Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) was both lucky and good in winning Sunday's crash marred Stage 1 of the 97th Tour de France.
The beneficiary of three crashes in the final three kilometers that coincidentally took out three of his main competitors, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and finally Tyler Farrar (Team Garmin-Transitions), Petacchi successfully navigated his way through the wreckage to set himself up for his first Tour de France stage victory in seven years, when he won a total of four.
Once in the clear, the 36-year-old Italian displayed the dominant sprinting form that previously earned him the nickname of Ale-Jet. He would cruise easily to the line to lay claim to the Stage 1 honors ahead of Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) and Cervelo Test Team's Thor Hushovd.
A break, a dog, a crowd and a cannibal
The excitement and nervousness that accompany the Tour de France were certainly palpable on the 223.5km Stage 1 from Rotterdam to Brussels. After another eventful Grand Departe the day before, when the reigning World Time Trial Champion, Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank) swooped in late to steal the show from upstart Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), it looked as if the 97th edition of the Tour was poised to produce a spectacular show. But on the day in which the race honored perhaps its greatest champion, Eddy Merckx, who celebrated his 65th birthday in June, the trek into Belgium was plagued with mishaps and crashes; hardly a fitting tribute to the man they used to refer to as the cannibal.
The race was animated early on by a break of three that escaped at the opening gun. Lars Boom (Rabobank), Maarten Wynants (Quick Step) and Alan Perez Lezaun (Euskaltel-Euskadi) would build a lead of over 7 minutes as the peloton became embroiled in other matters.
A stray dog had ambled into the roadway and resulted in a pile up within the main group. Some quick reflexes prevented a more serious and gruesome collision, which has highlighted past editions of the race, and the animal escaped frightened, but relatively untouched. The same; however, could not be said of several riders, including maillot vert wearer David Millar and Ivan Basso, the current Giro d’Italia champion, who were caught up in the chain reaction behind the incident as riders swerved and braked in front of them. Though all the riders would lick their wounds and continue to rider onward, the incident served as a harbinger of the carnage yet to come.
Moments later, a seemingly innocuous crash would end the Tour for HTC-Columbia’s Adam Hansen. He would ultimately ride and finish the stage, but radiographs taken afterward revealed a fractured collarbone.
As the race entered Belgium, massive and festive crowds lined the streets in honor of both the Tour and their former champion Merckx. With 30km left to go, the break began to disintegrate under the weight of the on-coming peloton that looked to set up a bunch sprint at the finish. In spite of this, Wynants’ stubbornness and a late attack out of the peloton by Moldavian champion Alexandr Pilushcin momentarily staved off the angry peloton.
With the catch finally made at the 5km mark and with the sprinters’ teams jockeying for position, a succession of crashes blemished the run into the finale.
On the final right hand turn into the finishing straightaway, a rider with an inside line overcooked it and subsequently slid outward to take out Freire and Cavendish. Seconds later another crash saw the hard rushing peloton compress like an accordion and come to a veritable stop. The few lucky escapees ahead of the wall of riders looked all but certain to contest for the sprint, but a third crash would again disrupt the flow and end the hopes of several other riders including green jersey hopeful, Farrar.
"Everything was going great, I felt good and the team was riding perfectly,” said Farrar. “Then, in the last 200 meters an AG2R rider hit my rear wheel and snapped my derailleur. I literally couldn't ride after that and had to walk through the finish and to the bus. It’s a shame because everything had gone so well and the team worked so hard for me. I'm glad that we're all ok and I'm lucky that I didn't go down. Tomorrow's a new day and I think its safe to say we're even more motivated now.”
Oblivious to the carnage behind, a focused Petacchi launched toward the line and took the win without much contestation. The victory would serve as a measure of redemption for the Italian fastman, who has struggled to regain his past form as of late.
In the end, Team Garmin-Transitions' Director Sportif, Matt White, would sum it up best by saying, "Unfortunately, that's sprinting."
Stage 1 Results
1. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini
2. Mark Renshaw (Aus) Team HTC - Columbia
3. Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team
Despite all the crashes the General Classification remained unchanged. By virtue of his win, Petacchi would climb into the lead of the green jersey competition.
General Classification After Stage 1
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank
2. Tony Martin (Ger) Team HTC - Columbia
3. David Millar (GBr) Garmin - Transitions
4. Lance Armstrong (USA) Team Radioshack
5. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
6. Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana
7. Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin - Transitions
8. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team Radioshack
9. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team
10. Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Team Milram
Jersey Leaders After Stage 1
maillot jaune - Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank
maillot vert - Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini
maillot blanc - Tony Martin (Ger) Team HTC - Columbia
Next: Stage 2 - Bruxelles to Spa (201km)
Another long day in the saddle on an undulating course. Will a break succeed, or can the sprinters teams keep it together for another bunch sprint? Follow our LIVE Tour de France coverage of Stage 2 on LIVESTRONG.com.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images