One stage into the Tour de France was all it took for Chris Froome and his Team Sky to answer all the pre-race talk about how they are not as dominant this year. Geraint Thomas, Froome’s most loyal support rider in his three Tour victories, won the wet and slippery opening stage and claimed the yellow jersey.
Averaging 52 kph (32 mph), Thomas required little more than 16 minutes over the almost entirely flat 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) individual time trial up and down the banks of the Rhine River in downtown Duesseldorf. Stefan Kueng of BMC finished second, five seconds behind, and Vasil Kiryienka of Sky was third, seven seconds back.
Froome was sixth, 12 seconds behind, and gained time on all of his expected challengers. He gained 35 and 36 seconds on Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana, respectively. Romain Bardet, the Frenchman who finished second overall behind Froome last year, and seven-time Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador lost even more time.
It was a banner day for Sky, which placed four riders in the top eight with Michal Kwiatkowski in eighth. Meanwhile, there were numerous crashes. Two involved key support riders for the overall favorites; Alejandro Valverde, who assists Quintana at Movistar, and Nicolas Roche, who aides Porte with BMC.
Valverde slammed into the barriers at high speed after falling off his bike and was forced to abandon the race in a neck brace with a suspected broken left kneecap. Roche lost control while traversing tram tracks.
Sky had no such problems, which was a welcome change after a difficult start to the year for cycling’s powerhouse team.
Thomas aimed for overall victory in the Giro d’Italia but was forced to abandon that race because of injuries in a crash caused by a police motorbike. Froome entered the Tour without having won a single warmup race or even a stage for the first time since he began dominating four years ago.
With neither a long time trial nor many mountain-top finishes, many observers suggested this Tour doesn’t suit Froome’s strengths. “It’s still about Froomey,” Thomas said. “It’s obviously a big boost of morale but the goal is still Froomey. But if I end up staying up there on GC that would be great.”
Thomas began his career as a track cyclist, winning Olympic and world titles in team pursuit. But he watched the Tour as a kid and harangued his dad to get satellite TV coverage.
“I got into cycling because of the Tour. I ran home from school to watch it,” Thomas said. “To be on the other side of the camera, putting on the jersey and shaking hands with VIPs and stuff is the stuff of dreams.”
In the opening stage of the 2013 Tour, Thomas crashed and broke his pelvis but remained in the race until the end to help Froome take his first victory. “I heard in my ear that Geraint Thomas had won. That’s super, super,” Froome said.
Many riders complained about the super slippery combination of oil and rain on the road and they were careful to avoid riding over white traffic lines, which can be extra treacherous when wet.
“It hasn’t rained here for months like everywhere else in Europe,” said former world champion Philippe Gilbert. “Millions of cars have used these roads. There’s oil and diesel on the road. It’s necessary to be cautious.”
Porte was especially cautious. “I followed Nicolas Roche in the car just before my start and he binned it, so I was petrified to be honest,” said the Australian, who showed the best form in the Tour warmup races. Thomas had no worries.
“It rains a lot in Wales,” he said. “So I’m used to that.” Despite the rain, fans under umbrellas turned out in large numbers along the entire route as the Tour started in Germany for the first time in 30 years.
Stage 2 on Sunday is a mostly flat 203.5-kilometer (126-mile) leg from Duesseldorf to Liege, Belgium, that should set up well for sprinters.