THE Dutch city of Utrecht had a hard act to follow as hosts of this weekend’s Tour de France Grand Départ. Last year’s in Yorkshire perhaps had bigger crowds, but Utrecht had better weather – if you can stand blazing heat and a temperature that soared into the mid-30s.
Allowing for the unusual fact of a fourth successive start off the French mainland – after Liège in 2012 and Corsica in 2013 – this was a more traditional départ with the reintroduction of an opening time trial. At 13.8km it was too long to be described as a prologue, but that raised the temperature further, with the potential for serious time to be won and lost by the favourites. And the crowds were huge: packed ten-deep at the barriers, and as partisan as Yorkshire, raising the decibels for the Dutch riders.
It was the young Australian Rohan Dennis who claimed the stage and the first yellow jersey, holding off the challenge of the local favourite, Tom Dumoulin, who battled a rising breeze with his later start. The slight change in conditions might have also counted against the other favourites, Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin, the German who came in a few seconds down on Dennis. Martin declared himself “very, very disappointed. I wanted to win this stage but I don’t cope well with the heat and struggled in the second half”.
But with Dennis dethroning Cancellara and Martin, and Dumoulin also riding strongly for fourth, it felt like a changing of the guard. Martin won the last time the Tour started in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam in 2010, and Cancellara has been winning short opening time trials since 2004 He was 24 then – Dennis recently turned 25.
Dennis was only the 38th man down the start ramp, 37 minutes after history had been made with the first starter, Daniel Teklehaimanot, becoming the first Eritrean – indeed, and even more remarkably, the first black African – to ride the Tour. Alongside Merhawi Kudus, Teklehaimanot is one of two Eritreans riding for MTN-Qhubeka, the first truly African professional team to ride the Tour.
There was a large and colourful contingent of their countrymen and women singing and cheering for their riders in Utrecht – cycling is Eritrea’s second most popular sport after football, having been imported by its colonial rulers, Italy – and these fans predicted there’d be Eritreans out in force all the way around the anti-clockwise circuit of France, which takes in the Netherlands and Belgium in these first few days.
After finishing his ride, stopping the clock at 14 minutes, 56.10 seconds, Dennis was ushered into the hot seat. It has never been more appropriately named. And the leader faced an even bigger test than on the streets of Utrecht: there were still 160 riders still to go, over more than three-and-a-half hours, which meant a very long wait. “I was shaking with nerves,” said Dennis, who watched anxiously as Dumoulin, Martin and Cancellara finished seconds slower. In the end, he was the only man who went below 15 minutes.
He is a rider who has followed a similar path to Bradley Wiggins, switching from the track, where he won a team pursuit silver medal at the London Olympics, to the road, with the ambition of one day contending over the three weeks of the Tour de France. For the moment, though, he is more of a time trial specialist and here in Utrecht came confirmation of his talent. A fiery, determined character, who is being mentored by 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, Dennis won the Tour Down Under in January then set a new hour record in February, establishing a mark that was later beaten by Alex Dowsett and then Wiggins himself last month.
This is his debut Tour. But it is a historic one: the fastest ever time trial at the Tour, with his 55.446kph average beating the previous record, held by another debutant, Chris Boardman, when he won the prologue in Lille in 1994.
“Everything went perfect,” said Dennis. “I went off early so I’d have no stress and didn’t have to sit around all day” – well, apart from in the hot seat after setting the fastest time. “The idea was to set the benchmark: a time for everyone else to chase.” He visited Utrecht a month ago to look at the course, riding it early in the morning so there’d be little traffic. “It’s a huge relief, because this was a huge goal.”
Long term, Dennis wants to win the Tour, but here his main goal, after this first stage, is to ride in support of his BMC team leader, Tejay van Garderen, one of only three Americans in the race. “The team is 100 per cent for Tejay,” said Dennis. “But I don’t want to lose the jersey after one day of wearing it. If I can hold it for one, two, three days, or until [Sunday’s] team time trial, that’d be great.”
He must be confident of holding it for at least one day: “See you tomorrow,” he said as he finished his leader’s press conference.
There was equal attention on the performances of the overall favourites, none of whom was in contention for the stage win. The talk has all been of the “Big Four” – Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana – but it was an outsider, French hope Thibaut Pinot, who beat them all, going two seconds quicker than Nibali. Italy’s defending champion was best of the fab four, taking seven seconds from Froome, 25 on Contador and 28 on Quintana. Not huge margins, but not insignificant, either.
Pinot was third last year in a field that was missing Froome, Contador and Quintana, but he has stepped up this year and won the toughest stage of the recent Tour of Switzerland. He could finish on the podium again, but much will depend on how he copes with the first week, with crosswinds expected today and cobbles on Tuesday. Of the others, Nibali’s beating of Froome and Contador is a surprise, while Quintana’s poor performance isn’t. The Colombian is a climbing specialist who, at the 2013 Tour, in which he was second, and the 2014 Giro d’Italia, which he won, started slowly and seemed to grow in strength as the three-week races went on. As Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas Tweeted after the stage: “13.8km down 3330km to go…”