Ironically, it was an imported piece of infrastructure that caused the end of the first stage of the 100th race to degenerate into first a farce and then chaos.
Towards the end of a largely incident-free day – besides a minor tumble for Chris Froome in the neutralised zone – a team bus, belonging to the Australian Orica-GreenEdge squad, became stuck under the finish banner. What at first appeared comical then became a more serious problem. The riders were only 10km away.
At the speed they were going, that meant a little more than ten minutes. And the bus, blocking the entire finish area, was jammed like a cork in a bottle.
Mark Cavendish, hopeful of winning his 24th stage and taking his first ever yellow jersey, was prominent at the front, wearing the British champion’s jersey he won in Glasgow six days earlier, sitting behind his Omega Pharma-Quick-Step team-mates.
With 8km to go, the officials panicked, announcing a new finish: at the 3km banner, which came just after a roundabout. As this message was relayed to the riders through their earpieces by the team directors, all hell broke loose.
In the chaos, as all the sprinters’ teams tried to move to the front, there was, predictably, a touch of wheels and down went one of Cavendish’s team-mates – the world time trial champion Tony Martin, later taken to hospital with a suspected broken collarbone – and several others.
Cavendish didn’t come off, but he was held up, his day as good as over as he watched a small group disappear over the horizon. He wasn’t the only one: Peter Sagan came down, so did Alberto Contador, one of the overall favourites, while Andre Greipel, Cavendish’s sprint rival, saw his bike damaged so badly that he had to stop.
At the finish, meanwhile, the bus was finally dislodged and moved out of harm’s way. And so the original finish was reinstated. The damage, however, had been done.
Afterwards, Cavendish was convinced that the officials’ decision was to blame. “What caused the problems was the change to the finish,” he said. “We were hearing in the radios with 5km to go the finish was in 2km. Then a ‘K’ later, it’s at the [original] finish. It was carnage. I’m lucky I didn’t come down. Some of my team-mates are a lot worse. I can count myself lucky.”
Another lucky rider was Froome, who said: “I felt guys were crashing all around me but I managed to pick my way through. I didn’t see much, just the sound of braking bikes and shoes going on the road. I saw bikes flying around and people crashing all around. It is better to try to keep a cool head in those conditions and try to find a logical way through it. I was just concerned they wouldn’t give everyone the same time so I chased to get back up.”
In the event, the race jury took the circumstances into account and awarded everybody the same time, but for Contador, who seemed to hurt his shoulder, that could be scant consolation. Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas was another who was injured. “He’s gone off to have X-rays,” said Froome. “He looks okay, but it’s just to be on the safe side.”
The finish was contested by a diminished bunch, with Marcel Kittel, the giant German, winning the stage from Alexander Kristoff, Danny van Poppel and, astonishingly, Scotland’s David Millar, never previously renowned as a bunch sprinter.
It is unfortunate that Kittel’s win was so overshadowed by the finish line farce, because he is one of the best sprinters in the world who, two weeks ago in Holland, claimed the scalps of Greipel and Cavendish. Crash or no crash, he would have been in contention.
This was the first time since 1965 that a bunch sprint had decided the first leader of the Tour, which meant that it came with a special reward: the yellow jersey. “I feel I have gold on my shoulders,” said Kittel, who rides for the Dutch Argos-Shimano team.
“It is unbelievable,” the 25-year-old continued. “It was a big fight to be in position; it’s never easy. Then with the crash, everything was a bit chaotic, with everyone looking at each other. I saw the crash happening, then I was looking around, looking for Greipel, looking for Cavendish, and they weren’t there. That was the moment we decided to do the leadout. I was on the wheel of [Jurgen] Roelandts and at 400 I just went, full gas.”
His spell in yellow could be short-lived. Today’s stage from Bastia to Ajaccio includes some climbs. Kittel is no climber, but last night in Bastia, he didn’t care a jot.