FONTENAY-LE-COMTE, France (AP) — Chris Froome tumbled off the road into a grassy field in the opening stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, immediately putting his pursuit of a record-tying fifth title in peril.
With grass stains on his right shoulder and back, Froome got back up and crossed 51 seconds behind Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian who claimed the race’s first yellow jersey with a commanding sprint victory.
“I saw a lot of crashes out there today. It’s just one of those things. We always knew the first few days were going to be tricky and going to be sketchy. It’s part of the game unfortunately,” said Froome, who went down with about 5 kilometers to go as the sprinters’ teams jockeyed for position.
“I’m just grateful I’m not injured in any way and there’s a lot of road to cover before Paris obviously.”
When fans at the finish were informed of Froome’s crash, many cheered. The Team Sky rider, who was cleared of doping in an asthma drug case on Monday, was also jeered at Thursday’s team presentations.
Fellow overall contenders Richie Porte and Adam Yates were also caught behind in the Froome group. And in what was expected to be a calm day for the favorites, two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana lost 1:10 due to a tire puncture.
The pre-race favorites who finished safely with the main pack included 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin.
Gaviria, the Quick Step rider making his Tour debut, easily beat world champion Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel to the line.
“The yellow jersey is one that everyone dreams of wearing and to get it on the first day is amazing,” Gaviria said. “We had a clear plan and we’re happy because we pulled it off.”
Gaviria required 4 hours, 23 minutes to complete the mostly flat 125-mile stage from the island of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile on the Atlantic coast to Fontenay-le-Comte.
He became the first rider to win the opening stage on his Tour debut since Fabian Cancellara took a prologue in 2004. David Zabriskie also won a prologue on debut in 2005 but was later stripped of the victory for admitting to doping.
The 23-year-old Gaviria won four stages in last year’s Giro d’Italia and is living up to his billing as the next big thing in sprinting.
Froome was fortunate he didn’t do more damage by avoiding a post near where he fell while riding at more than 50 kph. The Kenyan-born British rider also crashed on the opening day of the Giro d’Italia in May, while warming up for the Stage 1 time trial. But Froome eventually climbed back up the standings to win the Giro — his third straight Grand Tour title.
Froome is aiming to join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win the Tour five times.
Accounting for time bonuses in the overall standings, Froome trails Gaviria by 1:01.
Fans came out in large numbers for the 105th edition of cycling’s biggest race, standing along nearly every stretch of the route and waving the red and white flags of the Vendee region.
For much of the stage, the route hugged the coastline alongside sparkling waters, pristine beaches and an abundance of salt marshes.
Three French riders — Kevin Ledanois (Team Fortuneo-Samsic), Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) — attacked at the start flag and quickly established an advantage of more than a minute.
Cousin and Offredo, the last remnants of the breakaway, were caught by the main pack with 10 kilometers to go.
Lawson Craddock, one of five Americans in the race, crashed in a feeding zone midway through the stage and continued with blood streaming down his face.
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