Never mind the threat to the race from a resurgent coronavirus, the 107th Tour de France experienced the most chaotic, nervous of opening stages on Saturday, heavy rain turning the roads of the Cote d’Azur into an “ice rink”. The ensuing crash-fest caught out a number of big-name riders, including French favourite Thibaut Pinot [Groupama-FDJ], before Norway’s Alexander Kristoff [UAE Team Emirates] romped to victory on the Promenade des Anglais.
It was a thriller, although there were questions as to whether the race commissaires ought to have intervened as the crashes piled up. Ineos’ Pavel Sivakov hit the deck more than once and ended up losing 13 minutes. Some people thought the Russian might be a dark horse for yellow. Not any more.
Bahrain McLaren's Rafael Valls was left with a broken femur and Lotto Soudal's John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert are also out of the race, the latter with a broken kneecap. "Apparently it wasn't dangerous and spectacular enough for the UCI. In my opinion, the last crash is their responsibility," Jumbo-Visma's Robert Gesink told Dutch broadcaster NOS
In the end, riders took matters into their own hands, calling a temporary truce on the descent off the Côte de Rimiez with around 58km of the stage remaining. Big Tony Martin [Jumbo-Visma] spread his long arms out on the front, warning the peloton not to pass him. Astana ignored the warning and promptly paid the price, general classification contender Miguel Angel Lopez losing control on a corner and locking up under braking, slamming into what looked like a lamp post. Incredibly, the Colombian managed to remain upright throughout. Moments after the incident, pre-race favourite Primoz Roglic [Jumbo-Visma] approached Lopez's team-mate Omar Fraile, who was leading a posse of Astana riders down too quickly, causing their leader to crash and clearly told him to "calm down".
Even descending gingerly, though, it was treacherous going. George Bennett [Lotto-Jumbo], one of Roglic’s key mountain helpers, hit the deck hard and had to chase back on.
The biggest scare of all came right under the 3km to go banner - the checkpoint after which all riders are given the same time once they cross the finish line. A big crash caught out Pinot, amongst others, and the race held its breath to see whether the darling of the French cycling fraternity would get back up. He did, but looked battered and bruised. At least he was given the same time as his GC rivals. Had they docked him, there would have been mutiny on the streets of Nice.
As it was, the peloton just about came through in one piece, the first yellow jersey of the race, rather aptly, going to Kristoff, a former Milan-San Remo winner who specialises in sprints at the end of long, draining days when lesser mortals are bloodied and weary. Mads Pedersen [Trek-Segafredo], the reigning world champion, was second, while pre-stage favourite Sam Bennett [Deceuninck-QuickStep] and three-time world champion Peter Sagan [Bora-Hansgrohe] finished fourth and fifth respectively.
The scenes afterwards, as the riders rolled back to their buses shaking their heads, spoke to how draining the experience had been. Guillaume Martin [Cofidis] said it had been like riding “on an ice rink” in places, the rain having brought up lots of oil from the tar.
“I think the problem was the fact that it literally hadn’t rained her for two or three months,” said Ineos Grenadiers’ road captain Luke Rowe, who along with Martin was instrumental in neutralising the race. “And then you have one day where it rains and the roads were literally like ice.
“I think most teams had at least half their team touch down today. Luckily we got through it. We had a couple of touchdowns but we passed it.”
Rowe added that Astana were “made to look pretty stupid” for ignoring the call to slow down.
“We’ve got this riders’ organisation. There’s a couple of guys from each team in there. We spoke about it last night in terms of how we would approach the Tour de France in general and look after each other and do the right thing when needed,” Rowe said.
“And whilst you want to race, and put on the best show… it’s the Tour, you don’t want to see people creeping around… at the same time you saw just how many crashes there were, and that was with the three descents being ridden at very careful speeds. I have to say chapeau to the whole peloton really, minus Astana. They made themselves look pretty stupid. But apart from them, chapeau to the whole peloton.”
There will be no rest for the peloton on Sunday. The road rears up with what is an unusually brutal second stage featuring the Col de Turini and the Col d'Eze, both above 1500m, before ending once again in Nice.
By then there should be some clarity as to the ever-present threat of Covid-19. The strangest grand depart in years, with Nice an official “red zone” and all members of the public ordered to walk around in masks, had taken place against a backdrop of huge uncertainty, with news overnight that the French government had intervened on the ‘compromise’ agreed on Friday by teams and organisers over the ‘two strikes and you’re out’ Covid protocols.
Teams thought they had secured assurances that that would only apply to two riders testing positive, but Tour director Christian Prudhomme confirmed yesterday that it meant two positives involving any of the team’s 30-strong staff over a seven-day period. Not that the teams seemed to be aware of the update. One team manager told Telegraph Sport as the stage was about to start that nothing had been officially communicated to the teams.
It was that sort of day. The Tour is off with a bang. But Paris seems a very, very long way away.