PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica (AP) — Riders set out Saturday on stage one of the 100th Tour de France with British sprinter Mark Cavendish among the favorites to take the first yellow jersey and race favorite Chris Froome overcoming an early technical problem.
Starting from the harbor town of Porto Vecchio, the flat 132-mile stage first took riders inland before snaking along the Corsican coast to finish in Bastia. The race has usually started with a short prologue stage where riders raced against the clock. But in a break with tradition, this year's opener favors sprinters like Cavendish and rival Peter Sagan of Slovakia.
With defending champion Bradley Wiggins not competing, Froome of Britain and Spaniard Alberto Contador start as the main favorites for the three-week, 2,115-mile race. Froome, the most highly regarded climber in the Tour, stopped to get a new rear wheel after a mechanical incident about 3 miles into the race. He then stopped for a second time to get a new bike shortly after before his Sky teammates helped him rejoin the main pack.
It is the first Tour since disgraced former cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven straight Tour titles from 1999 to 2005 for doping. Armstrong still managed to hog the headlines on the eve of the race, though, infuriating riders both past and present by talking at length in a newspaper interview about doping in the sport and sparking a media frenzy that organizers could have done without as they desperately try to turn the page on doping and restore credibility and trust.
In answering questions from Le Monde, a newspaper he scorned when he was still competing, Armstrong said it was impossible to win the Tour during his era without doping, echoing what he already told U.S. television talk show host Oprah Winfrey in January when he finally confessed to years of drug cheating after denying it for so long.
Before the stage started, French Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron met with a delegation of riders unhappy about pre-race media reports that they thought focused too heavily on doping stories. German veteran Jens Voigt, French riders Samuel Dumoulin and Jeremy Roy and Spaniard Luis Angel Mate spoke to her for about 30 minutes.
"I don't want to see this witch hunt. The Tour de France is not just about doping and doping isn't just at the Tour de France," Fourneyron said. "(Riders) have the feeling a media lynching is going on about old stories (from) this dark period of cycling, and they have the feeling of being placed on the same level."
Interviewed by French television before the stage, Froome said cycling is a much different sport than when Armstrong was around. "That was Armstrong's time. Cycling has already changed 100 percent, as we saw last year with Bradley. I am sure that we won without doping and without chemicals," said Froome, who was speaking in French. "That is now for us to demonstrate — that cycling has changed."
Earlier this week, French media reported that a Senate investigation into the effectiveness of doping controls pieced together evidence that a urine sample provided by long-beloved French rider Laurent Jalabert contained EPO, cycling's designer drug, at the Tour of 1998.
Meanwhile, two-time champion Contador returns to the race following a doping ban that saw him stripped of his 2010 title. He has always denied doping. It is the first time since 1966 that the first stage has been tailor-made for sprinters, with the prologue introduced to the race in '67.
With Wiggins pulling out about a month before the race because of a knee injury, Froome is the odds-on favorite to become the second Briton to win the showcase race. The 28-year-old has had a great run-up to the Tour, winning four of five races he started.