dream of winning big races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne but to win here in the Tour de France is something special. I’ve never won any stages [at the Tour]. I’ve never had this yellow jersey before so, for me, it’s a very good day.

We knew that Cancellara would go [where he did] because it was a perfect place for him – with his big power, he can come from behind – and it’s exactly what happened. I was ready to react and I never panicked, I just moved near to him and rode behind for a moment. When he stopped his effort I told myself, “I cannot hesitate any more.” I had to go then.

Evans was delighted with second place and his handy advantage over Contador:

First place is always better, but second is not too bad. It’s a good start, a pleasant surprise.

Contador’s Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis was quick to minimise the effect of the accident:

It’s one of these unfortunate accidents that often occur in the beginning of the Tour de France. Alberto is simply unlucky now to be behind some of his opponents for the overall victory but the Tour has just begun and luckily, there’s a long way to go to Paris from here.

But a disappointed Contador conceded it was a significant time loss:

It was a difficult day. There was a lot of tension and we kept going forward. But at the time of the crash I was misplaced, the road wasn’t very wide and there were a lot of riders.

That’s cycling. The race goes on and I jut have to look to the rest of the race. Today it was my turn for bad luck, tomorrow it could be someone else’s. I’m going to stay optimistic and motivated, that’s the most important thing. Unfortunately in today’s cycling, races are lost and won by 1:15 and the time I’ve lost to my rivals will be hard to recover.

Already the race is beautifully set up. Contador may well lose additional seconds in tomorrow’s team time trial, which will put the onus on him to attack the moment the race hits the mountains. In the meantime Evans, the Schleck brothers and Wiggins now have an advantage in the days to come. It should certainly guarantee exciting racing in the days to come.

Stage 2 preview

The return of the team time trial will see the 22 squads tackle a short 23km course starting and finishing in the small town of Les Essarts in the heart of the Vendée. The route is pancake flat and not excessively technical, and should result in relatively small gaps between the teams (the time is taken from the fifth man to cross the finish line). No one is likely to lose more than 50-60 seconds on a course which the fastest teams should complete in under 25 minutes. However, the winning team is likely to see their lead man take the yellow jersey, which could have a significant bearing on the shape of the race for the rest of the week. HTC-Highroad – who have won the team time trials at the last two Grand Tours – Garmin-CervéloSky and RadioShack should be among the main contenders, which could well see Tony Martin, Hushovd, Geraint Thomas or Andreas Klöden donning the maillot jaune.

Stage 1 result and general classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4:41:31

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:03

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) + 0:06

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) same time

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

6. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

7. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) s/t

8. Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) s/t

9. Chris Horner (RadioShack) s/t

10. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) s/t

Points classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 45 pts

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) 35

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 30

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 26

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 22

Mountains classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 1 pt

Links: Tour de France official

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages


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

34 Responses to Tour de France stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

  1. gchutrau says:

    Very good recap! Thanks.

  2. Kitty Fondue says:

    For me, summer starts when they start racing at the Tour de France and it ends on the Champs Elysees… And yesterday was a much more exciting stage than I had anticipated! But further to our discussion of the other day, Tim, like you I think it was really strange that Cav just sat up when he could have taken more points if he’d just kept with it. Sometimes I think he thinks it’s beneath him to sprint for anything other than first over the line – not that that’s a criticism or as negative as that might sound – but I think his actions speak louder than his words about the green jersey. (And like he said in the interviews they were showing on ITV, who do you remember most – the guy who wins 5-6 stages in a tour or the green jersey who doesn’t….)

    But hey, speaking of Cav – his contract is up this year. Do you think he’d sign for Sky? I don’t necessarily think it’s a given, as he wouldn’t have the team built around him, like HTC is – will he just go for the money? He doesn’t strike me as someone who would do that, although he would know and want to get his worth. Also, one of the things I think is most touching about him is the obvious mutual love between him and Erik Zabel – would he want to go to a team that Zabel couldn’t be a part of as well? It’d be interesting. Sky might be British and all, but I don’t see Cav fitting in there, for some reason.

    I wonder about the TTT – Saxo Bank I doubt are going to be that good, if Leopard Trek just keeps up with Fabian (and it’s short enough for them to perhaps just get pulled by him and Jens) and BMC do a good TTT, I reckon Contador could lose more than we think today… so much to consider! 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Having been caught with his pants down at the intermediate sprint, it will be interesting to see whether this fuels his anger to stamp his rivals into submission on the finish of Monday’s stage. It would be typical Cav now to win by five lengths …

      I suspect Cav has already signed for Sky. He’s certainly not staying with HTC given their reluctance to pay big money to anyone and the uncertainty over their future. The money is important to him – at least in terms of equating to recognition of the rather good job he’s been doing over the past four years – but I’m sure that taking as many of his inner circle with him as possible would be part of the deal too. How they would run a team with both Cav and Brad in it, though, I’m not so sure.

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