Blood, sweat and tears: Inside the Tour de France peloton’s hottest day

Emotions ran high and states of exhaustion were reached in the opening stage of the Tour under the blazing Italian sun

Riders gasped for water and collapsed into the arms of soigneurs at the finish line. Sweat glistened on their faces, salt sat white on their jerseys. The sticky humidity was relentless combined with the thick mass of people who clamoured for a look at their sporting stars. Bodies pressed against bodies and emotions ran high: stress radiated from interviewers as they scrambled for quotes, security guards argued with fans, team cars tooted their horns as they tried to get safely through the crush of people. The Tour de France is a pressure cooker.

Among it all was a moment of honest vulnerability from the stage’s third place finisher, Wout van Aert. The Belgian rider has had a turbulent approach to this Tour de France as he recovered from his crash during the spring Classics and this result was a sign that he’s coming back to his best. 

“It was a super hectic day. It’s really satisfying to show this again. Obviously it’s a pity I came up short on the win but where I came from, I never expected to be here at this level,” Van Aert said, his tone cracking as the tear which rolled down his cheek gave away his emotion.

“Throughout the race I could see guys were suffering and I felt ok still so slowly I gained confidence and especially in the last four climbs. When I was over the first two climbs I started to believe in it and the boys fully committed to the stage win. It’s a shame we missed out on that but I’m proud.”

Alongside Van Aert, riders continued to roll through the finish in dribs and drabs, each with their own story to tell about a day in the Tour’s heavy heat. Some had happier memories than others: Oscar Onley seemed sprightly after a victorious day for Team dsm-firmenich PostNL, explaining how the baking sun helped his teammates take the win.

“The stage today was pretty hard. It was a long day, the heat made people suffer. We never went full up the climbs and there were still some fast guys in the bunch which played in the favour of the guys ahead,” the British rider commented. 

Next to Onley, Ben Healy was also positive when it came to how he coped with the conditions: “The heat is something that I’ve really struggled with in the past but I seemed to manage it well today, but it took its toll on a lot of guys," he said.

In a stark contrast to the satisfaction of Healy and Onley, there were some riders who the Tour hadn’t been kind to on its opening stage. The most high-profile of these was Astana-  Qazaqstan's Mark Cavendish who got dropped on the steep hills as the peloton left Florence. During the race, the Manxman was being passed ice to put down his jersey, his face was a shade of deep red and his body fell ragged over his bike. When he eventually made it to the finish, Cavendish was characteristically honest in his assessment of his day.

“It was the heat, it hit a lot of people. If you've got my body type now, don't start cycling, because those days are gone. But we know what we're doing - it doesn't mean it's easy. We're not riding around talking. It was so hard - that was so hard, but we had a plan and we stuck to it. I would have liked to stay one more climb with the peloton, but I was seeing stars, it was so hard,” the 39-year-old commented, just a few moments after having an ice bath by his team bus.

Then there were riders in today’s stage who had an even tougher day than Cavendish. His teammate, Michele Gazzoli was forced to abandon with gastrointestinal issues caused by heat stroke. Jan Hirt of Soudal-Quick-Step was going to head straight to the dentist at the end of the stage due to crashing before the race began after colliding with a spectator at the morning’s sign on presentation. The Tour has a way of making and breaking people.

The opening stage was a reminder that this is a race that waits for no one. A rider like Cavendish may dream of fairytale victories but the Tour can throw anything at its protagonists, from extreme weather, to crashes ,to illness, today was just the beginning of a rollercoaster three weeks.  La Grande Boucle is as brutal as it is beautiful.

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