Defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) has begun the Tour de France with a hefty handicap after losing a crucial 1:20 to his main rivals on the first stage of the race.
The three time Tour winner was cruising close the front of the bunch inside the final 10 kilometers when Maxim Iglinskiy (Team Astana) clipped a fan at the side of the road and fell, causing a mass pile up in the peloton. Only 30 riders avoided it but these included several of Contador's overall rivals.
Despite a frantic chase lead by Saxo Bank-SunGard and Euskaltel-Euskadi - who had Samuel Sanchez caught up in the melee too - Contador lost 1:20 to Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), Cadel Evans (BMC), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and others at the finish.
Contador quickly understood the significance of the lost time but tried to stay as upbeat as possible.
"It was a difficult day," Contador conceded. "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. "
"I was very close to the head of the race but other riders fell in front of me and although I managed to stop in time, I had to go over their bikes as best I could. When we got going again the group had a good gap. I only initially had the help of one teammate and then another but we lost a fair bit of time.
"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. "
Contador hopes for a better day in Sunday's team time trial.
"There are other teams that might be better prepared than us, but I hope that the differences are not too big because otherwise, together with those of today, things will get complicated," he said.
Despite the bad first day, team boss Bjarne Riis tried to stay philosophical at the finish.
"It's one of these unfortunate accidents that often occur in the beginning of the Tour de France. Alberto (Contador) 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 Paris from here," he said.
Riis's optimistic view might well be tempered by the fact that Schleck lost over 30 seconds to Contador in the opening stage of last year's race and went on to lose the Tour by 39 seconds. However with such a demanding three weeks of racing to come, Contador remains the man to beat. His dominant performance at the Giro d'Italia in May coupled with his record of having never lost a grand tour will have his rivals in buoyant mood, but his teammate Brian Vandborg is convinced that the Tour is far from over.
"When an accident strikes, minutes can easily be lost. But I have faith in Alberto and I believe that he will be back showing what he's best at in the mountains. Last year, he lost some time on the stage to Roubaix but he fought his way back and won the race. There are still 20 demanding stages to go and anything can happen."