TdF Stage One - Finally On Our Way!
The Tour has finally started! As a bike racer, the entire year seems to be focused on the Tour. For me, the first 11 months since the last Tour De France seemed to fly by, but the last month felt like it took forever. But, we’re finally all here!
Stage one wasn't going to be a short day by any stretch, since we had 2 hour transfer by bus to get to the first start of the day, and a ten mile neutral section on the bike to get us to the official start of this year’s Tour de France. During the neutral section, Lotto rider Andre Greipel was the first to crash, and it just happened to be his first time at the Tour de France as well. The poor guy didn't even make it to the official start before he crashed - that's a hard way to be welcomed to the Tour.
As we rode through the neutral section across the Passage Du Gois, I could imagine how hard it must have been to have raced it at full speed a few years ago, when they featured it near the finish of the stage. Stuart O'Grady was riding next to me telling me about how hard and scary it was going across it at 40 mph, fighting to keep your place at the front. While he was give me the details, I kept looking at rocks that bordered each side of the road, knowing of course that if you were to make an abrupt exit from the roadway, there was not going to be any re-entry without first having to unravel yourself from your broken bike. It all made me very grateful to be riding in a neutral section this time around!
The race finally got under way after the second start, and three guys took off right away, for a long day in the breakaway. The rest of field immediately slowed down and went easy. Wow, I didn't expect that to happen on the first stage, but soon after they left, I was glad it did because the first 50 miles of roads were narrow with lots of cross wind.
The quiet start to the race still didn't seem to keep the number of crashes down as riders were still nervous. I do believe it could have been worse, but I still couldn't believe how many crashes we had considering how easy the pace was for the first two thirds of the stage. I spent a little time talking with Tejay van Garderen, who was quite bored with the easy pace at one point. I just told him to enjoy it while he could, because it wasn't going to last too long!
With a hard uphill finish for the day, I wasn't expecting anything, but complete chaos for the end of the stage! I had avoided most of the crashes by that point, by just millimeters in some cases, except one where a rider’s back wheel came down hard right on my left ankle. So much for putting off any injuries until later in the Tour!
The racing started firing up with 25 miles to go as the speeds shot up and the casual conversation was done for the day. In it's place were insults and yelling that I can't repeat as the pressure increased. We were dropping down small twisty roads at over 50 mph. The Lotto boys that were not on the front driving the pace, were protecting Philip Gilbert’s wheel from guys like Tom Boonan, and any other sprinter that tried to get close. At many different points I thought we were all going down at 50 mph, as the sprinters were going at each other to keep in the front of the field. I was just thinking how unfair it is that a little 137 lb guy has to hang around with all these 170 to 180 lbs guys trying to kill each other (and the rest of us as collateral damage). This was my welcome back to the Tour.
We finally hit a hard left turn with just a few miles to go. It would finally string out the field and make it just a little easier to stay at the front, as the riders in the back of the field would lose all their speed going into the corner, which would eliminate the curb to curb fighting for a little while.
Somewhere, just before the turn, there was huge crash that split the field. I didn't know at the time how many guys got stuck behind the crash, because there was no way I was going to turn my head around to look. All of my attention was now 100% focused on what was going on in front me. We hit 2 km (1.2miles) to go when another crash happened just behind me. I heard Levi on the race radio, yelling that he was stuck behind it with Jani as well.
When we finally hit the 1 km to go banner, I was near the limit. The pace slowed just a little, and I almost instinctively took off for the line! Thank God intelligence kicked in a second later and instead of attacking, I stayed right were I was. No more then a few seconds later, Fabien attacked and everyone was on the limit just trying to follow. Philip took off after him, and the rest of us were no longer in stage race winning mode. Instead, we had all switched to general classification mode and were focused on time. I sprinted to the line with everything I had left in the tank to conserve as much time on GC as I could. Klodi was 7th and I finished 9th on the stage. Whew! Stage one was finished, I didn't crash or lose time, gained a lot of time on a few of big favorites for the overall, but did manage to get what I hope will only be a small injury. Let's hope the luck continues!