The opening road race stage of the Tour de France is always, a tense, nervous affair, with the sprinters fighting for double prize of the first stage victory and a shot at taking the yellow jersey. In contrast, the overall contenders were expecting a nervous day and were simply hoping to avoid crashing and losing time, diametric opposites that indicated danger for the finale.
For 180 of the 201km stage, they were able to sit safely in the guts of the peloton. Then the tension rose in the final 20km and then suddenly, with a touch of elbows on a curve in the fight for position with 10km to go, Chris Froome (Team Sky) crashed. An on-bike video showed Froome desperately trying to move up before touching elbows with Rik Zabel of Katusha and suddenly going off the road into the ditch.
In a split second, the Tour de France changed dramatically. Other riders also crashed and were gapped and forced to chase all the way to the line to limit their time losses. Nairo Quintana suffered two broken wheels after hitting a traffic island with five kilometres to go and suddenly he was back in the Froome group, also fighting to save his race.
In just five kilometres, the innocuous flat stage had shaken up the overall classification, with instant winners and losers and the clock at the finish measuring the seriousness off the earthquake.
Sixty-three riders finished in the same times as stage winner and first race leader Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors). The overall contenders to have made the cut included Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Mikel Landa and Alejandro (Movistar), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates).
Those losing time were fewer but included Froome and Quintana, along with Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). The Colombian lost the most, finishing 1:15 down on those listed above.
Froome, Porte and Yates lost 51 seconds. It could prove to be a lot, even decisive in this year's Tour de France or could mean little after the stage across the cobbles of the Roubaix stage 9, the Alps, Pyrenees and final time trial. Time will tell. However, last year's runner-up Uran finished only 54 second behind Froome in Paris, with Bardet third at 2:20. Every second counts across three weeks of racing and is what makes Grand Tour racing so fascinating.
While Froome and the others time losers licked their wounds, the time gainers were happy with every second they took, especially on Froome and Quintana.
For Nibali, the time gained virtually wipes out what he and Bahrain-Merida were expected to lose in Monday's stage 3 team time trial. That is one significance of the 51-second time gained.
"I heard over the radio that Froome crashed but we made it through and so that's good," the Italian explained post-stage to La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"The first part of the stage was pretty simple. But in the last 50km the roads were narrow and so there was a fair bit of stress. It was important to stay up front and luckily I got help from [Sonny] Colbrelli and [Heinrich] Haussler. But there just wasn't enough room for everyone on the road."
Mikel Landa avoided losing any time but Quintana's 1:15 was considered a disaster at Movistar. Their strategy to bring three team leaders is already proving to be a wise decision.
"It's a catastrophe for us," Landa said, post stage, not interested in his own time gain due to Quintana's loss.
Fortunately experienced team manager Eusebio Unzue saw the positive side to the crashes during the day. He still has three team leaders in the race.
"It's a miracle Nairo didn't hit the deck. It could have been much worse," Unzué said. "At least he's in one piece. With time lost, but in one piece."
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