(Bilbao) Basque cycling fervor sometimes has its perverse effects. Michael Woods paid the price in the first stage of the Tour de France, where he finished fifth, 12 seconds behind twins Adam and Simon Yates, on Saturday afternoon in Bilbao.

“It didn’t help that the fans were so good… There were so many people you couldn’t pass.” If a guy explodes, the hole is made. »

In this case, it was Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step), the main French candidate for the first yellow jersey, who exploded.

In fact, he imploded, forgive the titanic analogy, suffocated by the pace imposed by eventual winner Adam Yates (UAE) in the aptly named Pike’s Hill.

As expected, the Euskadun, Ikurrina flag in hand, invaded this two-kilometre wall, the top of which is located 10 km from the wire in Bilbao.

Behind Yates, his teammate Tadej Pogačar and defending champion Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), Alaphippe therefore gave up a very small gap, quickly filled by his compatriots David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and surprise guest Victor Lafay (Cofidis ), respectively 10th and 6th at the finish.

A little behind, Woods had to work to try to make the connection through the cheering crowd. In vain. “I had to run into a follower to just get around Alaphilippe. It was really very complicated. »

His face still smeared with sweat and dust, the Israel-Premier Tech (IPT) cyclist grinded on the simulator, which he climbed on as soon as he arrived at the bus.

Seconds earlier, he had (almost) taken pity on the sweaty La Presse journalist chasing him, slowing down to give his result: “I think I finished fifth. »

The information was quickly confirmed by the team’s public relations officer. Woods was not jubilant, aware that he had just missed a unique opportunity to put on the yellow jersey. But he was far from blaming the Basques, on the contrary.

The firecracker was lit by Pogačar’s UAE, while the Ottawa cyclist was around 30th.

“Like I said before the stage, if he loses 10 seconds before the hill, it’s almost over with the leaders,” said Paulo Saldanha, Woods’ personal trainer and performance director at IPT.

The Israeli-Canadian formation was nevertheless satisfied with the outcome of the 184 km event, conducted at full speed in the countryside around Bilbao. His New Zealand joker Corbin Strong, a 23-year-old rookie, finished 15th (33s) by settling the second group sprint. Belgian Dylan Teuns was ranked 18th.

Woods, who has had his share of crashes during his career, mostly got away unscathed at the end of this always very nervous inaugural stage. It also meant the end for the Spaniard Enric Mas (Movistar) and the Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz (EF), two major candidates for the final podium, who crashed on the asphalt in a descent 25 km from the arrival.

“I’m quite satisfied,” confirmed Woods, who finished 12 seconds behind Adam Yates, the first yellow jersey of this 110th Tour de France. “Obviously winning was the goal today, but I didn’t want to battle too hard with my fear of falling, which meant I gave up a few positions. »

The former middle-distance runner highlighted the contribution of his Quebec teammates Hugo Houle and Guillaume Boivin, who played their part until the penultimate hill, about thirty kilometers from Bilbao, before getting up.

“It’s a fast-paced stage,” said Houle, 90th at 9:42. On the first day, everyone is still nervous. The goal was to keep Mike in front. I was one of the first to work to place it until the penultimate climb. The legs were good and I tried to follow, but it was going a little too fast and I quietly finished my job. »

During this humid and warmer than expected day, Boivin was also pleased that his friend Woods had “stayed away from trouble”.

“Personally, I felt good. With more than 3000 m of elevation, it was still difficult, with pressure on the pedals all day. We will hope to continue like this, and perhaps do better in the next steps. »

Boivin was the last to rush into the coach, which headed for Vitoria-Gasteiz, an hour to the south, where the second stage will start on Sunday. The Jaizkibel, the famous climb of the Clasica San Sebastian, will be climbed about fifteen kilometers from the finish. The Basques must already be returned.