France's Bardet wins Tour de France opener as Cavendish suffers

Romain Bardet takes the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France (Thomas SAMSON)
Romain Bardet takes the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France (Thomas SAMSON)

French climber Romain Bardet of the DSM team claimed the overall leader's yellow jersey when he won the opening stage of the Tour de France on Saturday with a late escape on a 206km run from Florence to Rimini.

Searing heat of 30C (86F) blighted the peloton as it set off from downtown Florence on the 21-day epic leaving many riders suffering, with British sprinter Mark Cavendish trailing by 30 minutes when Bardet crossed the finish line.

"I was hurting so bad I saw stars," Cavendish said after resting at his team bus.

"If you have my body type, don't start a cycling career, those days are gone," said the stocky sprint specialist. "We aren't riding around chatting anymore."

All the main contenders for the Tour title crossed the line five seconds adrift in the first of four stages featuring racing in Italy.

The 33-year-old Bardet's teammate Frank Van Den Broek was part of an early break and the pair survived a reel-in effort from a fast-closing peloton for victory on the Rimini seafront.

Bardet's first thoughts were for his young teammate.

"He's on the first day of his first Tour de France and I couldn't have done it without him," said Bardet of the stage win that culminated on a long flat road totally unfavourable to the type of two-man feat they pulled off.

Race director Christian Prudhomme had promised a brawl from day one and so it proved to be as the peloton crept ever closer to Bardet and Van Den Broek who dug deep in an act of team spirit that bore rich fruit.

- Never too late -

This was Bardet's fourth stage win on the Tour and his first yellow jersey.

"The peloton was suffering from the heat but I had done heat training. So I grabbed an icepack and a bidon and went for it," said Bardet, kitted in the yellow jersey and beaming with delight.

He ended second and third on the Tour in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

"I'd somehow given up hope of wearing the yellow but it's never too late, I feel like I won the jackpot," Bardet said.

His closest rivals for the overall lead Sunday when stage two takes the peloton through the Emilia Romagna region from Cesenatico to Bologna over another hilly route are Tadej Pogacar and Remco Evenepoel, both at 15sec, due to the time bonus that went with the stage win.

Pogacar revealed on arrival at the Tour he'd just had a bout of Covid.

"I felt good on the climbs when I tested myself," he said at the finish line.

There are always fears that Pogacar's racing instincts can waste energy better conserved.

"In the sprint I went for it and almost beat the two fastest guys in the peloton," said the Slovenian, who finished fourth behind Visma's Wout van Aert.

While the hills of Tuscany made for some eye-catching vistas for worldwide audiences, the riders had to battle not only the heat but also seven ascents.

Cavendish was left periodically vomiting as the pace picked up.

Chasing a record 35th Tour de France stage win the 'Manx Missile' was cheered over every hill as he dug deep to keep his bid alive.

His Astana teammate Michele Gazzoli pulled out half way through, the Italian exhausted from helping Cavendish, who was eventually second last over the line, at 39min 22sec.

The 39-year-old made the time cut, calculated as a percentage of the winner's time which in this case translated to 49min 11sec.

Cavendish gave a thumbs up as he approached the line looking less weary that earlier.

Defending champion Jonas Vingegaard and chief pretender Pogacar led the peloton away from the start line past the sights of Renaissance city Florence for a 21-day odyssey that ends in Nice after 3,498km of race action.

The 2024 Tour is billed as a four-way struggle.

Behind Vingegaard and 2020-2021 champion Pogacar lurk former Vuelta and Giro champion Primoz Roglic (Red Bull) and Tour newcomer Remco Evenepoel of Soudal Quick-Step.