Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) out-sprinted a small group to win a crash-marred first stage of the 2014 Tour de France on Saturday.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) had just jumped the peloton, hoping to steal the victory from the sprinters on the run-in to Harrogate. But the bunch chased him down, and as the sprint began, hometown favorite Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) hit the deck hard in a tangle with Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), the crash splitting the pack and leaving four riders off the front.
One of them was Peter Sagan (Cannondale), but he couldn’t match Kittel’s speed in the finale. He had to settle for second ahead of Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp), in the process collecting the white jersey of the best young rider. Defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) was best of the contenders for the overall, crossing sixth in the melee.
“It was very tough,” said Kittel, who took the yellow jersey of the Tour’s overall leader along with the green points jersey. “Our plan was to control the race, to keep it as easy as possible, with other sprint teams, we did a good job. The team did a great leadout for me. We stayed calm in the right moments. It’s a yellow jersey for me again.”
Voigt attacks into polka dots
A three-man break containing Jens Voigt (Trek), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) and Benoit Jarrier (Bretagne-Seche Environnment) took off early in the 190.5km leg from Leeds to Harrogate.
They quickly built a respectable lead, and while Jarrier took the mountain points on the Côte de Cray, Voigt won the first points sprint and then just kept on going, putting 30 seconds on his mates with 104km remaining. The peloton was more than five minutes down.
“My whole body was aching today,” said Voigt. “We knew we could take this mountain jersey if someone is in a breakaway. I said to my body, ‘Are you in? Let’s be stupid, let’s be spectacular, let’s put on a show!’ I know that I won’t win this jersey, but to have it today is special. I am here to help the young riders, but I can also make something, too.”
With 95km remaining Voigt had two minutes on his former companions and seemed to be hunting the polka-dot jersey. He took the honors atop the category-3 Côte de Buttercup, and 20 kilometers further along Voigt had three and a half minutes on the peloton, which had retrieved the other two breakaways. Garmin-Sharp, Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol were all pulling shifts on the front.
Seventy kilometers out the bunch had closed to within three minutes of Voigt, and the chase kept nibbling away at the gap as he rode onto and over the third climb of the day, the cat.-3 Côte de Grinton Moor, 49 seconds ahead of the chase.
Catch made, sprint in the offing
The first polka-dot jersey of this year’s Tour well in hand, Voigt was swept up just over the top and the peloton drove for the line 55km further on down the road, slightly ahead of a second bunch containing Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
With 49km to go the pace dialed down a bit, and the Rodriguez group closed to within a half-minute of the main field. Before long it was one big happy family again and the bunch had settled in for a bit of respite before cranking up the volume for the finale.
Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky were all moving forward with 30km remaining. Fifteen kilometers further and no one was firmly in charge of affairs — the bunch was spread from curb to curb.
Then the pace ramped up, with GC guys and sprinters all fighting for a piece of the front on a road packed with furniture and spectators. Omega Pharma finally took control, driving the bunch up the final punchy climb, only to see Cancellara take his last-ditch dig, hoping to bookend Voigt’s early success.
And then Cavendish and Gerrans went down, the bunch split and Kittel beat the survivors home for the first win and the first yellow jersey of the 2014 Tour de France.
Cavendish remounted and finished, crossing 192nd on a stage he had hoped to win, but it remained to be seen whether he would continue.
“Mark had lived this sprint in his mind at least 100 times before. He was so focused, he wanted to win so badly,” said team manger Patrick Lefevere.
“He’s been taken to hospital for checks and we just hope nothing’s broken. If nothing’s broken, then of course Mark will continue.” A team press release issued afterward said Cavendish took responsibility for the crash and that the decision on whether to start stage 2 would be made Sunday morning.
As for Gerrans, he was awaiting a replay to find out exactly what happened.
“I haven’t seen the images of the sprint so I couldn’t tell 100 percent what was happening but obviously I went from being perfectly placed to hitting the ground really hard,” he said. “It was really too bad because I was up for the win, but I couldn’t ask more from the guys because they put me in the perfect position.
“I think I was lucky because I have mainly just lost some skin and feel quite bruised, but in crashes like that a lot worse can happen. Hopefully I wont feel too bad tomorrow but no doubt I am going to feel the effect of what happened today.”
Froome, Contador unscathed
Meanwhile, Froome and his main rival for the overall Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) were content to have finished a nervous stage 1 unscathed.
Sky’s Geraint Thomas described the finish for Eurosport: “I was with Froomey, maybe 20, or 30 riders back, I saw some people leaning then all of a sudden there was just bodies on the floor. Fortunately we managed to avoid it because we were going quite slow up the last hill.
“It was all about being in a decent position going into that last drag. Bernie Eisel did a great job and I sort of just shepherded Froomey, and then all of a sudden with a kilometer to go he just sprints past me and starts going! But he’s obviously in good form, he’s keen to just stay out of trouble so sixth is a nice little result for him.”
As for Contador, he told Agence France Presse that it was “a very nervous day.”
“I’m happy not to have suffered any accidents and to have overcome the stage,” he added.