Valverde wins 1st Tour de France stage |

Valverde wins 1st Tour de France stage

Jamey Keaten
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alejandro Valverde of Spain reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the first stage and take the overall leader's yellow jersey of the Tour de France cycling race between Brest and Plumelec, western France, Saturday July 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

PLUMELEC, France ” Alejandro Valverde of Spain won the first stage of the Tour de France on Saturday with a ride through flat country, the opening of a three-week race trying to restore its luster after years of doping scandals.

Valverde broke away from the pack at the end of the 123-mile leg from Brest to Plumelec and now has the distinction of wearing the leader’s yellow jersey.

Valverde, who rides for the Caisse d’Epargne team and won the Dauphine Libere warmup race last month, was followed by Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Jerome Pineau of France.

“I’ve achieved two of my objectives: to win a stage and to wear the yellow jersey,” Valverde said. “That’s done today. … It gives me peace of mind for the rest of the race.”

Valverde is among the favorites to capture the cycling showcase of more than 2,175 miles, as are Australia’s Cadel Evans and Russia’s Denis Menchov.

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Valverde finished the course in 4 hours, 36 minutes, 7 seconds. Evans was sixth, a second back, while Menchov was 26th, seven seconds behind the leader. Most of the other favorites were all within seven seconds of Valverde.

The Tour’s 95th edition, which ends July 27 in the French capital, got off to an unsettling start. Valverde said his strategy was to avoid the crashes that often occur in the flat, early stages. The victory gives him a boost before the race’s first big challenge ” the Stage 4 individual time trial, where Valverde could struggle.

One of the day’s four crashes took down Juan Mauricio Soler, the Colombian who was the Tour’s best climber last year. He got back up, his hip and elbow bloodied and jersey torn, and struggled across the finish line 3:04 behind Valverde. Soler was set to have X-rays on his left wrist, the race medical team said.

France’s Herve Duclos-Lassalle became the first rider to abandon the race. The Cofidis cyclist’s debut Tour ended when he tumbled to the ground and broke his wrist after a rider’s refreshment bag got stuck in his front-wheel spokes.

This is the second straight year the race has begun without a defending champion. The Astana team of Spain’s Alberto Contador was banned by organizers after doping infractions by other riders. Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone.

Other top names out this year are Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov, who was removed from the Tour last year for a positive test for a blood transfusion, and Astana rider Levi Leipheimer.

Ivan Basso, the 2006 Giro d’Italia winner and twice a top-three Tour finisher, is also absent. The Italian is serving the last months of a two-year ban after acknowledging involvement in a Spanish blood-doping investigation.

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