By ANDREW DAMPF
The Associated Press
FONTENAY-LE-COMTE, France — Down in a ditch, Chris Froome had to hoist himself and his bike back up to the road.
It was a startling scene when the Team Sky rider tumbled into a grassy field in the opening stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, immediately putting his pursuit of a record-tying fifth title in peril.
Froome, though, is getting used to these sort of mishaps and challenges — whether that means recovering from crashes or clearing his name of doping.
“I saw a lot of crashes out there today. It’s just one of those things. We always knew the first few days were going to be tricky and going to be sketchy. It’s part of the game unfortunately,” said Froome, who went down with about 5 kilometers to go as the sprinters’ teams jockeyed for position.
With grass stains on his right shoulder and blood trickling down his right arm from a gash on his elbow, Froome got back up and crossed 51 seconds behind Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian who claimed the race’s first yellow jersey with a commanding sprint victory.
“I’m just grateful I’m not injured in any way and there’s a lot of road to cover before Paris obviously,” Froome said.
When fans at the finish were informed of Froome’s crash, many cheered. Froome, who was cleared of doping in an asthma drug case on Monday, was also jeered at Thursday’s team presentations.
Froome was fortunate he didn’t do more damage by avoiding a post near where he fell while riding at more than 50 kph.
The Kenyan-born British rider also crashed on the opening day of the Giro d’Italia in May, while warming up for the Stage 1 time trial. But Froome eventually climbed back up the standings to win the Giro — his third straight Grand Tour title.
Froome is now aiming to join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win the Tour five times.
Fellow overall contenders Richie Porte and Adam Yates were also caught behind in the Froome group. And in what was expected to be a calm day for the favorites, two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana lost 1:10 when both of his tires were punctured.
The pre-race favorites who finished safely with the main pack included 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin.
“It is a tricky finish and just the typical fight between sprinters and GC guys. Everyone wants to be on the front, especially ahead of the 3K marker,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal said. “It’s the normal tension which is slightly higher than the other Grand Tours.”
When overall or general classification (GC) contenders reach the 3K mark, they can relax because from there on in the results are neutralized in the case of crashes.
Gaviria, the Quick-Step rider making his Tour debut, easily beat world champion Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel to the line.
“The yellow jersey is one that everyone dreams of wearing and to get it on the first day is amazing,” Gaviria said.
Gaviria required 4 hours, 23 minutes to complete the mostly flat 201-kilometer (125-mile) stage from the island of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile on the Atlantic coast to Fontenay-le-Comte.
The 23-year-old Gaviria won four stages in last year’s Giro d’Italia and is living up to his billing as the next big thing in sprinting.
Accounting for time bonuses in the overall standings, Froome trails Gaviria by 1:01 in 91st position.
Fans came out in large numbers for the 105th edition of cycling’s biggest race, standing along nearly every stretch of the route and waving the red and white flags of the Vendee region.
For much of the stage, the route hugged the coastline alongside sparkling waters, pristine beaches and an abundance of salt marshes.
Three French riders — Kevin Ledanois (Team Fortuneo-Samsic), Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) — attacked at the start flag and quickly established an advantage of more than a minute.
Cousin and Offredo, the last remnants of the breakaway, were caught by the main pack with 10 kilometers to go.
The Tour remains in the Vendee region for Stage 2 today, another flat leg of 182.5 kilometers from Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to the department capital of La Roche-sur-Yon.