CANTERBURY, England (AP) – Lance Armstrong knew a thing or two about bouncing back from a crash to win a Tour de France stage.
On Sunday, Robbie McEwen – bruised and aching after tumbling over his handlebars – showed he does, too.
The Australian sprinter won the first stage of cycling’s premier event with a display of grit that can only serve the sport well as it tries to rehabilitate its image after assorted doping scandals.
McEwen was timed in 4 hours, 39 minutes, 1 second for the mostly flat 126-mile ride to Canterbury from London, where the Tour began Saturday with a time-trial prologue. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara kept the overall lead, but he is not expected to contend in the three-week race.
With 12 miles to go, McEwen was forced to brake because of riders ahead. He was hit from behind by a cyclist and sent sprawling to the road.
Pressing on despite a sore right wrist and cuts on his right knee, McEwen was escorted by his Predictor Lotto teammates through the final yards.
“This is definitely one of the best ever,” McEwen said. “After the crash, I hurt myself – hurt my wrist – but the boys brought me back. I still can’t believe I won this stage.”
“The first thing I thought was that I had broken my wrist,” he added. “I couldn’t feel anything.”
Then the pangs began.
“It’s worth that pain to have a stage win in the Tour de France,” he said.
The perseverance recalled Armstrong’s effort in the Pyrenees in 2003. He tumbled to the ground when his handlebars caught a fan’s bag, got back up and rode like a man possessed to win the stage. It was a turning point for the fifth of Armstrong’s record seven consecutive Tour victories.
This was the 12th stage victory on the Tour for McEwen, who was followed by Thor Hushovd of Norway in second place and Tom Boonen of Belgium in third.
McEwen tied Germany’s Erik Zabel for the most stage victories among current riders. But they’re well short of the career mark of 34 by Eddy Merckx. Armstrong won 22.
Cancellara, who earned the yellow jersey by winning the prologue, has an overall time of 4:47:51. Germany’s Andreas Kloeden, runner-up to Armstrong in the 2004 Tour, is second overall, 13 seconds back. He is followed by Britain’s David Millar, who is 21 seconds behind Cancellara.
The Tour’s mostly flat early stages are jostling affairs prone to crashes. The pack typically holds together, setting up a dash to the finish. Favorites tend to try to stay out of trouble.
This year, the expected contenders include Kloeden, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, Levi Leipheimer of the U.S., Cadel Evans of Australia and Alejandro Valverde of Spain. All are within 40 seconds of Cancellara.
Eduardo Gonzalo Ramirez of Spain became the first cyclist to drop out after injuring his shoulder in one of at least three crashes during the day.
The Tour crosses the English Channel and returns home Monday for the second stage, a 105-mile course from coastal Dunkirk in France to Ghent, Belgium.
Cycling does not have the same hold in Britain as it does in France. But spectators turned out en masse for the Tour’s first start in London, with up to 1 million people packing the city’s streets Saturday. On Sunday, tens of thousands lined the route, waving Union Jack flags while brass bands blared jolly tunes. London Mayor Ken Livingstone waved the flag for a ceremonial start on Tower Bridge.
The flavor was distinctively British, with some fans sitting in roadside armchairs with potato chips and pints of warm beer to see a race more often associated with wine and cheese picnics in France.
“It’s been amazing. There are flags and my name painted (on the road),” said Millar, one of five British riders in the race. “It’s nice to hear ‘David’ being shouted with an English accent and not ‘Dav-eed’, ‘Dav-eed.”‘