For the first 180km of stage 1 of the Tour de France, one could be forgiven for dozing off, or worse still, contemplating changing channels and watching the World Cup. Yet in the blink of an eye, the Tour burst into life with a series of falls and hold-ups that could in the long term have enormous repercussions on the overall standings. Fernando Gavira claimed a maiden stage win and the yellow jersey, but the stage was overshadowed by the series of GC riders who conceded time.
Only when the dust settled in Fontenay-le-Comte, and the battered remaining riders crossed the line, could the gaps be put into context and analysed. Chris Froome (Team Sky) conceded 51 seconds to several key rivals, while Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team) finished in the same time, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) shed 1:15. The Tour is won and lost on finer margins, and the riders who came through unscathed – Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa, Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran – will treat this as a significant victory.
Team Sky came off worst. Egan Bernal was one of the first to come down inside the final 20km, yet worse was to follow when, with around 4km to go, Froome went into a ditch. At the finish line the incident was met with a short volley of cheers – surely a step too far from simply booing a rider you don't like.
At the finish Froome was ushered to the sanctuary of the Team Sky bus and quickly disappeared for medical checks. Geraint Thomas had already crossed the line and began to warm down as Froome occupied the back of the bus.
"The first 180 was fine," Thomas told Cyclingnews as he pedalled out the lactic acid from his legs.
"The last 20k just went bonkers. Saying that, all of us where there. Then I got squeezed, hit the curb, Bernal hit me and then crashed, which wasn't great. Then Froome has his thing with about 4 or 5k to go. I'm not 100 per cent sure what happened but someone hit him in the corner and made him go off his line and onto the grass and crash. That's certainly not ideal but at the end of the day his biggest rivals were behind him with Richie and Quintana behind him.”
Froome takes a tumble
Froome gingerly ventured from the bus a few minutes later, having been given the all clear, and quickly made a beeline for the rollers in order to replicate Thomas' warm down regime. There was time for just a few questions, but the defending champion stressed that he was physically unscathed. However, the loss of time to Bardet and others will be a concern, even at this early stage.
"I came off in the last 10k there. I saw that there were a lot of crashes out there. It's one of those things. We always knew that this was going to be one of those days that was going to be sketchy," Froome told the gathering press.
"We were right at the front part of the peloton, in the top third. It was getting quite chaotic there with some of the sprinters but that's bike racing. I'm not injured in any way. There's still a lot of road to cover before we get to Paris."
Thomas later added that he has talked to his leader when they briefly shared the team bus after the stage: “I’ve spoken to him. He’s fine. He’s a bit pissed because we were right up there and missed the crashes for that to happen. It wasn't ideal," Thomas told Cyclingnews.
When the rest of the press arrived, the conversation turned to the boos that Team Sky and especially Froome have faced from the French public.
"To be honest, when you're racing you just focus on the race. It was a pretty warm day, which was nice for a change. Tomorrow we'll try and stay upright and out of trouble but 170 riders are trying to do that. It's tough but that's what we'll try and do. There were a few boos but it was fine," Thomas said.
Bernal, making his Tour de France debut, made it to the finish but would have hoped for calmer opening to his first taste of La Grande Boucle. The Colombian came into the race as Team Sky's wildcard climber, and is here to gain experience at his first Grand Tour. He was involved in a fall before Froome came down but battled through to the finish. He came over the line with Quintana but Team Sky's concern will be focused on Froome. The British rider is no stranger to falls during the first week of Grand Tours but this time deficit will sting far greater than his wounds.