PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica - The first stage of the 100th Tour de France ended with a bus stuck under an archway at the finish line until minutes before the first riders arrived.
Shortly after the bus was dislodged, German rider Marcel Kittel was first to arrive, after dodging all sorts of mayhem to win today’s stage on Corsica.
Kittel beat Russian sprinter Alexander Kristoff in a dash to the line after a major crash wiped out some other competitors. Organizers considered moving the finish line up to avoid the bus, then changed their minds at the last moment after the bus was freed.
About 20 riders fell close to the end, among them two-time former champion Alberto Contador and sprinter Peter Sagan. They got back up, with Contador’s shoulder cut and bruised.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish did not crash but was stuck behind those who fell and could not challenge for his 24th stage win. He was hoping to wear the prestigious yellow jersey for the first time in his career.
“I saw the crash happen to my right,” said Kittel, who also finished the day with the best sprinter’s green jersey. “I knew it was serious. I knew that Mark and Andre (Greipel) were no longer in contention and it was a good chance for us.”
But Cavendish and Sagan were nowhere to be seen as the main bunch turned for home, and Kittel held off Kristoff as they dipped for the line.
“I’m lucky I didn’t come down,” Cavendish said. “What caused the problems was changing the finish. Like, we heard on the radio with literally 5K to go that the sprint was in 2K and then a K later, they were like ‘No, it’s at the finish.’ It’s just carnage.”
Francaise Des Jeux team manager Marc Madiot was furious.
“The president of the (race jury) didn’t do his job,” he said. “When we make a mistake we get a fine. Well, he should get a huge fine.”
Organizers considered shortening the stage by two miles after the bus from the Orica Greenedge team got wedged under the structure at the finish, but the bus got moved just in time.
“When a bus arrives near the finish line the driver must ask the permission to cross it,” finish line manager Jean-Louis Pages said. “This bus was late. We deflated the tires so we could move it away as the peloton was fast approaching.”
Kittel did not even know about the bus and was lucky enough to avoid the crash to win the flat, 132-mile trek from Porto Vecchio to Bastia in just under 5 hours. Kristoff and third-place Danny van Poppel clocked the same time.
“It feels like I have gold on my shoulders,” Kittel said about wearing the famed yellow jersey. “I didn’t know about the bus. I’m glad they were able to move it.”
Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin was caught in the fall and later taken to hospital after losing consciousness.
Contador had a bad day, too.
Returning from a doping ban after testing positive on the 2010 Tour – a title he has been stripped of – the Spaniard grimaced in pain as he crossed the line with his clothing torn and his left shoulder grazed.
“I am fine, I’m OK,” Contador said through a translator. “Someone didn’t brake in front of me and then there was a crash. I will have to rest now.”
As the stage drew to an end, former champion Andy Schleck’s RadioShack team pushed to the front as a side wind made it harder for riders, then Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team pushed up as the sinewy roads started to thin out.
Johnny Hoogerland, who was sent flying off his bike and sustained cuts to his legs on the 2011 Tour after being hit by a Tour car, was sent tumbling after hitting a crash barrier near the end. He was helped back onto his bike and able to continue.
Last year’s Giro d’Italia winner, Ryder Hesjedal, was caught in another crash moments later but continued.
With the finish line in sight, and as the nerves jangled, riders were sent flying from their bikes, throwing the stage into chaos.
“It was just a complete disaster,” Greipel said.
It proved to be an eventful day from the outset. Before the stage started, French Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron met with a delegation of riders unhappy about pre-race media reports that they thought focused too heavily on doping stories.
The day before, Lance Armstrong hogged headlines when he told Le Monde he couldn’t have won his seven Tours without doping.
Once the race began, tour favorite Chris Froome stopped to get a new rear wheel early on and stopped for a second time to get a new bike.
Sunday’s second stage is shorter but features four climbs along the 97-mile ride from Bastia to Ajaccio.