Cycling’s much-anticipated return to Yorkshire proved a brutal one as race favourite Ben Swift and star sprinter Marcel Kittel were among several casualties on the road from Bridlington to Scarborough.
Swift’s Team Sky team-mate Lars Petter Nordhaug emerged from the chaos to win the first stage of the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire in front of huge crowds on the Scarborough seafront, but behind him several others were picking up the pieces.
Ten months on from the county hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, the 174km stage again saw thousands lining the roads, but the day’s racing was defined by a huge crash after a brief shower created a slippery descent as the peloton approached Grosmont, high in the North Yorkshire Moors.
There was a warning when Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise’s Tim Declercq, one of two riders in a breakaway, went straight on at a corner and landed in a hedge before remounting.
But with no race radio, the peloton approached unaware and chaos followed as several riders hit the deck, led by Swift and his team-mate Ian Boswell.
“It was just really slippy,” said Swift’s team-mate Philip Deignan.
“Normally the roads here are quite abrasive, but that was real shiny. It just came on really quickly, the shower, just as we were coming in and it’s a 20 per cent descent so it was probably the worst moment for it to happen.”
As Swift headed off to hospital, his remaining team-mates tried to regroup amid the confusion and Deignan and Nordhaug managed to get themselves into a five-man break which got away on the final climb of the day out of Robin Hood’s Bay.
It came down to a sprint on the seafront, with Nordhaug beating Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler and Stephane Rossetto of Cofidis.
“It’s great to take the victory,” the Norwegian said. “With all the spectators here it’s massive and I feel like I’m riding at home riding for Sky. This is really great.
“The team were so strong, riding all day to make it hard.
“We were riding for Ben Swift, but he crashed pretty hard which is a shame. Then I had to try and do something.”
After time bonuses were applied, Nordhaug led the general classification by four seconds from Voeckler.
Deignan finished fifth to sit 10 seconds down.
“This is cycling, the highs and lows,” said Team Sky sporting director Rod Ellingworth.
“The thing is we always said from the beginning if we lose Ben, Lars is the guy, he’s next in line so for Team Sky it’s worked out, but it’s sad for Ben; his home race and he was well up for it.”
The same crash which accounted for Swift also did for NFTO’s Eddie Dunbar, at 18 the youngest rider in the field.
The Irishman, who had been first over the biggest climb of the day at Rosedale Abbey, was taken to hospital with a suspected broken clavicle.
The attrition had begun when Giant-Alpecin’s Kittel, who won the opening stage of the Tour de France in Harrogate last year, climbed off midway through the stage having fallen more than six minutes off the pace.
The 26-year-old was racing for the first time in two months after a virus and his lack of training was no match for the rolling roads, which seemed to catch out many riders as the peloton splintered.
Sir Bradley Wiggins, competing for the first time for his eponymous development team, elected to ride conservatively and stay safe with his attempt at the hour record scheduled for June.
He eventually crossed the line 96th, almost 15 minutes behind the winners.
Earlier, Doncaster’s Tom Stewart – riding for Madison Genesis – had been involved in a five-man break but faded into the pack. Russ Downing was Yorkshire’s highest-placed finisher in 16th.
Today sees the peloton take on a 174km route from Selby to York, where a bunch sprint is anticipated, before a tough 167km stage full of climbing between Wakefield and Leeds coincides with a wet weather forecast on Sunday.
“(Saturday) should be pretty straight forward with a bunch sprint but the third day, from what I hear, is pretty brutal,” said Deignan, when asked if Team Sky can defend their lead.
“Lars is obviously in good form so I don’t think we need to be afraid of anyone.”
As much as it will be remembered for the chaos in the actual race, yesterday’s opening stage once again shone a bright light on the county.
After last year’s grandest of Grand Departs came the stage that launched thousands of fish and chip suppers.
Peloton-sized queues of lycra-clad visitors snaked from Whitby’s famous eating emporiums and the man from Fortunes Kippers had managed to hang up his ‘sold out’ sign by half past three.
The sun shone – as if the weather had ever been in doubt – and an array of the world’s top cyclists returned to whet local appetites in the light blue-clad land they call God’s Own Country. The opening stage of the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire – a direct legacy of last year’s spectacularly successful opening stage of the Tour de France – provided another tasty showpiece for a region ever more intent on securing its cycling fix.
From boneshakers to BMXs, mountain bikes to twikes, pedal power in all shapes and sizes was propped against dry-stone walls and rusting signposts in the villages which speckle the sides of the picturesque Esk Valley.
Most had been primped yellow and light blue to match the backdrop of the Yorkshire flag – an emblem so proudly prolific it might have led an untutored observer to conclude they had happened upon a breakaway republic. In these parts, it would not take long to find a local keen to confirm that assumption.
Bunting flapped from beer gardens and farm silos and the sides of humped-back bridges steeped in local lore, while knitted woolly sheep poked from blue-and-yellow-daubed wheelie bins on the edge of Egton Bridge.
A ‘Team Wiggo’ banner greeted the visiting riding royalty outside the North York Moors National Park Centre at Danby and a pair of steam engines rolled up to give the riders a tooting boost to the start of their precipitous climb out of Grosmont.
Echoes of last summer’s Grand Depart were evident in more than just the hastily blue-daubed bikes and the wholesome enthusiasm with which crowds converged on the famous Whitby swing bridge or crowded the tortuously twisting 219m incline of the Cote du Robin Hood’s Bay.
It was referenced in a top-quality field consisting both of those like Sir Bradley and Yorkshire-born Swift, who had missed out on a place on last year’s Tour, and those like Grand Depart stage winner Kittel who cast an indelible mark upon it.
Fittingly for a stage which would wind its way through a town which provided the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there was blood, a bunch of riders cascading to the tarmac on a slippery moorland bend. Not so fittingly, the crash accounted for the Yorkshire-born Swift.
Wiggins, the obvious fans’ favourite, was conspicuous for his inability to emerge from an increasingly stretched peloton, but his absence from the leaderboard scarcely mattered to a crowd who cheered every turn of the wheel.