SAINTE-MARIE-DU-MONT, France (AP) — Minutes after pulling on the yellow jersey for the first time in his award-filled career, Mark Cavendish walked over to the Utah Beach Peace Monument and placed a white rose to commemorate the Allied landings in Normandy that took place there more than 70 years ago.
It was a memorable moment that crowned a day full of emotions for the British cyclist, who won a sprint at the end of the crash-affected opening stage of the Tour de France and took the overall lead on Saturday.
It was Cavendish’s 27th stage win in the French classic — third on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx (34) and Bernard Hinault (28) — but he had never won the opening leg, which is often a time trial.
Cavendish has already worn the leader’s jerseys at the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta.
“It’s going be a special day tomorrow to ride a stage in yellow,” Cavendish said. “There was no better place to achieve this than Utah Beach where soldiers died for us.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to remember and respect not just those that fought and died on D-Day but fought and died across all the wars and brought freedom to the Western world,” he added.
After the stage, Cavendish joined a specially invited group of American, Canadian, French, Belgian and German riders for a ceremony at the Peace Monument.
German rival Marcel Kittel and Slovakian Peter Sagan finished second and third, respectively, in the 188-kilometer (117-mile) picturesque stage, which began at Mont-Saint-Michel, a World Heritage Benedictine abbey perched on a rock off the Normandy coast.
Two years ago, Cavendish was the overwhelming favorite to win the opening stage and take yellow when the Tour opened on his home roads in England. But he crashed during the sprint, separated his right shoulder, and had to withdraw from the race.
Once dominant, Cavendish has also struggled to keep up with rivals like Kittel and Andre Greipel in recent years. The 31-year-old joined South African team Dimension Data for this season after shoulder surgery in September.
“Ever since 2008 it’s been the end of me. I guess that’s just how it is — something to talk about,” Cavendish said. “I would stay home if I didn’t think I could win.”
Cavendish was behind Sagan and Kittel entering the final 150 meters, but Kittel went around Sagan on the left and Cavendish slipped by on the right and easily surged in front.
Pushed by a strong tail wind of up to 70 kph (43 mph), the leaders required slightly more than four hours to reach the finish.
Two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador crashed midway through the stage and several riders were involved in an ugly high-speed crash on the final straight.
Contador hit a traffic curb while coming around a right turn. The Spaniard came away with some serious abrasions and had his jersey ripped on his back and right shoulder, but he was quickly helped back to the peloton by his Tinkoff teammates.
“I’m bruised all down along my right side from my ankle up but at least I don’t have to go home,” Contador said. “Hopefully I can get through the coming days and recover before the mountains.”
Defending champion Chris Froome and the other overall favorites finished safely in the main pack.
In the overall standings, Cavendish leads Kittel by four seconds with Sagan six seconds behind, courtesy of time bonuses.
Cavendish has won virtually everything there is to win for a sprinter in cycling, including gold medals at both the road world championships and the track worlds.
“Cav,” as he is known, will be aiming to tick off one final box when he aims for gold on the track at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The opening-day route also passed through Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where American paratrooper John Steele dangled from a clock tower after his parachute got caught during the invasion, and survived. The town is now home to the Airborne Museum.
The stage included two mild Category 4 climbs in the opening 40 kilometers (25 miles), but was otherwise a mostly flat and rolling route along the English Channel coast.
The Tour remains in Normandy for Stage 2 Sunday, a slightly more challenging 183-kilometer (114-mile) leg from Saint-Lo to Cherbourg-En-Cotentin.