On the first evening of the 1995 Tour de France, Miguel Indurain watched the heavens open over Saint-Brieuc, he saw Chris Boardman slide off his Lotus bike and into a roadside barrier, and he sagely opted to ride the prologue time trial on a regular road bike and soft-pedal around the course. Three weeks later, as per habit, he rode into Paris in the yellow jersey.
Like Indurain, Chris Froome (Sky) was the last man down the start ramp in Düsseldorf on Saturday afternoon, and like Saint-Brieuc, the afternoon was marred by the heavy crashes that forced Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) out of the Tour, but there end the comparisons.
Froome opted to tackle the 14km course on his low-profile steed and he rode without inhibition on the rain-soaked parcours, sweeping through the few technical corners, seemingly unmoved by the forewarning of Valverde's crash.
The gamble, if it can be termed as such, paid off for Froome, who was the best-placed of the contenders for overall victory by day's end, and by some distance. The Briton placed 6th on the stage, 12 seconds down on stage winner and teammate Geraint Thomas, but over half a minute clear of the bulk of his general classification rivals, most notably Richie Porte (BMC) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
"I haven't seen the times yet but I heard in my earpiece that Geraint Thomas won. That's super for the team. Really super. Tomorrow is the first road stage, and we'll see how it goes," Froome told a scrum of reporters in French immediately on crossing the line.
Some of the time gaps were hurriedly read out for Froome's benefit before he rode off to his team hotel.The most eye-catching deficit was the 35 seconds he put into Porte, barely three weeks after he had himself lost 37 seconds to his former teammate in the 23km test at the Critérium du Dauphiné in Bourgion-Jalieu. No two time trials are exactly the same – particularly when the conditions were so different – but it was, by any measure, a most startling turnaround.
"The time trial is something I worked on a lot in the last three weeks since the Dauphiné," Froome said by way of explanation. So, too, it seems, did most of his Sky team. No fewer than four of the team placed inside the top eight, with Thomas and Froome joined by Vasil Kiryienka (third at 7 seconds) and Michal Kwiatkowski (eighth at 15 seconds).
The British squad has been subject of much scrutiny, not to mention a UK Anti-Doping investigation, this year, yet for all the predictions of a more open Tour and talk of a more vulnerable Team Sky, it was an ominous reminder that it might yet be business as usual after all.
Disappointment for Porte as Quintana limits damage
The Tour de France is never decided on the opening day – with the possible exception of Lance Armstrong's since-revoked 2005 win – but conceding so much ground has the feel of a very heavy defeat, particularly for Richie Porte, who would have earmarked Tour's two short time trials as stages to make significant gains on Froome.
Porte's final reconnoitre of the course came in the BMC team car that followed Nicolas Roche, and the Irishman's crash undoubtedly influenced his approach to his own ride an hour or so later. Froome, by contrast, sat in the passenger seat behind Kwiatkowski.
"Keeping it rubber side down was probably more the goal," Porte said. "I followed Nicolas Roche in the car and he binned it, so I was a little bit petrified to be honest. I would have liked to have done a little bit quicker time but the main thing is to have kept my skin intact today."
Porte was speaking before Froome rolled over the finish line, however, and his final placing of 49th and deficit of 47 seconds (35 to Froome) means that he will be the most disappointed of the general classification contenders still in the field on Sunday morning.
Nairo Quintana (53rd at 48 seconds), by contrast, will be relatively pleased with his showing in Düsseldorf. He would have anticipated finishing behind Froome here, but limiting his losses to just one second on Porte and finishing just ahead of a clutch of other contenders is an encouraging reintroduction to action. The loss of a foil such as Valverde, however, tempers any satisfaction at his showing.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), second a year ago, should by rights have been the penultimate man down the start ramp, but he left that honour to Pierre Latour, perhaps fearing that he might be caught for a minute by Froome, as Jan Ullrich was overhauled by Armstrong in Noirmoutier-en-Île in 2005.
For the Frenchman, survival was the objective, and he rode cautiously to place 63rd on the stage, 51 seconds down on Thomas and 39 behind Froome. "I didn't take any risks but I had good sensations especially considering it's an exercise I don't particularly like," Bardet said. "I just wanted to do a clean time trial, without crashes, and that's how it went."
Climbers Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) each placed 49 seconds down on the stage, and would surely have settled to be within two seconds of Porte in the opening time trial of the race. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), feeling his way back into action after the Giro, hardly expected better than to lose 50 seconds, while the Astana pairing of Fabio Aru and Jakob Fuglsang broke around even, conceding 52 and 54 seconds, respectively.
Esteban Chaves (116th at 1:13) apart, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was the worst-placed of the general classification contenders, and any satisfaction at more less matching Porte et al is countered by losing some 42 seconds to Froome in a mere 14 kilometres of racing. Three weeks ago, during an otherwise low-key Dauphiné, Contador beat Froome in the time trial.
On a day when Froome hit an albatross, making par will be scant consolation for Contador, but Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) has reason to be pleased with his birdie. The Briton, 29th at 37 seconds, was the only podium contender to finish within half a minute of Froome, and he will be heartened by his display.
For most, however, there will be a nagging sense of déjà vu all over again.
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