It was supposed to be the glorious opening stage to the Tour's centenary edition. But instead a team bus blocked at the finish and a major crash with four kilometres to go combined to create a chaotic finale and wreck Mark Cavendish's hopes of taking the yellow jersey. As Cavendish later said: “It was carnage.”
Everything seemed to be heading towards a relatively straightforward and widely predicted sprint finish when the Orica-GreenEDGE team bus jammed under the stage's finishing gantry. Race officials afterwards asserted that the bus had "failed to ask for permission as they ought to have done – and if they had we would have raised the gantry to let them pass".
Instead, the characteristically fraught scenario of the Tour de France's first bunch-sprint finish reached feverish levels as the TV cameras repeatedly showed images of the Orica-GreenEDGE bus and its driver, head buried in hands, with officials desperately trying to dislodge the vehicle. Then the director flashed back to shots of a pack of riders speeding at 60 kilometres an hour towards the finish.
In a desperate bid to avert this unexpected cliffhanger of a finale, an initial announcement was made over the race radio that the finish had been shifted to three kilometres in advance of the original line. But as the bus was finally, in best B-movie disaster style, dislodged at the last minute – by deflating the tyres and pushing it off the course – another last-ditch decision was taken. The new finish was abandoned and the original one reinstated.
"The change to the finish was what caused the [initial] problems," said Cavendish. "We only heard over the radio with five kilometres to go that it [the finish] was shifted to three to go. Then a kilometre later, it's back at the [original] finish. It was carnage."
If the change of finish was not guaranteed to unsettle the riders enough, seconds later a huge pile-up on the side of the road saw at least two dozen go down, including Chris Froome's major rival, Alberto Contador, and the green-jersey contender Peter Sagan, as well as Sky's Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard. Others, such as Cavendish and André Greipel, the German sprinter, were blocked behind the tangle of fallen riders, but remained upright. "I don't think any of us thought it would be plain sailing today but there were some pretty brutal crashes at the end there," said Froome, who suffered a cut knee from a crash even before racing had got properly underway.
"It was a reminder that this Tour is much more than about having the form and being here, it's about staying out of trouble too. I felt guys were crashing all around me but I managed to pick my way through."
While Thomas, visibly limping, went off to hospital after the finish for a check-up on his injuries, Contador crossed the line grimacing in pain and around two minutes down on the inital group of sprinters – although race officials later said that given the exceptional circumstances of the chaotic finale, all riders had been awarded an equal time. Asked if he was disappointed, Cavendish said: "I'm not the only one [to be]. I'm lucky I didn't come down. Some of my team-mates are a lot worse off. I can count myself lucky."
Fears that Contador could be badly injured were dispelled by the Spaniard, although his expressions of anger and pain were indicative that all was not well. "A rider went down in front of me and there was nothing I could do, I ended up crashing, that's part of the Tour," said Contador.
"It hurts, I will have to put ice on the injuries and I'll just have to see how I get through." His team director, Fabrizio Guidi, described the stage – won by Germany's Marcel Kittel – as "insanely chaotic".
Although Cavendish's dreams of taking yellow will now have to wait until next year's Tour start – in Yorkshire, where the terrain is less favourable - today's hilly trek through the centre of Corsica could well see another Briton, Dave Millar, move into the top spot.
Millar's fourth place in the dash by a front bunch of 40 riders for the line makes him the best placed of the non-sprinters. After the chaos, though, the organisers will just be praying the stage runs normally and for this unedifying start to the centenary Tour to be forgotten.
Short in terms of distance, stage two will be long on everything else: difficult little climbs, twisty, narrow roads through the depths of central Corsica and, above all, the chance of major crashes. Given how difficult the terrain is, at least one favourite could lose a lot of time. But who?