After he had been booed by the French public and slated by sections of the media, Alberto Contador's nightmare Tour de France start continued into the first stage yesterday as he was involved in a mass pile-up five miles from the finish line.
Apparently uninjured but seriously delayed, the three-time champion lost 1min 14sec on all the other contenders, including Britain's Bradley Wiggins and the Spaniard's arch-rival, Andy Schleck.
The crash was caused as the peloton was rocketing at high speed towards the finish on the Mont des Alouettes and an unknown Astana rider was struck an unintentional glancing blow by a spectator leaning into the road.
The spectator span out of danger into a ditch, but the domino effect caused as the Astana rider went down was massive, with at least two- dozen riders on the ground. Contador, Spain's Samuel Sanchez – fourth overall last year – and the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal were the three fancied men caught behind the mass of bike frames and fallen bodies.
Supported by just two team-mates, the favourite engaged in a frantic pursuit, but the distance between the two groups, as Contador's rivals sought to make the most of their unexpected advantage, proved too great for him to regain contact.
To make matters worse, Contador's group was further delayed after the lead peloton was blocked by a second crash – involving Wiggins, who was uninjured and who did not lose time – at the foot of the final climb. Visibly gritting his teeth, Contador is now in 82nd place, after a stage won in emphatic fashion by Philippe Gilbert of Belgium. The Omega Pharma rider streaked away from the shattered pack 400 metres from the line.
Contador's time-loss is not a total disaster. However, it put the Spaniard at a huge disadvantage virtuallyfrom the moment the starting flag dropped.
The most successful stage racer in the world, Contador has seen his image receive a major battering thanks to the controversy surrounding his positive dope test for clenbuterollast year.
Legally allowed to race because he has been cleared by his federation, but still awaiting the consequences of an appeal against that decision by the World Anti-Doping Authority, the Saxo Bank rider was booedand whistled by a significant numberof the public at the Tour's team presentation on Thursday.
Facing up to such unpopularity is not new for Tour stars – the Frenchman Jacques Anquetil was booed by the crowd when he won in 1959 – but for a defending champion prior to the race even starting, it was deeply unwelcome and could make for a tough three-week ride around France.
The appeal in the clenbuterol case is not due to be decided until August, meaning that if Contador wins, the result will not become definitive for over a month. However, his major setback so early in the race now adds even more uncertainty to Contador's situation on the bike, and today's team time-trial, a demanding 14-mile collective effort, will quickly expose any vulnerability.
While Wiggins was thankful to have come through yesterday unscathed, Team Sky claimed an unexpected boost to their morale as Geraint Thomas took the lead in race for the Best Young Riders' jersey after takinga surprise sixth on the stage.
The Welshman led the same competition last year in the first week and was in a bullish mood. "I got a bit caught up in one of the crashes and my foot came out of my pedal but I came through OK," he said.
"I actually like these first Tour stages, they're carnage but it's a bit like track racing, you get your elbows out and have a bit of a scrap." Thomas has a decent chance of taking the overall lead today due to Team Sky's strength in the team time-trial.
Britain's Mark Cavendish had a distinctly low-key start to his green- jersey campaign. Although not expected to be a front-runner in the uphill finish, his chances in the first intermediate sprint looked good.
But for all his HTC-Highroad team-mates clustered at the front with Cavendish at the end of the string, the Manxman had barely started his sprint before he was swamped by the rest of the field.
Finally classified 11th in the first sprint and sitting 24th in the green- jersey standings, the Briton will be under increased pressure to deliver the goods in tomorrow's first full-scale bunch sprint. However, that will be nothing to what Contador is feeling.
What the first stage meant
Contador, the Tour favourite, is now in his weakest position in a stage race since the first week of the Tour of 2009, when a certain Lance Armstrong gained nearly a minute on him. Wiggins' 50th place overall doesn't look amazing, but it's time, not placings, that matter at this point, and he is 1min 14sec ahead of Contador:a huge gain.
Mark Cavendish has yet to make an impact, but that could come in tomorrow's first flat stage. Philippe Gilbert, the race leader, is the favourite for all of the uphill finishes – and there are four more this week.