Agony and ecstasy: Valverde out of the Tour as Thomas makes up for Giro nightmare

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (CT) – Stage 1 of the 2017 Tour de France was always likely to produce crashes. Wet and oily city-centre roads, consistent rain, an at-times technical course, and all on a stage that much of the peloton was incentivised to ride hard.

Sure enough, the crashes started early and continued throughout the day. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Paddy Bevin (Cannondale-Drapac), Nicholas Roche (BMC), George Bennett, (LottoNL-Jumbo) — these were just some of the riders that hit the soggy streets of Düsseldorf. But no crash was worse or more significant than that of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

The Spanish veteran, a super-domestique for Nairo Quintana and sixth last year in his own right, lost control on a wet left-hander, slid across the bitumen and hit the barriers at great speed. He broke his left kneecap in the impact and was forced to abandon the Tour.

But as others tumbled, Sky’s Geraint Thomas stayed upright. The Welshman has endured more than his share of spills over the years, not least an unfortunate crash on stage 9 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia that was caused by a police moto. He was second overall at the time and a genuine contender to win the Giro.

But on today’s opening stage of the 2017 Tour de France, Thomas kept his bike rubber-side down and rode to his first Grand Tour stage victory. The frustration of his Giro experience only served to make today’s victory all the sweeter.

“The Giro was a massive disappointment and Tirreno[-Adriatico] we had our fair share of bad luck as well,” Thomas said. “For sure, it couldn’t have gone any better [today]. Every big rider who was coming after me it was like ‘He’s going to beat me, he’s going to beat me.’ It’s just an amazing feeling, I’m still a bit shocked to be honest.

“It’s just a great day and it certainly makes up for that [Giro] disappointment.”

Thomas didn’t just win the stage – he also put himself into the yellow jersey of overall race leader; another first for the Welshman.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Thomas said. “I’ve watched the Tour since I was 10 — that’s what got me into cycling so to be on the other side of the camera and taking this jersey … It’s my eighth Tour and my 12th Grand Tour. To finally win a stage is amazing and the jersey on top of that is incredible.”

Team Sky will leave Düsseldorf more than satisfied. Not only did they win stage 1 and take the yellow jersey, they also took out four of the top eight places on the stage. Further to that, Chris Froome, who finished sixth, was easily the best of the big general classification contenders.

The defending champion completed the stage 35 seconds faster than Richie Porte (BMC), 36 seconds ahead of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and 42 seconds faster than Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). Sizeable margins in a race with seemingly fewer stages for the GC contenders than normal.

And it’s not just Froome’s time advantage that puts Sky in such a strong position. With Thomas leading the race, there’s less pressure on Froome, and other teams must now genuinely consider Sky to have two contenders for the overall.

For now, it seems likely Thomas will be able to maintain his overall lead for a couple days at least. Tomorrow’s stage 2 is one for the sprinters and with Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) the best-placed fastman 16 seconds down — out of range of time bonuses — Thomas need only finish on bunch time to stay in yellow. Stage 3’s 1.6km uphill finish shouldn’t dislodge Thomas, and stage 4 is another for the sprinters.

Thomas could conceivably remain in yellow until stage 5 — the first of the race’s three uphill finishes — and perhaps even beyond, depending on how that particular stage unfolds.

In the long battle for the 2017 Tour de France, opening-day honours surely go the way of Team Sky. But much can change over the course of three weeks, and the best-laid plans can easily go awry. Just ask Alejandro Valverde.

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