As Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fought it out in the Men's Final at Wimbledon and Kimi Raikonnen captured the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, it was Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) who had the most dramatic win of the moment. The Australian sprung for an incredible sprint victory in Canterbury, beating archrivals Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) by over a bike length on the finishing straight on Rheims Way.
"I crashed with about 20 kilometres to go and landed on my knee and wrist," explained a still incredulous McEwen post-stage, "but my teammates waited for me. It was very hard to get back to the peloton and I was thinking 'it's finished' because when you crash and hurt yourself it's not good, but I stayed concentrated. I found the energy through the fear and frustration because I had crashed on the first stage of the Tour, but I realized I had nothing to lose. My goal at the Tour was to win one stage and I've done that, but I hope my injuries aren't too bad tomorrow."
With a shake of his head, as if he couldn't believe he had won the stage, McEwen embraced his teammates Mario Aerts and Dario Cioni post stage, who had brought the 35 year-old sprinter back from the brink. For the first time in his career, the Gold Coaster took the win in the first stage of the Tour de France to make it an even dozen of Tour career stage wins.
Maillot Jaune Fabian Cancellara had a quiet day ensconced in the peloton today as stage 1 traversed the County of Kent on the road to Canterbury. "My team controlled the race very today and it so was great to spend the day in the Maillot Jaune. That is always fantastic, maybe the best thing in cycling."
After a cruise through the streets of London on the neutral zone, Saunier Duval's speedy Scot David Millar made an early, audacious counterattack in east London suburb of Woolwich and then got away solo, with four riders pursuing him, including Augé (Cofidis), Bichot (Agritubel), Grivko (Milram) and Kuschynski (Liquigas) while Maillot Jaune Cancellara's CSC machine kept tempo behind.
Millar was looking to get as many points on the road as he could, eventually collecting enough time bonuses and climbing points to take over the Maillot Pois of best climber as well as move past Discovery Channel's George Hincapie into third on GC and is now 21" out of the race lead.
Millar explained post-state to Ben Atkins, Cyclingnews UK editor that "I just tried to kind of be in the race today, so this is a total bonus. I just attacked because I was kind of in a dark angry mood this morning, so I wanted to do something."
"I remember in '94 when I came to the Tour when I was a kid," Millar continue. "I queued up in Brighton at the barriers for like four hours for the race to come through and then the two riders came through and ten minutes later Boardman had attacked off the front. I remember that made my whole day, seeing Boardman off the front. And so, I thought today, 'you know what, I'm just going to go on a suicide mission,' and it ended up being productive, which is a real bonus."
Millar well articulated his feelings about racing in England this weekend, "I just wanted to say 'thank you' to everyone, it's just been such an opportunity, it was the one opportunity in my life to do that. It's been amazing, there were flags and my name painted out and everyone was just cheering my name, it was nice to hear 'David' being shouted out in an English accent and not 'Davide, Davide.' It was the first time I've had 'David, David' the whole road, so that was great, it was just like wonderful, it's a big 'thank you' to everyone for coming out and supporting us. It was a good day. The crowd was huge, insane. Everywhere we went people were supporting us racing."
McEwen's Predictor-Lotto teammate Chris Horner gave major props to his Aussie teammate McEwen, telling Shane Stokes of Cyclingnews that "[Robbie] had Fred Rodriguez and Leif Hoste looking after him all the way into the finish and you can't ask for two better wheels than that. So nothing surprises me with Robbie when he sees the finish line. I have seen him when he is absolutely terrible, when he says 'don't do anything for me, I am bad,' and then he pulls out the win anyway."
Young British sprinter Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) was touted as a possibility for the stage but he crashed into a spectator with 21 kilometres to go in Farthing Common at the base of the final KOM. His team director Brian Holm explained, "He ran into someone and was half-fighting with the man he ran into on the street. I don't know exactly what happened. Then his handlebars were damaged so we had to move up and change his bike again.
"For some reason the race commissaries made a barrage. Normally with a crash like that you let the cars go so he can go between the cars, but what the bloody commissar did today was a very strange situation."
Cavendish eventually finished third from last on the stage, 2'45" behind McEwen. Just a handful of seconds before Cavendish, US TT champ Dave Zabriskie (CSC) crossed the finish line in 184th, 2'27" back as the American dropped off the pace in the final kilometres after his hard tempo work on the front today for his teammate Cancellara. Eduardo Gonzalo of Agritubel injured his right shoulder after 67 kilometres in Maidstone and crashed out of Le Tour, so 188 riders will start tomorrow as the Tour returns to France.
How it unfolded
All 189 riders gathered in London under sunny skies and mild temperatures for the start of stage one. After a parade lap through the historic centre of London, the riders halted briefly on the Tower Bridge for a short stage opening ceremony, and after London mayor Kevin Livingstone cut the tape and dropped the flag, the riders headed out for an additional neutral section before starting the 203 kilometre stage to Canterbury.
Just as soon as the riders reached kilometre zero, the French teams of Agritubel and Française des Jeux started the aggression, but it was Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel - Euskadi), Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Charles Wegelius (Liquigas) and Andrey Grivko (Team Milram) who made the first breakaway.
Their move didn't last long, and was quickly countered by Saunier Duval's David Millar, who established the definitive breakaway of the stage inside the first 10 kilometres. Millar forged ahead solo for 40 kilometres, keeping a gap of a minute or more on a chase group of Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Freddy Bichot (Agritubel), Andrey Grivko (Team Milram) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis).
Millar mopped up the first time bonus along the route in the town of Gillingham before his team finally advised him to wait for the chasers. Grivko and Kuschynski took second and third in the sprint, and the break became five just past the 50-kilometre mark.
With the break working smoothly together, the peloton sat back and was content to have a relaxing day in the saddle. All along the route, massive, enthusiastic crowds lined the roads to watch the Tour come past for the first time since 1994.
In the second sprint at Wateringbury, the breakaway, which had extended its lead to five minutes, rolled through with Millar taking the maximum time bonus ahead of Grivko and Kuschynski.
The calm atmosphere in the peloton didn't prevent a few mishaps along the way. Eduardo Gonzalo (Agritubel) was the first rider to abandon at kilometre 79 after he crashed through the rear window of the Caisse d'Epargne team car. He broke his collarbone in the incident, but can take solace in the fact that he wasn't the first to have that experience - both Davis Phinney and Jan Ullrich have done the same. The Caisse d'Epargne team director was apologetic after the stage, telling French television that he the car in front of him stopped suddenly and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the accident.
The battle for the polka dot climber's jersey was more heated than the intermediate sprints. At the first KOM in Southborough at kilometre 94.5, Millar had to put in a solid sprint on the category four hill to get the points ahead of Grivko and Kuschynski. At the second category four climb in Goudhurst, Kuschynski tried to surprise his companions, but went too soon and was caught and passed by Bichot and Augé at the top.
With the break now at kilometre 121, the peloton was starting to get restless. Quickstep's Cédric Vasseur and a Crédit Agricole rider took over from the CSC train, which had been setting tempo all afternoon, and the gap to the breakaway started to fall quickly. After Predictor-Lotto sent Wim Vansevenant to the front with another teammate, the leaders' advantage fell down below the three-minute mark by the third intermediate sprint in Tenterden at kilometre 140.5.
The intermediate sprint was a hard-fought battle between Kuschynski, Bichot and Grivko who crossed the line in that order. As the chase gathered its fury, the peloton suffered a string of mishaps: first Oscar Freire flatted with 60 kilometres to go, then a crash involving Juan Miguel Mercado (Agritubel), Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne) and Brett Lancaster (Milram) in the town of Bethersden with 53 kilometres to go.
As the peloton drew ever nearer, Freddy Bichot decided to attack, and was followed by Augé and Kuschynski who were trying to dislodge Grivko, who they felt wasn't doing his fair share. Not willing to pull Grivko back on, Millar gave up and the pair was caught with 44 kilometres remaining.
With Millar back in the fold, Saunier Duval came to the fore and brought the trio up front within a minute of their grasp. Still, the problems persisted in the peloton, and Leif Hoste and Levi Leipheimer both suffered flats as the chase was at full steam. Both made it back safely into the bunch.
The lead for Kuschynski, Bichot and Augé was down to 17 seconds when Augé decided it was time to go it alone. Interested in the red and white spotted climber's jersey, he attacked with 26 kilometres to go, six kilometres before the KOM. Fortunately, for him, but unfortunate for the riders involved, a large crash in the peloton disrupted the chase with 23 kilometres to go.
The crash, which took out sprint hot-favourite Robbie McEwen also delayed more than 20 other riders. Most of the Predictor-Lotto squad came back for McEwen, but that did not help T-Mobile's Mark Cavendish, who had to stop twice for a bike change. The Manxman would never make it back to the bunch despite constant encouragement (but no teammates to help) from his directeur sportif.
Augé succeeded in taking the last KOM in Farthing Common, while Saunier Duval's Davids - Millar and de la Fuente - took second and third while leading the chase behind. Just over the top, Augé gave up the ghost and Saunier Duval let Quickstep take over the work at the front.
Aided by Lampre, Quickstep took control but never succeeded in setting up the blistering pace of the typical Tour de France sprint finish. CSC kept Cancellara safe up front, but took a back seat to a decidedly unhurried run in to Canterbury. With eight kilometres to go, McEwen's group was still 18" behind the group of the yellow jersey, and the sprint looked to be a sure thing for Tom Boonen.
As Matteo Tosatto and Gert Steegmans provided Boonen his final lead-out with one kilometre to go, Milram was able to overtake their train on the left side of the road while trying to deliver Erik Zabel to the front. But in a quick succession of left and right-hand bends, Milram lost their grip and were surprised by an early sprint from Barloworld's Robert Hunter.
The South African launched himself away from the charging pack, but couldn't sustain his speed. With Discovery's Tomas Vaitkus on his wheel, Hunter faded, and Française Des Jeux's Sébastien Chavanel hit the gas on the right, while Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen chose the middle of the road to make their kick in the last 200 metres.
But nobody expected the appearance of Robbie McEwen, who shot like a rocket past Francisco Ventoso, and came from 10th wheel to explode to the stage win ahead of Hushovd and Boonen. McEwen, his leg dripping with blood, won his 12th Tour de France stage with so much speed the rest of the sprinters looked as if they were standing still.
Stage 2 - Monday, July 9: Dunkirk - Gent, 168.5km
Monday sees the second stage of Le Tour returning to Europe and it passes into Belgium across the mythical roads of Belgian Classics like the Tour of Flanders, Het Volk and Gent-Wevelgem. Echelons and crashes could play a part in this nervous stage and the strong wind off the North Sea will undoubtedly be present. 'Tommeke' Boonen will be looking for a big win in front of the home crowd in Gent.
Km 46: Boezinge (Belgium)
Km 87: Westende (Belgium)
Km 140: Aarsele (Belgium)