Bastia, France • The Tour de France’s first visit to Corsica started uneventfully Saturday, as riders rode calmly out of a picture-perfect harbor town under sunny skies.
But as the peloton arrived in Bastia nearly five hours later, the race became unglued. A team bus stuck at the finish line threatened the stage’s conclusion, and then an enormous crash, involving overall race contenders like Alberto Contador, spoiled a much-anticipated sprint finish.
Out of the chaos, an up-and-coming sprinter named Marcel Kittel became the surprise winner on Stage One of the centennial Tour.
Sprinters were supposed to be showcased on a mostly flat 132.4-mile ride from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia, but most expected the final yards to feature the first of many battles this Tour between Peter Sagan of the Cannondale team, last year’s green jersey winner as the best sprinter, and Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
But they and a third rival, André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol, were caught in a crash about 21/2 miles from the finish, leaving Kittel, a German, and his Argos-Shimano teammates to take control.
“I looked around for Cavendish, Sagan, Greipel, and they weren’t there anymore,” Kittel said. “We decided to go now and do a lead-out, even if it is too early. It worked well.”
Kittel, 25, had high hopes for sprint wins in his first Tour de France last year, but a stomach virus forced him to withdraw in the first week. This year, he progressed steadily toward the Tour, winning three stages at the Tour of Turkey in April, then an overall win at the Tour de Picardie in May. But nothing had prepared him for putting on the yellow jersey Saturday.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I feel like I have gold on my shoulders.”
He might have had Teflon on them during the stage, though. The crash that caught his rivals also took down a number of general classification contenders, including Contador and the young American star Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing.
Contador and his SaxoBank team were seen soft-pedaling to the finish, but he reassured reporters after the stage that he would continue the race.
“I feel OK, but we’ll see,” he said. “The Tour is the Tour; you never know what’s going to happen.”
Others were not as fortunate. Tony Martin, Cavendish’s teammate, suffered a concussion and bruised a lung, among other injuries, and was seen being taken off by stretcher from his team bus after the stage. Afterward, riders and team managers attributed the pile-up to an incident down the road involving the Orica GreenEdge team bus, which became stuck at the finish line with riders less than six miles from downtown Bastia. Moments after hitting the metal frame above the line and wedging the bus on the road, the team’s bus driver was seen holding his head in his hands.
“He had to stop and demand authorization to lift the portico,” said Jean-Louis Pagès, the Tour’s site director, who oversees the start and finish of each stage. “Clearly, he didn’t do it.”
Race organizers scrambled for a solution to accommodate the charging peloton, telling teams that the finish would take place at the banner a little less than two miles from the original line. As they relayed the message, though, the bus managed to work itself free. Plan A went back into place.
But teams had communicated the new finish line over race radio, ear buds that allow riders to hear real-time coaching, and the bunch had started to organize the final sprint. Brakes were grabbed quickly, an Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider went down and, like dominoes, others followed.
“What caused the problems was the change to the finish,” said Cavendish, who had hoped to wear the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. “We were hearing in the radios with five kilometers to go” that the finish was two kilometers away. “Then a kilometer later, it’s at the finish. It was carnage.”
The rough finish to the day’s stage overshadowed celebrations of the Tour’s start in Corsica. Although the Tour owner, Amaury Sport Organization, holds a three-stage race here each March, the Critérium International, its flagship event, had never before been to the island.
Organizers are doing their best to maximize geographic coverage during the three stages here: riders traversed almost the entirety of the island Saturday, from south to north. On Sunday, the Tour’s second stage will take the peloton from northeast to southwest, a 96.9-mile stage from Bastia to Ajaccio.
The crowds on Saturday were sparser than in first stages in recent years, perhaps due more to the remote location than to lack of intrigue. The stage finish was five hours by ferry from Nice, but Corsican fans treated the Tour to their own brand of hospitality.
“Finally, welcome to our home!” read one of many banners along the course. The French tricolor was seldom found; instead, the stark black-and-white Corsican flag, with a moor’s head stamped in the center, flapped in the wind. Riders sped past cactuses, bougainvillea and yacht-filled ports, not sunflower and wheat fields. As the race got under way just before noon, spectators at a roadside bar near Porto-Vecchio were not enjoying Kronenbourg, but Pietra, the Corsican dark lager brewed from chestnut flour.
By the end of the day, though, only one person - Kittel, the stage winner - seemed to be in a good mood.
“I’m speechless, I’m so happy,” he said. “It’s by far the biggest victory of my career.”
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