The Tour de France starts with a short time trial, because it has to start somehow. It also starts in Belgium this year, because its organizers like to spread the wealth around a bit and don’t worry too much about the literal truth of the names of things. It’s always a short course, 6.4 km this year, and no significant time is gained or lost. The riders race the course alone, staggered by a large enough time gap that they don’t meet each other on the course. This year the prologue had several tight turns but no climbs, so it favored the time trialists who have good bike handling skills and can quickly accelerate up to speed out of a turn over the pure horsepower riders who can churn a large gear endlessly. Not much of import is decided in the prologue, but it’s always fun to see the riders decked out in their TT gear, looking like neon insectoid aliens in the skinsuits and teardrop helmets, crouched in their wind-tunnel positions on their aero bikes, and the winner gets to wear the first maillot jaune of the year.
Because the course is so short, every rider gets the luxury of riding for himself, for glory. In a longer time trial the riders with no chance of noteworthy result are obligated to ride hard enough to beat the time cutoff but otherwise conserve energy, but in the prologue every man is straining against his limits. Some because they could win, but all because it’s the first day of the new Tour de France, whether it’s their first or seventeenth1, so you give it what you’ve got.
2: I imagine those scientists shake their head when Thabo comes up, but they might be too busy trying to make a Swiss soccer player who doesn't suck.
The prologue is the credit roll, the reintroduction of your favorite characters, but there isn’t much meat to it. Cancellara spent all of seven minutes and thirteen seconds on the course. The last-place finisher, Roy Curvers, added barely more than a minute to that time. There’s a reason it doesn’t garner a stage number. Stage one is the first full episode, when the season kicks in in earnest. The stage was 207.5 km this year, with a handful of moderate climbs to punch things up. Unlike the individual spurts of effort in the prologue, this is five hours of full-on peloton racing, full of all your favorite racers and new up-and-comers. There are Jens Voigt and Yaroslav Popovich, setting the pace at the front for Radioshack. There’s Cancellara in yellow. There's Vladimir Karpets, who's not that good but has the best name in the game. There’s Cadel Evans, whose Tour victory last year let him enjoy the same sort of reputation level-up Dirk's title earned him. There are some lovely helicopter shots of chateaus, for which the ever-prepped announcers will be happy to give you the elevator pitch history. (Five hours is a lot of airtime to fill, ok? They are alway legitimately gorgeous.)
The thing about the first stage is that nothing really happens except accidents. The hills aren’t major, so no time losses are really in play, and this year there was an uphill finish, so the sprinters don’t get to wind things up for a frenzied field sprint finish. There was a six man breakaway, because there’s always a breakaway, but it was just young nobodies, trying to steal the first King of the Mountains jersey. The sprinters contested the intermediate sprint, but they were just feeling each other out for this year with nothing real on the line yet. The general classification contenders sit near the front of the pack so that they won’t lose time in a crash3, but don’t make any serious moves beyond that.
3: This is not a hypothetical. The (now-disgraced) Alberto Contador, who started last year's Tour as reigning champion, lost significant time behind a crash in Stage One and never completely recovered from that time loss.There were a couple small crashes toward the back of the peloton heading toward the end of the stage. Nothing too dramatic, but it did seem to spook the riders. The sprinters teams would normally lift the pace towards any finish with a sprint final, but they were legitimately hauling ass at the end of today's stage. They sustained about forty miles per hour on the run-in to the final climb, which is crazy. Forty. On bikes. At the climb, the more powerful riders jumped off the front of the field. Cancellara made a strong move to gain a little time on the field to pad the margin by which he’s holding the yellow jersey, but he couldn’t make it stick, and young Slovakian Peter Sagan sprinted past him to win the stage. If you don’t watch bike racing, you probably don’t know about the delightful oddity that is the cycling victory celebration. Riders try to look exultant, or cocky, or whatever else they want, but it is pretty much impossible to look athletically majestic when you’re clad in neon and can’t gesticulate too much without upsetting the bike you’re riding hands-free. Your jersey is too tight to pop, your legs are clipped to the pedals, and nobody is really willing to risk eating shit right after winning. Sagan decided to baptize this year’s first stage with a combination double teapot and then chicken dance flexing, maybe? I’m not totally sure what to call it, but it was fine work, and a great way to cap the first stage.
Photos via AP and Getty Images.