The first crashes we saw involved Panaria's Sergio Previtali and Motorola's Frankie Andreu. Both got backon the bunch. A bit later the traditional Colombian sacrifice was made to the Gods of the early stages. Just as we didn't get to see Fabio Parra in the mountains a few years back because he crashed out in an early stage, so Kelme's Hernan Buenahora was this year's first abandon. Sad, he was 10th last year. We saw him nursing an obviously very painful thigh, but he still had the presence of mind to pull his bike out of the middle of a very narrow road. Before he could do this, two incredibly skilful riders (they continue to amaze) actually bunny-hopped over the back wheel as it lay there). In the ricochet from this crash Leonardo Piepoli and Cristian Salvato (Roslotto) also went down.
With this chaos on their minds, Banesto went to the front of the bunch and pulled it into shape, with Miguel Indurain up there out of harm's way. Dutch Teletekst says Danny Nelissen (Rabobank) attacked 20km out; I'd put it further in from the TV coverage. Anyway at 10km out he had about 20 secs. Behind... more crashes. Thierry Marie (Agrigel) was hopping about after ramming a central reservation. And on the right of the road Luc Leblanc was lying on his back. On the left Djamolidin Abdujaparov was also floored -- he rode in with torn shorts and a blood-soaked bandage on his left hand.
With Nelissen pulled back, the pace was hectic, with Saeco especially pulling hard on the front. At 3km from the finish the first 37 were split clear of the rest of the peloton, with the rest stretched over a single line over several hundred metres. After nearly being shoved off the road by Cipollini, Ferderic Moncassin (GAN) somehow got through to win -- Cipo crossed the line third but was demoted to 37th for dangerous riding. A big loser in the split was green jersey (for his second place in the Prologue) Chris Boardman. He at least passed the green jersey to team-mate Moncassin, but lost what would have been a useful 15secs by not being in the first group when the split came.
Moncassin, who had never won a Tour stage before, was blocked by Italian Mario Cipollini and narrowly avoided colliding into Dutchman Jeroen Blijlevens as a pack of riders fought out the final few hundred metres.
The 27-year-old from Toulouse recovered to cross the line ahead of Blijlevens and Cipollini, but the Italian was later relegated for sprinting ``irregularly.''
Czech Jan Svorada, who came fourth, was awarded third place and Cipollini placed 37th and last of the leading group.
``It's the greatest win of my career,'' said Moncassin, who was seventh with 300 metres remaining in the day's flat, 209-km ride around the Dutch city of Den Bosch. ``Somebody did block me but I didn't see who it was,'' he added.
The riders made a slow start but the stage came to life in the last hour as rain started to fall.
World amateur champion Danny Nelissen of the Netherlands, eager to please his home fans before the Tour goes into France on Monday, broke away some 15 kilometres from the line and opened a 20-second lead but was soon reined in.
The race favourites, including Spaniard Miguel Indurain, bidding for a record sixth Tour win, did not take part in the big sprint, coming home safely within the pack.
Switzerland's Alex Zuelle, regarded as the man most capable of depriving mighty Indurain, retained the race leader's yellow jersey he earned by winning Saturday's rain-soaked prologue.
Briton Chris Boardman, Moncassin's team mate in the Gan stable, ended 55th, 15 seconds back, and lost the green jersey he had won by taking second place in the prologue.
``I like the colour but it will be hard to keep it,'' Boardman had predicted before the start.
``This is a three-week race, not one of 10 minutes, and I'm here to complete the distance and get the experience I need,'' added the pursuit Olympic champion.
The race, on narrow roads lined by huge crowds, was marred by several crashes, one of which caused the withdrawal of Hernan Buenahora.
The Colombian mountain specialist fell heavily 45 kilometres from the end and retired with a fractured left hand.
Moncassin thought he had won the green jersey but Cipollini's relegation meant it went to Svorada, who had won the first of the day's three intermediate sprints.
Moncassin, who moved up from 23rd to fourth in the overall standings, said he would go for Zuelle's yellow jersey in the next few days.
``I'd love to have it on, even if it's just for one day,'' he said. ``Nothing could make me happier.''
Moncassin and his fellow sprinters, who have few opportunities to shine in this year's race, will go for more glory in Monday's second stage over 247.5 kms to Wasquehal in northern France.
Moncassin, 27, managed to outwit Cipollini, coming back with a late run to overpower the Italian, who was also beaten into third by Blijlevens. "It's the greatest victory of my career. I thought I had no chance when Cipollini came in on me, but I had enough time to regather and beat him to the line," said a delighted Moncassin, racing in only his third Tour de France.
Zulle finished in the lead group with Boardman and Miguel Indurain in another group further back. The stage, the fourth time that the Tour de France had visited the Netherlands, was marred by several crashes. The worst victim was Colombian Hernan Buenahora, awarded the most attacking cyclist of last year's Tour. He had to be taken to hospital after he crashed heavily late in the stage.
But the leader's shirt was taken from him one day later, and the Swiss pulled out of the race on team orders later in the tour. Zulle, son of a Dutch mother, has always figured in the list of possible challengers but there had been more of a look of 'I could have been a contender' until his runner-up spot last year.
In the 1995 Tour, Zulle produced a superb ride on the eighth stage up to La Plagne, at one point he held a five minute lead over the peloton and the possibility of taking the overall lead. He tackled the huge climbs of Des Saisies and Cormet de Roselend alone, but Indurain turned on the power on the final climb to La Plagne and reduced the gap to two minutes.
The Spanish five-times Tour winner has no hesistation when asked to cite his greatest rival. "Zulle is undoubtedly the most dangerous. He is courageous and an excellent all-round cyclist," said Indurain. "He was on the podium last year and once you have a taste of that you always think that next year will be your victory," he added.
The bespectacled Zulle, aiming to become the first Swiss winner of the Tour since Ferdi Kubler and Hugo Koblet won in 1950 and 1951, is a calm personable character -- on first meeting, more the professor than the top class cyclist. It is a tribute to the Once team that two cyclists of such quality as Zulle and France's great hope Laurent Jalabert can compete and live together without there being the slightest hint of tension or jealousy. The relaxed, congenial atmosphere of the team also pays dividends in the race -- Zulle, Jalabert and Spaniard Melchior Mauri finished in the top 10 overall last year.
Although Zulle's physical prowess has never been called into question, there were lingering doubts over his mental capacity to stay the distance and battle it out with the master tactician from Navarre, Miguel Indurain. Indurain is reknowned for his ability to psychologically destroy his main opponents such as Swiss rider Tony Rominger and double World Champion Gianni Bugno of Italy.
If Zulle can hold his own in the mountains, however, and translate his form over the short time-trial distance of the prologue to the longer time-trials, where the Spanish champion has built his base for winning the Tour, then Indurain's prophecy may well come back to haunt him.
Moncassin won his first Tour stage by beating the best sprinters in the world despite an obvious lack of support and Cipollini's close-up tactics. The TVM, SAECO and TELEKOM teams were the most effective in taking their sprinters (Blijlevens, Cipollini, Riis and Zabel) to the final sprint, but Moncassin managed to overcome the opposition, including Cipollini, who tried to close him in, causing him to touch Blijlevens's wheel.
But Moncassin was not going to comment on this incident. "It reassures me as to my sprinting qualities. It's the most beautiful win in my career. To beat the best sprinters in the world in this group sprint is exceptional for me," he simply said.
Cipollini was relegated to 37th place for this irregularity, losing third place to Jan Svoroda, taking the best sprinter jersey from the hands of Moncassin and putting it in the PANARIA rider's. Not that Svoroda didn't deserve it. He dominated the stage's three bonus sprints, compromised his chances of winning the stage in one of the stages' many falls and came back for the final sprint.
Rominger (nine seconds), Virenque (11 seconds), Gotti and Boardman (15 seconds) weren't careful enough and lost a little time, while Zulle, Indurain and Jalabert did the contrary and managed to stay atop the overall standings.
As expected, the Dutch rode aggressively, Blijlevens finishing second, in front of Cipollini, who lost third place to Svorada. Earlier, the Dutch team RABOBANK's Danny Nelissen had tried to prepare the finish for his sprinter, Leon Van Bon, by breaking away 18 kilometers from the finish, built up a 23-second gap thanks to the presence of three center divider strips just after his attack, but the field came back five kilometers before the finish.
The stage was animated for these 18 kilometers but atypically slow overall (first hour's average was 40 k.p.h., second hour's 36.2, third hour's 38). It was marked by interruptions in the pace of the field, which had to wait for riders involved in numerous falls, the first one occurring as early as km 20.
The only other breakaway in the race had happened earlier, just after the third bonus sprint, 70 kilometers before the finish line. Ex-French champion and Agrigel-la-Creuse team leader Jacky Durand started things up, followed by a rider from the other small French team, Aubervilliers 93, Cyril Saugrain, but to no avail.
The wind, many narrowings, center divider strips and speed bumps caused five falls in all, and the withdrawal of KELME's Hernan Buenahora (40 kilometers before from the finish). The most spectacular of those falls involved Luc Leblanc, Thierry Marie and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov at km 171. Leblanc, who stayed on the ground for quite some time, was able to come back up to the field, but Abdoujaparov and Marie lost a lot of time, Marie finishing the stage nine minutes and 45 seconds behind.