Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Contador could be in for the fight of his life

Stage 1 of the 2011 Tour de France proved yet again that contenders for the final overall victory need to keep themselves up front and out of trouble.

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Perhaps it was a bad omen for Alberto Contador that the opening stage of the 2011 Tour de France started on the Passage du Gois. This is the ancient causeway across a tidal estuary that’s flooded twice a day and had big consequences when the Tour crossed it midway through stage 2 of the 1999 Tour, costing several pre-race favorites a six-minute time loss.

Pileups on early stages of the Tour de France usually don’t have that much influence on the race’s final outcome. And we don’t yet know how damaging Contador’s stage 1 loss of 1:17 on Cadel Evans (and 1:14 on the Schleck brothers) will be in the long term — or whether it will be an even bigger gap by the end of Sunday’s stage 2 team time trial.

Virtual GC after stage 1

1. Cadel Evans, 4:41:34
2. Jurgen Van den Broeck, at 0:03
3. Andreas Klöden, s.t.
4. Chris Horner, s.t.
5. Fränk Schleck, s.t.
6. Alexander Vinokourov, s.t.
7. Nicolas Roche, s.t.
8. Tejay Van Garderen, s.t.
9. Andy Schleck, s.t.
10. Levi Leipheimer, s.t.
11. Jani Brajkovic, s.t.
12. Ivan Basso, s.t.
13. Brad Wiggins, s.t.
14. Robert Gesink, s.t.
15. Samuel Sanchez, at 1:17
16. Alberto Contador, s.t.
17. Ryder Hesjedal, at 1:52
18. Roman Kreuziger, s.t.
19. Jérôme Coppel, s.t.
20. Christian Vande Velde, at 3:38

But we do know that it has put the defending champion in a big hole (see the “Virtual GC” that shows the overall positions of men expected to finish top 20 this year).

On any early stage of any Tour, the smart riders and teams know it’s imperative to be near the front of the peloton — because crashes or pileups or splits due to echelons forming in crosswinds can happen at any time.

There were no echelons Saturday because when the pace picked up in the final 50km the wind was in the riders’ faces, not from the side. But there were frequent falls, some caused by the bunch being squeezed at traffic islands or riders overlapping on narrow roads and falling into ditches, and a speed bump caused another crash.

The biggest problems were expected to come on one of the nine roundabouts that peppered the final 6km of stage 1, but the day’s major pileup happened 3km before that on a straight stretch of wide highway after an Astana rider ricocheted off a roadside spectator into the right side of the peloton. Dozens of riders fell as a result and blocked those behind.

The 78 riders ahead of the pileup sped away from the other 120 riders — who besides Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Contador included fellow Spanish contender Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi and Garmin-Cervélo’s North American leaders Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. Their big time loss can be put down to bad luck, but men who have aspirations of the yellow jersey should have been up front, especially in the last 10km of a flat stage.

Lessons from the past

The folly of sitting too far back in the peloton is a lesson that several candidates for victory were taught in that Passage du Gois incident 12 years ago. Before reaching the narrow 4km-long causeway, George Hincapie made a full-out surge in fierce crosswinds on behalf of his U.S. Postal Service leader, Lance Armstrong. The American’s acceleration split the pack into five groups before they even reached the Gois. And with everyone racing at over 50 kph across the causeway’s slick pavement, the inevitable pileup took place 1km into the crossing.

There were 75 riders ahead of the crash (three fewer than in Saturday’s pileup), and they emerged on the other side of the Gois with a half-minute lead on 50 chasers that included some race favorites, notably the Swiss Alex Zülle.

A fierce battle between the two groups ensued over the final two hours of that 176km stage, and the half-minute gap became 6:03 by the stage finish. Amazingly, Zülle’s huge time loss that day didn’t prevent him from climbing up the GC ladder to finish second overall in the 1999 Tour; as it was, he still wouldn’t have won because his final deficit on Armstrong was 7:37.

Besides the Passage du Gois and its major pileup, this year’s opener also had in common Hincapie playing a major role for a race favorite. Now riding his record-tying 16th Tour, the genial American was prominent in guiding his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans through the potential mayhem on Saturday.

“It was really key to have guys like George and Burgi (Marcel Burghardt) around me on a day like today,” Evans said after he placed second atop the Mont des Alouettes, three seconds behind stage winner Philippe Gilbert. “George positioned me real well going into the bottom of the climb (and it was) great work by these boys for delivering me here.”

Evans will be relying on his veteran lieutenants to help him increase his 1:17 gap over Contador in Sunday’s 23km stage 2 team time trial. They’ll know exactly what they have to do because BMC starts in a favored slot, next to last, more than two hours after Contador’s Saxo Bank team — which starts first due to being ranked last on Saturday’s stage.

This conjures up memories of another defending Tour champion from Spain having a disastrous opening two days: Pedro Delgado in 1989. The Spanish climber didn’t crash or get caught up in a pileup, but he showed up late for his prologue time trial and conceded 2:48 to eventual winner Greg LeMond. And in the next day’s 46km TTT (twice the length of this year’s), Delgado’s Reynolds team finished dead last, conceding another 3:41 to LeMond.

Delgado fought back in the mountain stages (as Contador will have to do), but came up short, finishing third overall in Paris, 3:34 behind LeMond. The situation is nowhere near as dire for Contador, but should he concede, say, a half-minute in Sunday’s TTT and drop close to two minutes behind Evans and Leopard-Trek’s Schleck brothers, he is going to have the fight of his life to defend his title.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.