First in the Dauphiné Libéré, first in the Spanish road championships, Alejandro Valverde kept up his strong run of success when he sprinted to his first-ever Tour de France yellow jersey in Plumelec today. The Caisse d'Epargne rider uncorked his characteristic fast uphill finishing gallop to overhaul Kim Kirchen, passing the Team Columbia rider with approximately 200 metres to go and opening up a one second gap on the 46-man lead group by the line.
Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) and Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) were second and third, with Kirchen holding on to fourth place. Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval-Scott), Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto), Frank Schleck (CSC), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) completed a very strong top ten, with the 1.7 kilometre uphill finish proving very selective.
"This is a victory for all of the fans who supported me for so many years, and also for the general supporters who just love cycling," said Valverde after receiving the maillot jaune. "I didn't know the finale, I followed Kirchen. This finish suited my abilities perfectly.
"I have no extra pressure now, I have already achieved two of my objectives in this Tour; wearing yellow and winning a stage. Keeping the jersey will be hard because the Tour de France is so long, but I will enjoy it now."
Schumacher attacked with a kilometre to go and opened up a decent gap. The 2007 Amstel Gold winner may have held on had the climb not been so tough, but tiring legs and a sharp acceleration by Kirchen saw him overhauled. But Kirchen also went too early, with Valverde's better-timed effort proving to be the successful one.
"I went away with one kilometre to go but it was just too early with the wind," said Schumacher. "I could only try, I will try every day. Tomorrow is another chance."
Gilbert told Cyclingnews at the recent Tour de Suisse that he would aim for success on the stage, given that it was taking place on his birthday. He might have done it, except he came up against a Valverde in very good form.
"He is a real specialist at this type of finish," the Belgian stated. "The last climb was very hard, at the finish my legs were very heavy. Second is disappointing but I was close. I will try again. My sensations are good and I hope for a good finish tomorrow."
The stage was marked by a long breakaway of eight riders - Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale), Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel), Björn Schröder (Team Milram), Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux), David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis).
De La Fuente and Jégou then pushed on ahead in the closing part of the stage, the duo finally being caught with seven kilometres to go.
Most of the race favourites finished to the fore, but one contender who lost time was Team Barloworld's Mauricio Soler. The 2007 King of the Mountains crashed inside the final 10 kilometres and ended up losing three minutes and four seconds. More worrying for the Colombian was the damage to the same wrist he broke in the Giro d'Italia, and he had to go to hospital in nearby Vannes after the stage for X-rays.
CSC's Frank Schleck echoed the feelings of many when he spoke about what was a nervous, physically and mentally demanding opening stage.
"It was really strange because when the first breakaway got clear, it just went away," he stated. "Everybody seemed to want to control the race. That is what happened, but there was so much wind that everyone was nervous. It was totally crazy for the last 80 kilometres, it was really, really dangerous. I was really scared, I said it in the radio to my team-mates. They said 'don't worry,' we will take care of you and they brought me to the front and the final climb, where I finished seventh.
"Unfortunately Cadel Evans closed me in with 200 metres to go, and I clicked out of the pedal. Otherwise I think that I could have had done better. But I didn't lose time, I think we have a good card for tomorrow and that is the most important thing."
Schleck crashed hard in the Tour de Suisse and nearly went down again today. However he escaped with no damage to himself. "Somebody crashed in front of me. I couldn't go around them so I just bumped into them. I didn't go down, I just jumped over the bike. Nicki [Sorensen] was there straight away and brought me back to the peloton. The other guys did great work today as well - they were all life-savers for the three leaders, for Carlos, Andy and me."
Crédit Agricole's Simon Gerrans said before the stage that he hoped Thor Hushovd would challenge for the win. In the end the climb was a little too much for the big Norwegian, who placed 15th. The Australian said that the team rode hard for their leader and would continue to do so. The finale of tomorrow's 164.5 kilometre second stage from Auray to Saint Brieuc may be better for the usual sprinters; if so, Hushovd and the other fast men should be up there.
"Today was pretty hard," Gerrans said. "It was just so quick all day and such a nervous bunch with that crosswinds and the narrow roads all day, up and down. It was a real dogfight to be at the front. There wasn't much chatting in the bunch today, everyone was pretty focussed on staying up at the front.
The run-in was super quick and narrow. Once you were up the front in the first 20 or 30 guys it wasn't too bad...that is where I was in the last 20 or 30 kilometres, trying to keep Thor up at the front. It was stop-start, there were so many corners. Thor was about 15th. Considering the finish, that is not bad for a big guy like him."
How it unfolded
One hundred and eighty riders lined up in Brest to tackle the 95th Tour de France without the traditional prologue. Instead, the opening day was a 197.5-kilometre stage with four category four climbs. The national champions lined up in the front to display their distinct jersey. There were Nicolas Vogondy (France), Fränk Schleck (Luxembourg), Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Norway), Nicki Sørensen (Denmark), Julian Dean (New Zealand), Alejandro Valverde (Spain) and Fabian Wegmann (Germany). In the centre was the wearer of the number one – Australian Cadel Evans.
The départ fictif saw the riders take in some of the scenery of Brest, such as the Océanopolis – a gigantic aquarium. But once Christian Prudhomme dropped the flag for the sharp start, the sightseeing was over and quickly a group of eight riders were able to break clear: Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale), Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel), Björn Schröder (Team Milram), Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux), David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis).
The gap grew to six minutes after just 25 kilometres, and shortly thereafter the leaders hit the first climb of the day where a battle royale for the polka dot jersey ensued. Breakaway specialist Voeckler looked to take it, but he was passed by Schröder just before the line. De La Fuente crossed the category four climb in third, with the gap now at eight minutes.
Augé flatted only a few kilometres before the second climb of the day, but was back in the lead group as they approached the top at kilometre 48.5, and was the one to make the first move for the points. However, he couldn't hold his effort, and this time it was Voeckler ahead of Schröder, with Lequatre – not true to his name – taking the third spot.
Nicolas Portal of Caisse d'Epargne was helping Crédit Agricole to pull the peloton behind, until a team-mate came up to him and called him back. So it was back to Christophe Le Mevel to do the pulling for his captain, Thor Hushovd. Caisse stayed attentive at the front, though, hoping that Alejandro Valverde could take the win on the uphill finish.
The gap never went past eight minutes and started to drop continuously. The first sprint of the day was in Plonevez-du-Faou, after 62 kilometres. This time, Lequatre won ahead of Jégou and Pérez. The peloton crossed the line 5'35 later.
With a 120 kilometres to go the advantage had dropped below the five-minute mark. The break was working well together, but the peloton had the luxury of several teams contributing to the chase. Liquigas, Caisse d'Epargne, Rabobank and Crédit Agricole all did a share of the work.
The first col of the Tour was rapidly approaching at kilometre 85.5, the Col de Toullaëron. Jegou took off with a kilometre to the top, while Schröder and Voeckler, tied on points, were nervously looking at each other. Schröder opened the throttle first, but Voeckler marked him well. The two almost caught Jégou at the top, but the order over the line was Jégou, Voeckler and Schröder, giving Frenchman Voeckler the maillot à pois virtuel by one point ahead of Schröder.
The gap to the peloton was around four and a half minutes at that point, and a strong tail wind on the straight roads of northwestern France was helping out the riders.
The second sprint at kilometre 90.5 was won by Lequatre, ahead of Augé and Jégou. Six kilometres later the riders were going through the feed zone, with the gap of the break still around four and a half minutes. The feed zone is always a nerve-wrecking affair, and this time it took a victim: Hervé Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis), the son of former Paris-Roubaix winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle crashed. He had to abandon with a broken wrist, and his French outcry of a word starting with 'm' described his emotions.
With less than 80 kilometres remaining, the gap had dropped below the four-minute mark. But the break, still working together well, was kept on a medium leash, losing about 30 seconds per ten kilometres as Rabobank and Crédit Agricole pitched in to do more than half the work, while Liquigas and Caisse did the remainder.
A big crash woke up the bunch with 52km to go. Fabian Wegmann, Fränk Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto) and Jimmy Casper (Agritubel) were involved in the wreck, but all continued on - much to the relief of Cadel Evans who will need Popovych at his side in the mountains.
De La Fuente took the final KOM, ahead of Schröder and Voeckler, who were then tied with eight points apiece for the mountains jersey, and would need to wait until the finish and their respective placings to see who would get the polka dot.
The crash had interrupted the chase somewhat, and as the break neared the final intermediate sprint, they still had three minutes on the peloton. Lequatre took the points in a fiercely contested affair in Remungol. The sprint was countered by De La Fuente as the bunch bore down on the tiring leaders, now just two minutes behind.
De La Fuente was joined by Jégou, but the gap was falling rapidly. With 26 kilometres to go the other six riders were swallowed up by the charging peloton, while the two leaders continued to have a 90-second gap.
A crash with a little more than 20 kilometres to go brought down Stéphane Goubert (AG2R La Mondiale) and Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) as the sprinters started to get into position. With the finish now just 15 kilometres away, the leaders were brought within the one-minute mark, and then with 12 kilometres to go the pair had just a dozen seconds. As the lead-out men eased up to time the catch, mountain hopeful Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) hit the deck and was left chasing with his team-mates.
With seven to go De La Fuente and Jégou were finally caught. The uphill drag to the line was too tough for pure sprinters like Erik Zabel and Thor Hushovd, and it was clear the day would belong to a punchier sprinter. Romain Feillu (Agritubel) was the first to launch an attack, but went far too early, and was passed by a surge from Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner). He, too, faded and was overtaken by Kim Kirchen (Columbia) who opened up a promising gap. But the line just would not come for the Luxembourger, and Alejandro Valverde sprinted from the thinned out front of the bunch to take the win and the first maillot jaune.
Stage 2 - Sunday, July 6: Auray - Saint Brieuc, 164.5km
Once again, the rolling and hilly roads of Brittany will dominate this stage as it crosses the region from south to north from the Atlantic coast to that of the English Channel. Like yesterday's stage, the course features a number of small climbs including the third category Mûr-de-Bretagne. The sprinters' teams will be keen to deliver their fast-men to the finish line first; so a breakaway win here will be difficult.
Auray hosts the Tour for the first time, although it did host the start of last year's Hexagonal VTT (the MTB equivalent of the Tour). The town is situated on the coast of the southern Brittany department of Morbihan. It has a pretty harbour and is filled with atmospheric and narrow cobbled streets.
Saint-Brieuc has been a stage town ten times before, most recently in 2004 when Italian Filippo Pozzato (then Fassa Bortolo, now Liquigas) out-sprinted his two Spanish breakaway companions Iker Flores (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears-Banesto). This part of Brittany has the births of both of cycling's Hinaults to its credit: Bernard, the five-time Tour de France winner, was born seven-kilometre away, and Crédit Agricole rider Sébastien was born in the town 20 years later – they are not related.