The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
It didn’t take long to realise that last night’s Tour de France opener was going to be something special.
As the first few riders headed out on the pancake flat 13.8-kilometre course, race commentator Paul Sherwen estimated that a finish time of around 16 minutes would be hard to beat.
The reason? Because that would mean a rider completing the course at an average speed of 51.75km/h.
Jos van Emden was the ninth rider to start and when he smashed through the first time check (7.1km) in an incredible stage high time of 7:27 his average speed was 56.8km/h.
Not surprisingly the Dutchman wasn’t able to maintain that speed over the second half of the course, but his final time of 15.11 (averaging 54.79km/h) looked like a tough one to beat.
The 38th rider to start the time trial was Adelaide’s Rohan Dennis, and if any place needs some good news right now it’s South Australia.
It’s been an unbelievably sad couple of days in this part of the world. The murder of Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh has blanketed the state in grief, and the pain and sorrow at his death isn’t going to ease for a long time.
Dennis, who’s already given us some huge highlights this year with overall victory in the Tour Down Under and a brief spell as the UCI Track World One Hour Record holder, rocketed out of the start gate.
He made it to the seven-kilometre checkpoint just one second behind Van Emden’s time, with the knowledge that the current stage leader faded in the final few kilometres. Dennis pressed on, effortlessly passing Lars Bak (a three-time Danish time trial champion) and clearly feeling at home in the 35-degree heat.
Like Van Emden, Rohan Dennis couldn’t maintain his speed but still managed to put 15 seconds into the Dutchman’s time, to set an average speed of 55.45km/h, the fastest ever individual time trial at the Tour de France.
And that’s into a headwind too!
It’s a record that’s stood since 1989 when Greg LeMond averaged 54.545km/h for the dramatic Stage 21 time trial into Paris to snare the narrowest win in Tour history (eight seconds).
Dennis lived up to his pre-race comments that his whole season had revolved around preparing for this time trial and in a quick post-ride interview with SBS Tour reporter Robbie McEwen, Dennis sounded pleased with his effort.
“It was pretty smooth out there,” he said.
“It was pretty tough on the way home but I did around 16 mins in training, so I got a bonus minute.”
Now it was just a matter of waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for the remaining 160 riders to finish as well.
As SBS race commentator Matt Keenan tweeted, “It’s like watching the Brownlow Medal count and @RohanDennis didn’t play the last three rounds. #Tour de France2015″
Local boy Tom Dumolin was one major threat, a favourite of many experts and the 146th rider to start.
At the halfway point, he was just one second slower than Dennis, but he knew that the South Australian overhauled Van Emden’s time in the final kilometres. The crowd roared their local boy on, but when he entered the final 1000 metres with only a minute up his sleeve it looked like Dumolin would just fall short.
And so it proved, as he could do no better than an eight-second deficit.
Former world time trial champ Tony Martin was the next to challenge, three seconds down on Dennis at the 7.1-kilometre time check. But with two kilometres to ride he only had two minutes to play with. Result, Dennis held on by five seconds as Martin confessed to “not handling the heat very well”.
Peter Sagan, who like Rohan Dennis was considered a good outside tip, never even came close, 41 seconds in arrears.
And that left one more big name, the mighty Fabian Cancellara.
Despite still being on the recovery trail from broken vertebrae sustained in the E3 Harelbeke, the genial four time world time trial champion couldn’t be ruled out. At the halfway mark, ‘Spartacus’ looked ominous, just one second shy of Dennis, but he too faded to drift six seconds shy of the South Aussie.
Dennis wasn’t able to celebrate immediately because the likes of Chris Froome were still to ride, but no one was expecting the 2013 champion to seriously target a stage win in Utrecht.
So Rohan Dennis becomes the seventh Australian to wear yellow, after Phil Anderson, Stuart O’Grady, Bradley McGee, Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans.
Dennis is clearly a man who lets his riding do the talking, describing his achievement in just a few words.
“A perfect day. (I’m in) A little bit of shock. It’s a dream. I always wished to be in this position. It was almost surreal,” were a few of Dennis’ reactions.
Well, by now he knows it’s very real and he will be wondering whether he can hang on to his prized yellow jersey for what could be a dangerous Stage 2.
And while the destination of the first yellow jersey was a major outcome for the day, so were the performances of the major contenders: Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Tejay van Garderen.
None of them had designs on the first yellow for 2015, but none wanted to cede too much of an advantage to their rivals on the first day. In the end, it was advantage no one really, with just 19 seconds separating Van Garderen’s 15:38 from Quintana’s 15:57.
Those results were sandwiched between a couple of Aussies we thought may have done better. Luke Durbridge was 32nd at 46 seconds to Dennis, while Richie Porte was a disappointing 65th at 1:06. They clearly have team roles to play but both should’ve gone a little faster than that.
Not on the second night, though, when the duties will be about protecting the team leaders. Because unless the coastal winds blow up, not much should change on the road to Zealande in Stage 2.
But if Stage 1 is anything to go by, with a surprise winner and a new Tour record for an individual time trial, then we should expect the unexpected.