The fact Nibali is one of the overall favourites hints at what kind of stage this was but only tells a fraction of the story. It is one of enormous crowds – on a scale that even the Tour de France has rarely witnessed in its 111 years – and utterly absorbing racing, with the up-down-up-down stage reaching a thrilling climax on the final steep climb, Côte de Jenkin Road (or just Jenkin Road to locals), when the big guns appeared at the front.
First it was Alberto Contador, Spain’s double Tour winner, who moved forward. He was shadowed by Nibali, defending champion Chris Froome and stage favourite, Peter Sagan, as the leading group thinned and stretched out behind them.
Climbing out of the saddle, in his punchy style, Contador was testing the water, almost goading Froome to respond. And he did, close to the top, accelerating sharply and briefly gaining a gap.
Froome did the same thing a year ago at the equivalent point, on the equivalent stage, in Corsica. This time he didn’t get far, however, before Nibali seized his chance with a late attack, holding on to take his first Tour stage win in Sheffield by two seconds.
It means that Nibali, who was third in the Tour two years ago and won the Giro d’Italia last year, is now in the yellow jersey. It is the perfect scenario for Froome and Team Sky, since the last thing they want to do so early in the race is defend the overall lead. “You want to be as high as you can but we didn’t want the [yellow] jersey, for sure,” said Sky’s principal, Sir Dave Brailsford.
Brailsford insisted that Froome hadn’t attacked, though it looked very much like he had. “I think it was more psychological than anything,” said Brailsford. “It’s only stage two. At this stage, it’s like initial jabs in a boxing contest. I don’t think he was having a go. I don’t think that was an attack. Nibali is a great bike racer and he saw his opportunity and seized it. It works for us.”
It worked for Nibali, too, who has been under fire this year from his own team. The Astana manager, Alexandre Vinokourov, even wrote him a letter complaining about his form. “We pay a lot and we want to see great results,” wrote Vinokourov. “There are no excuses.”
Vinokourov, the controversial Olympic road race champion who served a two-year ban for doping, was smiling in Sheffield last night. Presumably happy that his letter appears to have worked.
Nibali, who has now led all three Grand Tours, of Italy, Spain and France, dedicated his yellow jersey to “the people of Italy and also the people of England, because they have been so amazing”.
Indeed they have, and there still is a third – albeit less hyped – stage to come on British roads today, from Cambridge into central London, finishing on the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace.
The crowds were estimated at 100,000 at the start in York, and 60,000 on Holme Moss, the main climb of the day, where the winner of stage one, Marcel Kittel, waved goodbye to his yellow jersey as he slid off the back. The roadside audience over the whole weekend was said to be 2.5 million, which may be exaggerated but the eyes don’t deceive: they lined almost the entire course, and packed several deep whenever the road went uphill.
The Tour organisers have been blown away, even France’s last winner, Bernard Hinault, Le Blaireau (the badger), who is known for his bluntness rather than hyperbole. Yet Christian Prudhomme, the race organiser, said: “Bernard Hinault said to me, it is the first time in 40 years on a bike that he has seen crowds like we saw this weekend.”
The legacy will be enduring, said Prudhomme, as he addressed the local organising team and the people of Yorkshire: “What you did was good for Yorkshire, for sure, but what you did was also good for the Tour. When you said you would deliver the grandest Grand Départ it was the truth, you have raised the bar for all future hosts of the Tour de France.”
Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire and the man responsible for attracting the Tour, could be forgiven for basking in the warm after-glow. “When we first bid for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, I promised Christian Prudhomme that we would deliver the grandest Grand Départ the Tour has seen,” said Verity. “It gives me immense pride to say that we made good on that promise, and the success of this spectacular event will welcome an incredible new chapter in the history of Yorkshire.”
Amid all the positive headlines, though, there was one huge disappointment. Mark Cavendish, who started Saturday’s first stage with hopes of winning and claiming the first yellow jersey of his career, tangled with Simon Gerrans on the finishing straight in Harrogate and crashed heavily, landing on his shoulder.
Like any sprinter, Cavendish is used to crashing, but usually he bounces back up. He has always been almost freakishly robust and resilient, which only underlines how serious his fall in Harrogate was. He suffered a separated shoulder and ligament damage and then, inevitably, a sleepless night. Although keen to start Sunday’s second stage, he was told by his team doctor, Helge Riepenhof, that it was out of the question.
Cavendish was due last night to have more scans on the shoulder but Riepenhof expects an operation to be necessary, followed by six weeks of rehabilitation. It means that his participation in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow is highly doubtful.
With even the weather obliging Yorkshire on both Saturday and yesterday, after the forecasts last week predicted rain, Cavendish’s calamity was the only cloud on an otherwise perfect weekend.