DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - Reigning champion Chris Froome wasted no time flexing his muscles at the Tour de France as he powered to sixth place in a treacherous opening time trial won superbly by Team Sky colleague Geraint Thomas on Saturday.
Heavy rain turned what, on paper, had looked like a regulation 14-km circuit alongside the Rhine river into an incident-packed Grand Depart that could have major consequences in the three-week battle for the yellow jersey.
While it was a great start for Team Sky, with Thomas, three-times champion Froome, Vasil Kiryienka and Michal Kwiatkowski all in the top eight of the 198 riders to start, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde’s Tour is already over after a sickening crash.
Several riders continued after crashing on the greasy roads but there was no getting up for Valverde, third overall in 2015, after he careered into crowd barriers after skidding off before being taken to hospital with leg injuries.
It was heart-breaking for Valverde and also a huge blow for team mate Nairo Quintana who would have been counting on Valverde’s experience in the mountain stages to come to have a real chance of halting Froome’s bid for a hat-trick.
Welshman Thomas, riding his eighth Tour de France, looked completely at home in the puddles as he became the eighth Briton to wear the yellow jersey -- making up for the disappointment of crashing out of the Giro d‘Italia as team leader.
He displayed brilliant bike-handling to cross the finish line alongside the sprawling Messe Duesseldorf exhibition complex in 16 minutes 04 seconds.
He was five seconds ahead of BMC’s Swiss rider Stefan Kueng, who was two seconds ahead of Kiryienka in third.
Froome, the last rider out, was 12 seconds slower than Thomas, but significantly quicker than all his main General Classification (GC) rivals -- 35 seconds ahead of Australian Richie Porte, 36 seconds ahead of Quintana and 42 ahead of Spain’s twice former winner Alberto Contador.
French hopefuls Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet were also off the pace after conservative rides.
Thomas said it had been an historic day for Welsh sport after Sam Warburton captained the British and Irish Lions to victory over rugby giants the New Zealand All Blacks.
”That inspired me to be honest,“ he said. ”I didn’t believe I would hang on, felt sure Tony (Martin) or someone would beat my time. This is amazing for me after what happened at the Giro and massive for the team. The jersey is a huge bonus.
“I took the first corner pretty quick and then Nico (Portal, Sky sports director] said, ‘Take it easy’. I didn’t take any big risks. I tried to savour it.”
Martin’s hopes of marking the first German Grand Depart since Berlin in 1987 with victory were dashed as he came fourth.
Froome said he was happy for his team mate and delighted with an incident-free day.
“Really happy with that start and amazing to see Geraint in the yellow jersey,” he said.
While BMC’s Porte will be concerned to be already playing catch-up before the real battles begin, he said at least he had not suffered the same fate as Valverde.
“It wasn’t a day to take risks,” Froome’s former team mate said. “It was just a matter of keeping it rubber side down. I saw my team mate (Nicolas Roche) bin it and I was petrified to be honest. It was such a slippery course.”
It was a sentiment shared by Bardet (AG2R) who finished second behind Froome at last year’s Tour.
“I didn’t take any risks. I finished in one piece. There’s still a long way to go,” he said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Toby Davis