Serbia (AP)

Bardet wins hot and hilly opening Tour de France stage in Italy while Cavendish struggles

Bardet wins hot and hilly opening Tour de France stage in Italy while Cavendish struggles

RIMINI, Italy (AP) — Two-time podium finisher Romain Bardet won the opening stage of the Tour de France and claimed the yellow jersey for the first time on Saturday.

Combined with severe heat, one of the most challenging opening legs in recent memory created problems for Mark Cavendish and many other riders as cycling’s biggest race began in Italy for the first time.

Tadej Pogacar, who is aiming to follow up his Giro d’Italia title with a third Tour trophy, and two-time defending champion Jonas Vingegaard both finished safely in the main pack, though.

Vingegaard’s performance was especially encouraging, considering he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks in April following a high-speed crash in the Tour of the Basque Country. He sustained a broken collarbone and ribs and a collapsed lung and had not raced since.

Bardet, the Frenchman who finished second in 2016 and third in 2017 and is racing his last Tour, attacked with slightly more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) to go. He caught up with his DSM-Firmenich PostNL teammate Frank van den Broek, who was in an early breakaway, and the pair just barely held off the onrushing peloton in the flat finish.

Bardet surged ahead of his teammate at the line and pointed to him to say, “Thank you.”

“It’s crazy. I didn’t know the course particularly well but Frank was really, really strong out in front and then I felt that I had nothing to lose,” Bardet said of his rookie teammate, who was riding his first ever Tour stage. “He really deserves this win just as much as me, because he did all of the work.”

It was Bardet’s fourth career stage win in the Tour, and first since 2017. He had never worn the yellow jersey before.

“The yellow jersey was the last goal of my career. But, to be honest, I had come to terms with it,” said Bardet, who had announced he will retire this year. “I’ve been really close before. I’ve been within touching distance. I’ve just never been able to do it. Today, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen but I had a great teammate with me.”

The 206-kilometer (128-mile) route from Florence to the Adriatic coastal resort of Rimini featured seven categorized climbs and more than 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) of ascending. The temperature soared to 36 degrees (97 F).

Cavendish vomited twice and dropped far behind on the very first climb, putting at risk his pursuit of breaking a tie with Eddy Merckx for the most career stage wins in the Tour. But he just finished within the time limit. Cavendish and Merckx have 34 wins each.

World champion Mathieu Van der Poel was dropped midway through the stage when Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates squad started accelerating at the front of the peloton up the fourth climb of the day.

The opening four stages are in Italy, marking the first time in the 121-year history of the Tour that the race has begun in France’s southern neighbor.

Bardet and Van den Broek finished with the same time of slightly more than five hours.

Wout van Aert won a sprint for third, crossing five seconds behind, and Pogacar crossed fourth with the same time.

“It was incredibly hot, and then we had the wind in our faces, so it was a really extraordinary scenario that we were taking on,” Bardet said.

In the overall standings, Bardet leads Van den Broek by four seconds with Van Aert 11 seconds back in third. Pogacar stands fourth, 15 seconds back — the same gap as Vingegaard.

There was an early mishap for Czech rider Jan Hirt, who broke three teeth when he collided with a spectator’s backpack in the neutral zone before the actual start of the stage. A key support rider for Remco Evenepoel at Soudal-Quick Step, Hirt still managed to complete the stage.

Stage 2 on Sunday is also hilly, following a 199-kilometer (124-mile) route from Cesenatico to Bologna. The stage is dedicated to 1998 Tour champion Marco Pantani, who was from Cesenatico, and will pass by a museum dedicated to the Italian rider, who died in 2004.

Because of a clash with the Olympics, the Tour will finish in Nice on July 21, five days before the Paris Games open.

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AP cycling: https://apnews.com/hub/cycling

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