Düsseldorf, Germany – Reigning champion Chris Froome wasted no time flexing his muscles at the Tour de France as he powered to sixth place in a treacherous opening time trial won superbly by Team Sky colleague Geraint Thomas on Saturday.
Heavy rain turned what, on paper, had looked like a regulation 14km circuit alongside the Rhine river into an incident-packed Grand Depart that could have major consequences in the three-week battle for the yellow jersey.
While it was a great start for Team Sky, with Thomas, three-times champion Froome and Vasil Kiryienka all in the top six of the 198 riders to start, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde’s Tour is already over after a sickening crash.
Several riders continued after crashing on the greasy roads, but there was no getting up for Valverde, third overall in 2015, after he careered into crowd barriers after skidding off before being taken to hospital with leg injuries.
It was heart-breaking for Valverde and also a huge blow for teammate Nairo Quintana, who was counting on Valverde’s experience in the mountain stages to come.
Welshman Thomas, riding his eighth Tour, looked completely at home in the puddles as he became the eighth Briton to wear the yellow jersey – making up for the disappointment of crashing out of the Giro d’Italia as team leader.
He displayed brilliant bike-handling to cross the finish line at the huge Messe Düsseldorf exhibition complex in 16 minutes 4 seconds (16:04).
He was five seconds ahead of BMC’s Swiss rider Stefan Kueng, who was two seconds ahead of Kiryienka in third.
Froome, the last rider out, was 12 seconds slower than Thomas, but significantly quicker than all his main General Classification (GC) rivals.
Quintana was 48 seconds slower than Thomas with Australian Richie Porte one second quicker than the Colombian.
French GC hopefuls Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet were 50 and 51 seconds off the pace, with Spain’s Alberto Contador 54 down.
Thomas said it had been a great day for Welsh sport after Sam Warburton captained the British and Irish Lions to victory over rugby giants the All Blacks in New Zealand.
“That inspired me, to be honest,” he said. “I didn’t believe I would hang on, felt sure Tony (Martin) or someone would beat my time.
“This is amazing for me after what happened at the Giro and massive for the team. The jersey is a huge bonus.”
Hopes that Martin would mark the first German Grand Depart since Berlin in 1987 with a home win were washed away as he could only manage fourth quickest.
While Porte will be concerned to be trailing Froome before the Tour really starts for real, he said at least he had not suffered the same fate as Valverde.
“It wasn’t a day to take risks,” Froome’s former teammate said. “It was just a matter of keeping it rubber side down. I saw my teammate (Nicolas Roche) bin it, and I was petrified, to be honest. It was such a slippery course.”