Tour de France 2015: Chris Froome stays in touch as Rohan Dennis sets race record

Little to choose between British hope and three closest rivals after opening time-trial

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The Independent Online

The opening stage of the Tour de France saw Australia’s Rohan Dennis take the race’s first yellow jersey as the BMC rider racked up the fastest average speed for a time trial in the race’s history. The four leading favourites for overall victory were separated by a remarkably narrow margin of 18 seconds.

Briefly the holder of the Hour record earlier this year, Dennis moved back into the history books when he soared round the fast, flat 13.8km course here at an average speed of 55.446kph, outpacing the previous average of 55.152kph set by Britain’s Chris Boardman 21 years ago in a Tour prologue in Lille.

Dennis, 25, said earlier this week that he had been building towards the Tour’s opening time-trial since May, when he reconnoitred the course at 5am to ensure it was free of traffic. “Coming straight after a stage race in Belgium, that was some early-morning call,” he remarked. He also made another strategically sound decision by taking an early start, rolling down the ramp as the 38th rider of 198 and avoiding the later afternoon’s scorching heat.

The television coverage showed Dennis going through a variety of emotions after he had finished as the long afternoon unfolded, starting with a thumbs-up as the local favourite, Tom Dumoulin, came through the line eight seconds down, and showing marked relief when two time-trialling greats, former multiple world champions Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara, finished five and six seconds down respectively.

With the first time-trial victory of his career, and as the seventh Australian to hold the yellow jersey, Dennis said: “I’ve broken a dry spell of wins, and what a way to do it. I left it all out there; I went off harder than what I thought I should have and I came back harder than what I thought I could.”

None of the overall contenders succeeded in taking much of an advantage over the rest of the field, with the defending champion, Vincenzo Nibali, in 22nd place, gaining a slender margin of seven seconds on Chris Froome, 15 seconds on Alberto Contador and 18 seconds on Nairo Quintana.

Froome turned in an efficient but unremarkable performance, crossing the line in 39th place, 50 seconds down on Dennis. The big winner of the day was arguably Quintana, as an out-and-out climber expected to fare badly on such a flat course. Like Dennis, the Colombian had made an early start.

“I think in terms of GC contenders we’re all pretty much in the same ballpark out there,” Froome said afterwards. “That was pretty tough for such a short course and I’m happy to have it out the way now. Of course I would have hoped for a bit of a better start but to be honest there’s not much in it for now.”

The Team Sky leader said the very high temperatures later in the afternoon had “made a huge difference”. Yet, as a rider not at his best in colder temperatures, he added: “But better that way than the other.”

Froome thought that, with the wind picking up a little later in the day, an earlier start could “potentially” have made a difference. But he would, he said, have “taken that” if he had been offered his day’s result before the stage had unfolded.

Froome, Nibali and the rest of the leading overall contenders will now take as much of a back seat as they can on today’s flat, exposed 166km run across west Holland from Utrecht to the coastland finish in Zélande. Assuming the peloton does not splinter in crosswinds, a mass sprint is the most likely outcome, where Britain’s Mark Cavendish, 123rd yesterday, will be hoping for his first Tour stage win since 2013.

Cavendish’s last bunch gallop in the Tour ended in disaster when he crashed out in Harrogate last July, but his team say they feel that the broad, flat finish in Zélande should be more favourable for the Briton’s chances.

“Zélande is definitely better for us,” Cavendish’s Etixx-Quick Step team-mate and key wingman for the sprints, Mark Renshaw, said. “We reconned Sunday’s finish in June, it will either be a really slow sprint or a really fast sprint depending on the wind direction, but either way it will suit us more than last year.”