Tour de France 2011, Stage 1 Report

Tour de France 2011, Stage 1 Report

And so it begins, the 98th edition of the greatest show in cycling, a 3,436-km (2135+ mile), 21-stage professional cycling race consuming almost the entire month of July as well as most of the geography of France. That distance is the span from New York to California. The claim is that it is the largest annual sporting event in the world, with 8,000 employees and hundreds of transportable structures dismantled and reassembled, sometimes hundreds of miles up the road each day. There are 22 teams each with 9 of the best elite cyclists in the world – 198 bikers total – vying for only 3 steps on the most important podium in the sport.

It’s hard to say that any stage of the Tour de France could be discounted early on as inconsequential to the overall general classification contenders, but, well, I believed that and would later eat my words. Parting from recent tradition, instead of a prologue or individual time trail, today’s stage was a long (192-km), relatively flat race favoring one-day specialists and sprinters that were out for a stage win. So the smart money said there would be little impact on the GC contenders and it would just be a fun day for fans to watch some exciting but predictable racing seeing a one-day rider have his day. Turned out the one-day rider came through, but ‘predictability’ got thrown out the window. I’ll go that in a minute, but first back to the spectacle that is the Tour de France.

Beyond the 3-tiered prestigious podium placed on the cobble stones of the Champs Élysées in the heart of Paris on July 24th, there are 4 major crowns up for grabs that the pro teams’ riders have been gearing their training for all year long; Best Sprinter (Green Jersey), Best Climber (Red Polka Dot Jersey), Best Young Rider (White Jersey), and Best Team Performance.

So if math serves, that’s nearly 200 dedicated competitors, all impressive athletes in their own right with an amazing list of individual accomplishments, who’ve trained and raced all year long (their whole career in many cases), pedaling with everything they have, with intelligence, aggression, and power trying to snatch one of just 7 elite distinctions (excluding of course the individual stage wins which are huge palmarès for anyone’s bio) at this Tour. No mistake, it’s an extreme definition of athletic competition with the infusion of serious money complicating it all; pro contracts, major sponsorship dollars, and product promotion deals infecting the whole atmosphere, amping performances to their maximum. There are often more company logos on a cyclist’s chest than a Formula 1 car.

Sometimes people wonder how can such finely tuned athletes crash so often, misjudging turns, road slickness, the distance to the wheel in front, going down in a heap and possibly resulting in serious career-threatening injury. Well, beyond the fact that they’re riding on bumpy roads, rail road tracks, pot holes, gravel, cobble-stones, and sometimes just hard-pan dirt on tires about as thick as your thumb, elbow to elbow with other riders that frankly aren’t looking out for their wellbeing, they are constantly taking chances the rest of us quit risking on a bike past the age of about six, because there is so much at stake. On European round-a-bouts, tight turns, and road divides you just have to hold your breath sometimes and hope your favorite rider has a good mental calculator helping him make split-second decisions to risk ‘bunny-hopping’ an 8-inch curb to keep his place in the pack or instantly lose 30 places by going safely around a lane divider.

As was to be expected, today’s first stage had numerous nerve-fueled mishaps, with first-day jitters causing several spills, and problems, but thankfully nothing seemed too serious. Some falls looked harsh, but everyone got back up, re-chained their cranks and pedaled on down the road. Fingers crossed, no lasting physical effects.

Team RadioShack avoided most of the problems, no surprise given the experience and professionalism of this powerful squad along with a little luck. They stayed close to the front at the end, out of trouble and with excellent placements on the day, both Klöden and Horner in the top ten! They, along with the other GC contender teams, satisfied themselves with keeping away from danger, front of the pack, and staying in contention – about all one could do on the day. But then all hell broke loose.

Earlier there was a 3-man break that stayed away most of the day, but no one seriously thought they had a real chance on this first day of the Tour, given the stage winner wears the yellow jersey the next day after taking a stage win in the biggest cycling event on the calendar. Just too much at stake to let a breakaway have a victory. Lots of nervous tension, jostling for position.

At about 17-km to go, an Astana rider clipped a spectator and a huge group went down or got caught out in the peloton– however, several RadioShack riders were just in front of the crash. Pays to be up front toward the finish line. Credit RadioShack Management here for keeping everyone safe; both Johann Bruyneel, and Lance Armstrong’s Cycling Philosophy 101, stay to the front during such critical junctures. The peloton got split in half at this point with those behind chasing so hard they stretched the group behind in a high-speed tight-rope that would never catch their prey. They were some 30 seconds back at this point.

Then, another crash!

Inexplicably, Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador found himself caught behind both of these crashes, and now sits 1:20 behind, today’s leader, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert (BEL), but more importantly 1:14 behind RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Janez Brajkovic. BMC’s Cadel Evans rode smartly hanging with the front-runners, biding his time, and jumping into second on the stage, looking strong, with Garmin-Cervelo’s Thor Hushovd on his heals.

A weird first day of racing to say the least, that could ultimately scramble predictions about this year’s outcome. Alberto and Team Saxo Bank now have to play a bit of catch up if they want to stay in the hunt. Being almost one-and-a-half minutes behind most of the major contenders for this race is a big story after just one day of racing. Chances are Saxo Bank’s Team bus wasn’t a pleasant place to hang out for the ride back to the hotel tonight.

RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden and Chris Horner (both in the top ten today), Levi Leipheimer and Janez Brajkovic are all just 6 seconds back in as great a shape as they could have hoped for. Out in the cold, 1:20 back (or worse) are such names as Samuel Sanchez, Alberto Contador, Luis-Leon Sanchez, Ryder Hesjedal, Davis Zabriskie, and Christian Vande Velde. Call it luck, good coaching, or smart attention to tactics, but once again, Team RadioShack riders kept away from misfortune and remained in contention. It was a weird day, but admittedly quite fun to watch.

Although a bit of a traditionalist, missing the first-day prologue or time trial, I have to say, this was one wild first ride that was a refreshing leap right into the midst of the race that was exhilarating and refreshing. The Tour organizers have been under the gun for years now accused of stumbling through some unfortunate calls. But from the Race Director Christian Prudhomme on down t the last route guard, one has to give credit for choreographing such a huge enterprise into such an entertaining and exciting spectacle, which the world has come to recognize as the greatest cycling show on earth. Great first day. Now, on to the Team Time Trial. You gotta love this!

By George Hurst, staff writer