For weeks Italian fans have been bewailing the enforced absence of their charismatic sprinter and reigning World Champion, Mario Cipollini, from this year's Tour de France, but the fastman Alessandro Petacchi's convincing win in yesterday's opening stage could well help ease the tifosi's injured pride.
Having scooped six stages in the Giro, Italy's major Tour, this June, the 29-year-old made a long drive in the broad boulevard in Meaux, a dormitory town east of Paris, to take his first Tour stage, ahead of the Australian Robbie McEwen and the German Erik Zabel. It is also his country's first bunch sprint win in the Tour since 2000.
Spectacle and pageantry to celebrate 100 years of the Tour were the dominant note at the start yesterday. The race began with a 28-kilometre procession that took it from the Stade de France in the north across Paris to the Café du Reveil Matin in the southern suburbs, the hostelry outside which the first Tour began in 1903.
Bravely ignoring the fact that the Reveil Matin is now a Tex-Mex restaurant stuck between industrial wasteland and a motorway, plaques were unveiled, the "Marseillaise" was played and patriotic speeches delivered before the riders finally got on with the racing. Most of the stage was almost as featureless as the background for the start. After a soporific first 167km, in which a highly symbolic attack by a trio of Frenchmen was reeled in close to Meaux, the Tour stage was almost within sight of an equally anodyne finish when it sparked into life - but for the wrong reasons.
Coming out of a chicane as the peloton was hitting speeds of nearly 80kph, the Spaniard Jose Enrique Gutierrez's bike went under him, causing more than a dozen riders to go down, and blocking over 80 per cent of the bunch behind.
Most of the sprinters, already in position for the final dash for the line, were safe, but other contenders were not so lucky. One by one they inched their way through - those who had hit the tarmac and made their way to the line, thankful that as the crash took place in the final kilometre and any time lost does not count in the fight for the overall classification.
Lance Armstrong was among those who fell. "I'm all right, I had to change bikes, because when I went down a lot of people fell on top of me," the four-times Tour winner said. "These things make you extremely angry." Less fortunate was his fellow-American and overall contender Tyler Hamilton. The Massachusetts-born rider, considered one of Armstrong's biggest rivals, hurt his left shoulder, the one he injured when he somersaulted into a tree in last year's Giro. Another top-10 finisher last year, the Californian Levi Leipheimer, damaged his hip.
The race leader Bradley McGee, who suffered superficial cuts and bruises, brushed off the pile-up as "part of cycling".
Britain's David Millar was uninjured in the crash, but the Scot is none the less still fuming after what he considers a poor choice of equipment by his team manager, Alain Bondue, caused his chain to jump during Saturday's opening prologue stage. Millar, who finished runner-up to McGee by 0.08sec, read the riot act to his team, Cofidis, and insisted that Bondue be relieved of responsibilities as a sporting director.
The owner, François Migraine, promptly granted the Scot his wish, relegating Bondue purely to the role of logistics manager, but Millar, whose contract with Cofidis ends this season, has warned that "the team is on probation for the next three weeks". "They are a wonderful sponsor, but these problems have been going on for the last six or seven years," Millar added. Whether the atmosphere in the team will now lighten, and the equipment situation improve after this drastic decision remains to be seen.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
FIRST STAGE DETAILS
TOUR DE FRANCE First stage (105 miles, Montgeron-Meaux): 1 A Petacchi (It) Fassa Bortolo 3hr 44min 33sec; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 3 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 4 P Bettini (It) Quick Step; 5 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeux.com; 6 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole; 7 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank; 8 L Paolini (It) Quick Step; 9 R Vainsteins (Lat) Vini Caldirola; 10 J Kirsipuu (Est) Ag2r; 11 R Haselbacheraut (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 12 D Nazon (Fr) Brioches; 13 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole; 14 J-P Nazon (Fr) Jean Delatour; 15 F Glomser (Aut) Saeco all same time. Selected: 27 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi s/t. Leading overall standings: 1 B McGee (Aus) FDJeux.com 3hr 51min 55sec; 2 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +4sec; 3 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel +6; 4 Ullrich s/t; 5 V H Peña (Col) US Postal Service +10; 6 T Hamilton (US) CSC; 7 A Flickinger (Fr) Ag2r s/t; 8 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +11; 9 J Beloki (Sp) ONCE +13; 10 S Botero (Col) Telekom s/t; 11 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal +15; 12 M Rich (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 13 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank; 14 G Hincapie (US) US Postal all s/t; 15 V Karpets (Rus) iBanesto.com +16. King of the mountains: 1 C Mengin (Fr) FDJeaux.com 13pts; 2 W Beneteau (Fr) Brioches 9; 3 A Flickinger (Fr) Ag2r 5. Leading overall points standings: 1 McEwen 36; 2 Petacchi 35; 3 Zabel 26. Teams: 1 US Postal Service 11hr 36min 21sec; 2 Team Bianchi +8sec; 3 FDJeaux.com +17.Leading rider under 25: 1 Flickinger 3:52.05; 2 Karpets +6sec; 3 M Astarloza (Sp) Ag2R s/t.Reuse content