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Begium’s Gilbert takes early lead at Tour de France

Tour de France leader Philippe Gilbert of Belgium grimaces as he sprints toward the finish line. (Associated Press)
Tour de France leader Philippe Gilbert of Belgium grimaces as he sprints toward the finish line. (Associated Press)

MONT DES ALOUETTES, France – Philippe Gilbert won the first stage of the Tour de France on Saturday to take the yellow jersey, while defending champion Alberto Contador lost more than a minute because of a late crash.

The Belgian rider, who dazzled fans by winning three classics races in April, sped ahead from the pack in the final several hundred yards and kissed his jersey as he crossed the line.

“It was the last 500 meters, I had a lead … (and) I went for it,” Gilbert said. “It was an extreme effort and I was able to take advantage.”

Gilbert, who has notched 13 victories between race and stage wins this year, had been a favorite to win the opening stage.

He clocked 4 hours, 41 minutes, 31 seconds for the sun-baked 119-mile ride from La Barre-de-Monts to Mont des Alouettes in the western Vendee region.

Two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia was second, 3 seconds back – making him the best performer among the expected title contenders. Thor Hushovd of Norway was third, 6 seconds off the pace.

The 2,131-mile race ends July 24 on Paris’ Champs-Elysees. It’s shaping up as a battle among riders such as Contador and last year’s runner-up, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. Three-time champion Contador, a Spaniard, beat Schleck by 39 seconds last year.

They both ran into trouble toward the end of the first stage.

With about 5.5 miles left, Astana rider Maxim Iglinskiy knocked shoulders with a fan on the roadside, causing a mass crash that delayed Contador and split the pack. About 40 riders stayed in front. The Spaniard finished 1:20 after Gilbert and is 82nd overall.

Schleck too got slowed down by another crash near the end, and finished the stage in 39th place. But according to race rules about crashes within last three kilometers, he was credited with the same time as the pack he was in – 6 seconds behind Gilbert – and placed 33rd overall.

Among other possible title contenders, Belgium’s Jurgen Van den Broeck is fifth overall, Levi Leipheimer of the United States is 38th, and Briton Bradley Wiggins trails in 50th place – all 6 seconds behind the Belgian stage winner.

Five crashes took down riders in the nervous debut stage.

Belgium’s Jelle Vanendert paid for his courtesy. Near the front of the main pack around the 39-mile mark, the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider held out his left arm to warn those behind him of a roadway median – a gesture that caused him to lose control of his bike.

He tumbled to the ground with his helmet bouncing and his sunglasses skidding away, while several others fell in his wake. All of those involved returned to the race.

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