FONTENAY-LE-COMTE, France (Reuters) - It was supposed to be a relatively quiet day for the overall contenders on the Tour de France, but defending champion Chris Froome and other big guns lost significant ground in a nervy finale to Saturday’s opening stage.
The Team Sky rider escaped unhurt from a fall but he is already in a chasing position as his main rival, France’s Romain Bardet, ended the 201-kilometre ride from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile safe in the main bunch.
Froome went over a safety rail and onto the grass with five kilometres to go and even though he quickly got back on his bike, he could not make it back to the peloton and finished 51 seconds off the pace.
Australian Richie Porte faces a similar deficit after being held up behind a pile-up and it was even worse for twice runner-up Nairo Quintana as the Colombian lost one minute 15 seconds after suffering a puncture 3.5-km from the finish.
“There were a lot of crashes out there today just one of those things,” Froome, who is looking to become the first rider in 20 years to achieve the Giro d’Italia-Tour double, told reporters.
“We always knew the first few days were going to be tricky, sketchy and that’s part of the game unfortunately.
“We were riding in the top third of the peloton, there was not much more the guys could have done it was getting chaotic with the sprinters’ teams, but that’s bike racing.
“I’m just grateful I’m not hurt or injured in any way.”
At least, Froome got a regular welcome from the crowd before the start, unlike on Thursday when he was booed during the team presentation by fans upset he had been cleared of wrongdoing following a positive test for Salbutamol in last year’s Vuelta.
“You hear boos in every football stadium every weekend,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme.
“But of course we are not used to it in cycling. It’s best for everyone, including Froome’s rivals, if the atmosphere is serene.”
Froome will be hoping to get some time back in Monday’s team time trial, where Sky are expected to tame most of their opponents.
His former team mate Porte, who crashed out of the Tour last year, was equally philosophical about his poor start.
“I don’t know what happened,” the BMC rider told reporters. “It’s one of those things, one minute you’re okay and next thing there is a crash in front. It’s the first day of the Tour it’s not ideal but it’s a long race.
“Guys took time today but they could lose time tomorrow.”
According to his AG2R-La Mondiale team manager Vincent Lavenu, Bardet was all smile on the team bus.
“We knew there would be narrow roads and there would be a lot of tension,” said Lavenu. “Romain is happy, he’s got the feeling he got away with it.”
The mood was different in the Movistar camp after Quintana suffered a front wheel puncture when he hit a traffic island.
Had Quintana changed his wheel inside the three-kilometre mark, he would been credited with the same time as stage winner Fernando Gaviria in accordance with the regulations.
“If he could have reached the three-kilometre mark obviously he would have done it,” said team manager Eusebio Unzue.
“Alejandro (Valverde) and Mikel (Landa) are co-leaders so it was out of the question that they would wait for him.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Nick Mulvenney