Belfast Telegraph

Billy on the Box: Elbow for Cav and Sagan on his bike as the Tour thrills

By Billy Weir

The Tour de France is a wonderful but weird beast. It starts gently, has three weeks of hell and ends up with a gentle meander around Paris with men in very tight shorts, quaffing champagne and free-wheeling to the finish.

On Saturday, we got underway in Dusseldorf and I know what you're thinking - that isn't in France. You would be spot on and, I'll be honest, I hadn't given the German city any thought since it was the setting for the first series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet when my bicycle of choice was a Raleigh Grifter.

This was not a bike for a grand tour as it weighed about the same as Luxembourg, which would have been handy as that's where we were headed, albeit with a detour through Belgium as it took us three days to get to France.

You have a choice of guides for this tour, Eurosport and ITV4, and this can lead to its own problems as the latter is presented by Gary Imlach, a man known to those of us who grew up around the time of the adventures of Oz, Barry, Neville et al in Dusseldorf while recovering from a ride to the shop on your Grifter.

Around the same time, Imlach was one of the early faces of American Football on Channel Four and Eurosport has gone outside cycling too for their lead man, with triple jumper extraordinaire, as they say in the French Quarter of Dusseldorf, Jonathan Edwards the man in the saddle.

He welcomed us like a man who knows he's very lucky to be there and was joined by two men probably thinking the same.

"I've got two men alongside me who have been there and done it on the Tour and got the jerseys. Greg LeMond, three yellow jerseys, and Sean Kelly, four green jerseys," he told us and, let's be honest, with a name like theirs it's no real surprise their jumpers are yellow and green.

This is a big deal for Eurosport and they throw an awful lot at it, big screens with men standing beside them talking, spokesmen if you like (I'll get my jersey…), including The Coach, or Brian Smith, whose expert view was that 'it's going to be very exciting and unpredictable.' Thanks coach.

There is/was (this will be clarified later) the #AskSagan spot where people could tweet in questions for Slovakian racer Peter Sagan, who is a bit of a character, but nothing compared to the main man, commentator Carlton Kirby, who gave us some more information about our host city.

"This is Dusseldorf, it is the home of Kraftwerk, look it up, it's an electronic band from the Seventies, when they first came to prominence," he said as we raced around the streets of the city for the 14km time trial. We should really have been on the autobahn.

The weather wasn't good for this opening stage of the Tour de France (a song by Kraftwerk too, kids), lashing rain making the streets more slippery than a bratwurst covered in sauerkraut before we focused in on Sagan warming up with Eye of the Tiger blasting out beside him.

Despite many riders taking a tumble, Sagan was a survivor on this occasion but the weather was wreaking havoc with the cameras and the clocks before suddenly, from out of nowhere, Welshman Geraint Thomas crossed the line to set the fastest time.

Home favourite Andre Greipel did his best to catch up, Kirby revealing that 'he always looks mean on a bike, he's got the sort of face that could scare crows' but he was left trailing in the wake of Thomas.

And by the end of day four Thomas was still in the lead, but things had become a little more fractious, or fractured, since we left Dusseldorf.

The sprint finish to the end was momentarily interrupted by Thomas and some of his chums having an impromptu game of cycling Twister as the peloton let the fast finishers have their fun.

Imlach had earlier marvelled at how Sagan had won in Luxembourg the previous day despite a mishap with his pedals.

"Any cyclist who has ever pulled their foot out when the traffic lights change and does a one-legged tap dance to try and maintain balance and dignity could only have marvelled at Peter Sagan," he said, little knowing what was to come.

The race for the line saw Sagan veer into the path of Mark Cavendish, helpfully elbowing the Manxman who clattered into a barrier and was then run over as all hell broke loose.

Each time his injury worsened the punishment on Sagan did likewise and once Cavendish was out, so was he, disqualified and making the #AskSagan section on Eurosport a tricky one.

"From foot out of the pedal one day, to out of the race the next," concluded Imlach.

At this rate of going, there will be one man on a Grifter with lycra shorts tested to the max struggling up the Champs-Elysses in three weeks time.

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