Mark Cavendish was among the most outspoken in his criticism as members of the Tour de France peloton turned their anger towards race organizers after Saturday’s opening stage was marred by a series of crashes. The 213-kilometer ride from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia, the first stage ever to be held on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, was won in a sprint finish by Germany’s Marcel Kittel of the Argos-Shimano team. But his victory became something of a footnote at the end of a chaotic final 20 kilometers as the peloton flew along the narrow roads leading in to Bastia.
The confusion was caused when the bus of the Orica-GreenEdge team became stuck under the gantry at the finish line, forcing organizers to propose moving the line forward three kilometers before it was eventually moved into a safe position. As the peloton approached the finish, they began to up the pace in preparation for the new conclusion to the stage, only to be caught out by the decision to revert to the original plan. A whole host of riders, including Spain’s two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador, last year’s green jersey winner Peter Sagan of Slovakia, and former world time trial champion Tony Martin went down in a mass crash six kilometers from the line, with the latter coming off by far the worst. The German fainted and was later put on a stretcher and taken to hospital in Bastia, fears that he had fractured his shoulder later proving unfounded, leaving his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Mark Cavendish furious.
“What caused the problems was changing the finish,” he told reporters. “We heard on the radio with literally five kilometers to go that the sprint was in two kilometers, and then one kilometer later they were like ‘No, it’s at the original finish.’ It’s just carnage.”
Cavendish had good reason to be unhappy, with the confusion putting paid to his chances of winning the stage and getting his hands on the overall leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career. Contador insisted that he would be ok, while Team Sky duo Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard were d fit to continue after undergoing tests following their falls, with the British team just happy to see their race favourite Chris Froome come home unscathed.
“Obviously, this was a really unfortunate situation,” explained Matt White, the sporting director of the Orica GreenEdge team at the centre of the controversy. “The bus was led under the finish gantry, and we took it for granted that there was enough clearance. The frantic efforts to clear the bus proved successful, and we had a few minutes notice that the finish line had been moved to its original place.”
The team were later fined 2,000 Swiss Francs (US$2,116) by the organizers, who blamed them for their late arrival at the finish and insisted they had made the right decisions. Despite that, there was widespread criticism from elsewhere, including from Marc Madiot, the manager of French outfit FDJ, who launched a stinging attack on the organizers.
“We can’t keep changing the route,” he told French television. “Everyone can understand why you might have to change the finish line if there is a problem. There is nothing wrong with that, but here the organizers have not done their job properly. The Spanish president of the organizing committee, who I don’t know, has made a big mistake. He should face the consequences. He is Spanish, he can go home.”
Kittel was one of the lucky ones who avoided the crash and came through to pip Norway’s Alexander Kristoff in a sprint for the line, although all riders were later awarded the same time.
“I didn’t know that there was a bus on the finish line,” Kittel said. “I’m really happy that they managed to tow the bus away and that we could finish on the finish line.”
Attention now turns to Sunday’s second stage, when more drama could be in the offing as the peloton set off into Corsica’s rugged interior for a 156-kilometer ride from Bastia to Ajaccio. With a series of tricky climbs in the route, Kittel’s yellow jersey is likely to be up for grabs.