HARROGATE: The 101st Tour de France rolled out of Leeds for the start of the first stage on Saturday with hundreds of thousands of fans lining the route across the Yorkshire Dales to Harrogate.
With Tour fever gripping Yorkshire and the sun out for the 190.5-km opener, Team Sky`s defending champion Chris Froome was roared off as the cream of world cycling left Leeds city centre before making their way to the official start at Harewood House.
The Red Arrows aerobatic jets trailed white, red and blue smoke as the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry performed the ceremonial launch cutting of the tape for the 21-stage, 3,664-km race that will spend three days in Britain before working its way down eastern France to the Alps.
An immediate break saw two Frenchmen, Benoit Jarrier (Bretagne Seche Environnement) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) join veteran German Jens Voigt (Trek) in a three-man break that established a three-minute lead by the 35-km mark.
Huge crowds lined the roads through picturesque market towns and rolling country lanes flanked by traditional stone walls.
The main contenders for the race, Britain`s Froome, Alberto Contador of Spain and Italian Vincenzo Nibali were all comfortably tucked into the pack.
With the first five days of this year`s Tour expected to provide some difficult challenges for the field, Team Sky chief Dave Brailsford said Saturday`s stage, which includes three categorised climbs, needed careful attention.
"Lose no time, I think that sums up the objective," he told reporters at start in Leeds. That`s the aim of the day."
He said the excitement in the city was extra special for Britain`s home team, who will be trying to shepherd Froome to the yellow jersey in Paris later this month.
"To have the Tour here is incredible for us considering where we were just a short time ago. We need to remain focused and dialled, but we will take it in and enjoy it," said Brailsford.
"Every start of the Tour is different and that`s the joy of the race. These are challenging days and heavy days and will have to be managed accordingly.
"We don`t want it flat, then anybody could win."
Froome`s fellow Briton Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is one of the favourites to win the stage and slip on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career that has brought him 25 Tour stage wins.
Sunday`s second stage is a 201-km ride between York and Sheffield with some two million spectators expected along the route.