GC opens: Rodríguez struggles, Horner survives, Froome a sprinter?

The GC favorites got their first glimpse at what awaits them in a harrowing first week of the Tour de France in Saturday's hilly first stage

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HARROGATE, England (VN) — The GC favorites dodged bullets Saturday in what will be a rough-and-tumble first week of the Tour de France.

Saturday’s chaotic and dramatic first stage — with an estimated 2 million fans lining the course to open the 2014 Tour — saw the yellow-jersey favorites finish with the front group. But it certainly wasn’t easy.

Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), both coming back from injuries, were gapped midway through the hilly stage across Yorkshire, with Horner getting caught up in a minor crash. They eventually linked up with the front pack before the sprint, but it revealed a few chinks among the GC armor.

“I will do as well as I can. I am not trying to lose time on purpose. I will find my place on the road, but I am not 100 percent yet,” Rodríguez said at the line. “I don’t know if I will be riding for GC. We’ll have to see how I get out of this first week.”

Horner, who is back at the Tour following a harrowing training crash this spring, told NBC Sports at the line he was caught up behind a bottleneck when the peloton split, but admitted it wasn’t easy out there.

As in any opening Tour stage, there was a lot of grappling and fighting for position. Once a three-man breakaway pulled clear, the pace eased until the race hit the lumpy second half of the course.

A spectacular climb up the Buttertubs Hill saw the peloton split, with Rodríguez and Horner slot into a chasing group that also included top-10 hopefuls Dani Navarro (Cofidis) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). At one point, the gap grew to more than one minute.

The two American GC candidates survived with their yellow jersey dreams intact, with Tour rookies Peter Stetina (BMC Racing), Alex Howes and Ben King (Garmin-Sharp), and Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing) all making it safely to the line.

There were alarm bells when Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) showed up at nearly four minutes back in preliminary results. The Critérium du Dauphiné rider was well positioned all day, but flatted in the closing kilometers. Luckily, it happened with less than 3km to go, just inside the “safe zone” where time gaps caused by mechanicals and crashes are not deducted.

BMC Racing protected Tejay van Garderen in a stage that drew a record number of fans lining the route, so much so that veteran BMC manager Jim Ochowicz said they were the largest crowds he’s even seen at the Tour.

“It was a little nervous today, you could see that. It helped to have a breakaway up there, but the finish was fast and furious,” Ochowicz told VeloNews. “It was insane. It was 25-30 deep on both sides of the road. I think there will be more people tomorrow.”

Despite the finish-line crash involving Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), the major GC candidates avoided mishaps.

“Just surviving a stage like today is a victory,” said Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). “These stages are all about avoiding any trouble. The team protected me, and I will count on them in the coming days.”

Defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) not only survived, he was in the mix for the sprint, surprising everyone to cross the line sixth.

It’s doubtful that Froome is hoping to become a sprinter. Rather, he realizes the safest place to be is at the front, which also offers chances to take time on rivals.

“It was all about being in decent position going into that last drag,” Sky’s Geraint Thomas told Eurosport. “Bernie Eisel did a great job, and I sort of just shepherded Froomey, and then all of a sudden, with a kilometer to go, he just sprints past me and starts going! He’s obviously in good form, he’s keen to just stay out of trouble, so sixth is a nice little result for him.”

Things should be even more interesting, or dangerous, in Sunday’s second stage. Many are comparing the hilly course to the British version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The GC favorites might not be just racing to survive, but attacking to take time.

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