PLUMELEC, France —Alejandro Valverde is determined to contend for the Tour de France title. And the Tour de France is determined to run a clean race.
The Spaniard won the opening stage in a final sprint Saturday as cycling’s three-week showcase took a first step in trying to get beyond the doping scandals that for years have battered the race and the entire sport.
“I’ve achieved two of my objectives: to win a stage and to wear the yellow jersey,” Valverde said. “That’s done today. … It gives me peace of mind for the rest of the race.”
Valverde, fresh off winning last month’s Dauphine Libere and the Spanish championship, broke away from the pack at the end of the 123-mile leg from Brest to Plumelec.
“Valverde is just so good, that’s a perfect finish for him today,” said Britain’s David Millar of the U.S. team Garmin Chipotle. “It was good to see him take control of the race and show he’s a proper champion.”
On a windy day marked by four crashes, Valverde was followed by Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Jerome Pineau of France. The top U.S. rider was Christian Vandevelde in 18th place.
“It was a bit too windy. It was hectic. It was a really nerve-racking, dangerous day,” said George Hincapie, the Team Columbia rider who was on Lance Armstrong’s team during each of his record seven Tour victories.
The race covers more than 2,175 miles and ends in Paris on July 27, with Valverde among the favorites. He holds a razor-thin lead over other expected contenders: Australia’s Cadel Evans and Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck are one second back. Russia’s Denis Menchov and Spain’s Carlos Sastre are seven seconds behind.
“OK, Valverde won the stage, but for us it is no problem,” said Herman Frison, sporting director for Evans’ Silence-Lotto team.
Valverde, who rides for the Caisse d’Epargne, finished in 4 hours, 36 minutes, 7 seconds. His victory gives him a boost before the first big challenge — the Stage 4 individual time trial in which he could struggle.
This marks the second time Valverde has won a stage of this race. That came in his Tour debut in 2005, when he beat Armstrong in a breakaway in the Alps.
Like many cycling stars before him, Valverde isn’t free from doping’s long shadow. Italian authorities are looking into whether he was connected to the Spanish doping investigation known as Operation Puerto. Valverde has denied any involvement.
He declined to comment Saturday when asked at a news conference about his alleged links to Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish doctor at the center of the Puerto case.
The questions about doping recalled those put to Denmark’s Michael Rasmussen during the 2007 Tour. He was in the lead when he was kicked out of the race for lying about his whereabouts when he missed a pre-race doping check.
The 2007 Tour champion, Alberto Contador, is suspected of involvement in Puerto, and he has also denied any connection. Contador isn’t defending his title—his Astana team wasn’t invited because of doping scandals the last two years.
This is the second straight year the race has begun without a defending champ. American Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone.
The race got off to an unsettling start Saturday, and Valverde said his plan was to avoid the crashes that often occur in the flat, early stages.
One crash took down Juan Mauricio Soler, the Colombian who was the Tour’s best climber last year. He got back up, his hip and elbow bloodied and jersey torn, and struggled across the finish line 3:04 behind Valverde. Soler was to have X-rays on his left wrist, the race medical team said.
France’s Herve Duclos-Lassalle became the first rider to drop out. His debut Tour ended when he tumbled to the ground and broke his wrist after a rider’s refreshment bag got stuck in his front-wheel spokes.
On Sunday, riders cut across Brittany on another mostly flat stage favoring sprinters—a 102-mile route from Auray north to Saint-Brieuc along the English Channel.