Chris Froome’s bid for a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title got off to a bumpy start as the Team Sky rider crashed and lost time in a chaotic finish to the opening stage.
The defending champion was squeezed out on a slight bend a little over five kilometres from the end of the 201km stage to Fontenay-le-Comte, which was won by Tour debutant Fernando Gaviria in a reduced sprint.
Colombian Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) held off world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to become the first man to win his debut stage of a Tour since Fabian Cancellara in 2004, but Froome was 51 seconds behind.
“Thankfully I’m OK, I feel fine,” said Froome, whose jersey sported grass stains down the right side. “There were a lot of crashes out there today but it was just one of those things.
“These few days are going to be tricky and sketchy and that’s part of the game unfortunately.
“We were right at the front of the peloton in the top third, there wasn’t much more the guys could have done.
“It was getting quite chaotic with the sprint teams but that’s bike racing. I’m just grateful I’m not injured in any way and there is still a lot of road to follow before we get to Paris.”
With time bonuses applied for the top three Froome will head to Sunday’s start line in Mouilleron-Saint-Germain 61 seconds off yellow, but it is the gap to his fellow contenders for the general classification which will concern him.
Froome was not the only contender to lose time. Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was caught in an earlier crash, while Richie Porte (BMC) was held up behind another before both came home alongside Froome.
It was even worse for Movistar’s Nairo Quintana who lost a further 24 seconds after breaking both wheels when he hit a traffic island inside the final four kilometres.
That leaves them all facing a yawning gap to the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who all finished in the first group.
Geraint Thomas was also in the front group, the only Team Sky rider not to lose time.
“I was just one rider in front of (Froome) when he crashed and didn’t even know until we heard on the radio maybe a few seconds later,” the Welshman said.
“It’s not ideal…At least he was with Richie and Quintana was behind him, arguably his two sort of closest rivals. It’s not the end of the world.”
After Froome was waved off at the start in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile by Eddy Merckx – one of the four men with five Tour titles to his name alongside Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain – the peloton enjoyed a fairly sedate ride through the Vendee, at least for 190km.
The threatened crosswinds failed to materialise and the only thing to remotely bother Froome was the odd placard referencing the anti-doping investigation which the UCI closed on Monday.
But everything changed in the final 10 kilometres of the stage.
First French sprinter Arnaud Demare saw his hopes of a stage win ended in a tumble, then Team Sky’s Egan Bernal, the youngest rider in the race at 21, slid off the road.
Froome was the next to go, touching shoulders with Katusha-Alpecin’s Rick Zabel and being sent hurtling into a field. He was quickly back on his bike but could not get back to the main group as the sprint trains put down the power at the front.
They could not all avoid trouble themselves, with Mark Cavendish unable to contest the sprint after his Dimension Data team-mates got caught out of position amid the carnage.
“We didn’t have the position to make a sprint in the final there,” Cavendish’s team-mate Mark Renshaw said.
“We were a little bit caught out with four kilometres to go. After that it was pretty hard to get in position for a sprint.”