Cavendish crashes, KIttel wins first Tour de France stage

HARROGATE, England — Mark Cavendish went down in a late crash. Marcel Kittel’s hands went up in victory. And British royals who turned out for the Tour de France debut in England witnessed new signs of a changing of the guard among two of the world’s top sprinters.

For many British fans, with cycling’s greatest race making a rare start in England on Saturday, Stage 1 wasn’t supposed to end this way: They wanted British speedster Cavendish to get his first race leader’s yellow jersey and 26th career Tour stage win after the 190.5-kilometer (118-mile) ride through Yorkshire countryside.

But with the pack swelling in intensity and his rivals up front as the finish neared, Cavendish leaned his head to his left into Australia’s Simon Gerrans, and their bikes tumbled to the ground — with the Briton coming down hard.

Germany’s Kittel then made it look easy by dusting three other rivals at the finish. Cavendish got up gingerly and cruised across, cradling his right arm, and got into an ambulance. Tests showed a separated right shoulder. His team said it’ll be decided Sunday morning if Cavendish rides in Stage 2 from York to Sheffield.

Contrite despite the pain, Cavendish said he was “gutted” about the crash.

“It was my fault. I’ll personally apologize to Simon Gerrans as soon as I get the chance. In reality, I tried to find a gap that wasn’t really there. I wanted to win today,” he said in a statement. “Sorry to all the fans that came out to support — it was truly incredible.”

The sprint specialist from the Isle of Man had a lot riding on this stage: His mother is from Harrogate. He had said winning Saturday was one of his key goals this year. And he had a bit to prove: Kittel, a 26-year-old rising star in sprinting, won four Tour stages last year, to Cavendish’s two. Many Britons wanted him to win gold in the road race at the London Olympics, but that quest also ended in disappointment.

Cavendish surely would have wanted to be in Kittel’s pedal-clip shoes when Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, handed the yellow jersey to the German, and she, husband Prince William and Prince Harry flanked him, clapping, on the winner’s podium in Harrogate.

“Before the stage, I said it was one goal, maybe, to be with Kate on the podium — and also, of course, Harry and William,” said Kittel, who also won Stage 1 at last year’s Tour. “It was not a goal for me to beat Mark Cavendish … in his home country.”

“It’s not nice to have Mark crash. Nobody wants that,” he added.

Early signs that Britain’s sprint king may be losing his crown came at last year’s Tour, when Kittel beat him in similar circumstances. Doing it at two Tours in a row suggests that he really does have Cavendish’s number — although there are still plenty of chances at this Tour for the 28-year-old Briton to come back, if healthy.

Cavendish still has 116 total career victories, to 60 for Kittel, according to the Tour’s Web site.

As the sprinters battled it out Saturday, the two favorites for victory in the three-week race, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, finished safely in the trailing pack that clocked the same time as Kittel.

A second German excelled too: Veteran Jens Voigt took the polka-dot jersey as the race’s best climber, after getting out early on a three-man breakaway that first cleared three low-grade hills, including Buttertubs pass. At 42, the Trek rider is the oldest competitor this year: This is his 17th Tour, equaling the record.

The nervous first day included other mishaps. Untold tens of thousands of fans turned out in such big numbers that a train service shuttle between the start and finish towns was crammed, and some had to wait for 90 minutes or even longer to get aboard — or gave up altogether.

Yorkshire, the largest county in England, has paid richly for the right to host the Tour. The peloton sped by abbeys in ruins and sights like 14th century Bolton Castle, near Leyburn, before finishing in Harrogate, known for its spas.

In recent years, Britain has been cycling-crazed: Prime Minister David Cameron was in the crowd on Saturday too. England hosts the first three stages of this 101st Tour before riders enter France on Tuesday. In all, the 198 riders are to cover 3,664 kilometers (2,277 miles) of road before the July 27 finish in Paris.

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