Julian Alaphilippe exchanged the rainbow jersey of world champion for the yellow jersey of race leader on Saturday, winning the opening stage of the Tour de France in his characteristic swashbuckling manner.
The Frenchman made an all-out effort with 2.3 kilometres to go, attacking on the steep final climb in Landerneau and riding some of the strongest riders in the world off his wheel. Frenchman Pierre Latour (Team Totalenergies) tried to close but was unable to, and so too the 2020 Tour winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and last year's runner-up Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma).
Shaking his head with effort and disbelief, Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) held his gap all the way to the line. He crossed it with his thumb in his mouth, a nod to the birth of his first child earlier this month.
A small regrouping behind saw Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and Roglic net second and third, eight seconds back, while Pogacar, Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) were among the other overall contenders who made it into the depleted 20-man chase group. Another tipped rider, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) conceded a further five seconds.
Alaphilippe's victory aside, the big story of the day were two massive crashes which brought down swathes of riders. The first of these happened with 45 kilometres to go when a roadside spectator seeking TV attention held a cardboard sign out into the road. This was clipped by Roglic's team-mate Tony Martin, who hit the deck and in turn brought down Roglic and dozens of others.
An even more serious looking pile-up happened with 7.5 kilometres to go when two riders tangled in the bunch and fell, sparking off a chain reaction. Those down included four-time Tour winner Chris Froome (Israel Start Up Nation), who looked badly hurt but who was able to remount and trail in 171st, 14 minutes 37 seconds back.
He had a bad crash two years ago and is far off the rider who dominated the Tour, but had hoped to continue his gradual return to form in the race. Instead, he will be evaluated by medics who will determine if he will be able to continue in the event on Sunday.
Teammate Dan Martin also lost time, conceding five minutes 33 seconds, although that deficit was due to him being delayed by a crash rather than hitting the deck himself. A team official told the Irish Times that he was the only rider from the squad not to fall.
Previous Tour podium finisher Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and overall contender Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) also conceded the same amount of time as Martin, while the latter's team leader Michael Woods trailed in over nine minutes down. Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar) and Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers) fared somewhat better, with those two overall contenders limiting their losses to one minute 49 seconds and two minutes 16 seconds respectively.
Alaphillipe, too, was one of the day’s fallers, but was left thanking his luck not to be badly hurt in the day’s first big crash. A cut below his right knee left him with blood on his leg but did nothing to limit his power; he charged to the sixth Tour stage win of his career, and his third consecutive year donning the yellow jersey.
“It is scenario that I imagined,” he said soon after the finish. “I really wanted to succeed today after the huge amount of work the team did. They’ve believed in me all day. I’ve been caught in a crash but I made it back without panicking. We had to get rid of the sprinters to cap it off. It wasn’t planned like that but I wanted to evaluate my rivals so when I realized I got a bit of a gap and everyone was flat out, I gave it my all. They weren’t making it across.
“The pain was horrible but I’m so happy to win. The emotion is big every time. It’s huge to share that with my family. I miss them. I did my best for them and to enjoy the moment myself, swapping the rainbow jersey for the yellow jersey.”
Alaphilippe had played down his general classification chances heading into the race, saying that he preferred to carry on in his usual explosive, unpredictable and attacking manner rather than to ride more conservatively and save energy. However, he finished fifth overall two years ago and while there is a long, long way to go to Paris, the general classification contenders will now regard him as a clear danger.