The Tour de France got thrown under the bus on Saturday as Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) won a chaotic, crash-filled stage 1 on Corsica.
The Orica-GreenEdge bus got stuck under the timing gantry at the finish of the 213km stage from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia, blocking the road, and organizers decided to end the stage at 3km from the line. Then the bus moved free, and the original finish was suddenly back on.
As the peloton barreled toward what was proving to be a very fluid finish indeed, crashes and mechanicals took out stage hopefuls Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), and André Greipel (Lotto Belisol).
GC hopefuls Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) also took tumbles, as did world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma), who may have come off worst of the fallen; he was loaded via stretcher into his team bus before being taken to hospital with what was being reported early on as a fractured shoulder.
Kittel kept the rubber side down, taking the stage ahead of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Danny Van Poppel (Vacansoleil-DCM)
“The team did an awesome job, and in the end they did a perfect leadout. I think we were pretty lucky that they could tow the bus away,” he said.
“I’m speechless, it’s unbelievable. I’m so happy. This is absolutely, by far, the greatest day in my whole life. A big thank you to everyone.
“I saw the crash happening on the left side, but I couldn’t see what happened. I noticed a few moments later that Mark and André weren’t there.”
Griepel didn’t fall, but nonetheless was a victim of the crash.
“The guys crashed into my bike and I lost my derailleur. So for me it was impossible to continue riding. It was just a complete disaster,” he said.
“I think we saw, again, we have to take the positive side. To see that we were all there, we still could make the sprint like we wanted it, even with all the disaster, we were still able to switch our plans.”
Cavendish, who had hoped to win the stage and add a yellow jersey to his collection, was less sanguine about the outcome.
“I didn’t crash, but the guy behind me crashed,” he said, adding that the chaos could have been avoided had word not got out that organizers intended to shift the finish line.
“What caused the problems was changing the finish. We heard on the radio with literally 5 kilometers to go that the sprint was in 2 kilometers, and then 1 kilometer later they were like ‘No, it’s at the original finish.’ It’s just carnage.”
Calm start, crazy finish
The day began quietly enough, with the break du jour including Jerome Cousin (Europcar) Juan Jose Lobato (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Lars Boom (Belkin), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Cyril Lemoine (Sojasun).
With 100km to race the five had nearly four minutes on a lackadaisical pursuit. As the break approached the intermediate sprint at San-Giuliano the gap was down to 90 seconds. Flecha launched for the line with 500 meters to go and looked to have it wired, but Boom ran him down and snatched the points away. Greipel proved fastest in the bunch dash ahead of green-jersey contenders Cavendish and Sagan.
Lobato drifted back to the bunch, having collected the day’s lone King of the Mountain point on the category-4 Côte de Sotta, but his four mates kept rolling.
With 45km to go the gap was 90 seconds. And then the pace ramped up considerably — just 5km further on down the road the gap had plummeted to a half-minute, and shortly thereafter it was all over for the escapees.
Saxo-Tinkoff was first to begin pushing the pace, but Sky muscled in on the action, as did BMC Racing, everyone trying to protect their GC riders as the road narrowed and the roundabouts appeared.
Then the sprinters’ teams took charge — Omega Pharma, Orica-GreenEdge, Lotto Belisol — and with 22km remaining things settled down a bit, as did the road.
After word came that the bus was blocking the finish, a touch of wheels sent Hesjedal to the deck. He remounted and gave chase with a teammate as Cannondale drove the pack for Sagan.
Then another crash took down the Polish and British champs, and left Greipel standing at roadside with a broken bicycle.
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma) tried to steal a march on the reduced bunch, but he was swept up in the dash to the line, and it was Kittel taking the flowers.
Race director Jean-François Pescheux told AFP afterward that all riders would receive the same time.
The Tour continues Sunday with a 156km stage from Bastia to Ajaccio.
• Contador remained hopeful after hitting the deck on Saturday, injuring his left shoulder. “I’m fine,” he said. “We’ll see how I’ll feel tomorrow. In the Tour, you never know what will happen.”
• Also hitting the deck were world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and teammate Tejay van Garderen. “You can imagine if you hear 10 minutes before we should finish that the finish line is moved to the third-to-the-last kilometer — that this creates a kind of chaos and then it becomes unsafe,” said Gilbert. “Unfortunately I was one of those guys who crashed. I was riding around 25th position and they crashed in front of me. Of course this was a pity, certainly because van Garderen was riding on my wheel.” Van Garderen said the two were fortunate not to be seriously injured. “All things considered, I think I came away really lucky. All my joints are working, no bones are broken; I have a couple of scabs, but that’s about it.”