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Ben Healy dug on for a solid finish in France after his team was badly impacted by a crash with 10km to go

Ben Healy, the Irish road race champion riding for EF Education-EasyPost, was left to his own devices in the tough finale of the opening stage at Etoile de Bessèges after his team was hit by a significant crash.

Healy’s young Irish team mate, Darren Rafferty, was on the front at the time chasing down a breakaway, with the 20-year-old putting in a huge performance today in the final 25km of the race.

As Rafferty led the way, with the remains of the breakaway just seconds up the road, a touch of shoulders about 30 riders back resulted in a crash, with half the EF Education-EasyPost involved.

And that meant as the speed really ramped up towards the final 2km climb to the finish, Healy was on the back foot and fending for himself. He managed to get to within touching distance of the front just before Lidl Trek really ramped up the speed, working for Mads Pedersen.

However, when the gaps began to open at the the front of the field deep inside the final kilometre, Healy’s efforts to stay in contention began to take their toll and he slipped back a little.

Up front, French 22-year-old Axel Laurance (Alpecin-Deceuninck) hit out early in the sprint and and just managed to hold off Lidl-Trek’s Pedersen for a great victory, with Kévin Vauquelin (Arkéa-B&B Hotels).

The front of the bunch split on the final few hundred metres as the sprinters who can climb a little had too much power for the others in their wake. It meant while Healy dug deep to finish 16th, a solid result in his first race of the year, he was 15 seconds back.

Rafferty, who was on the very front of the bunch when the crash occurred, really earned his corn today. He was the man EF Education-EasyPost put on the front to contribute to the chase of the breakaway, helping the riders from Lidl-Trek and Alpecin-Deceuninck.

And while the season is still in its very early days, Rafferty looks like he is very comfortable at this level, mixing it on the front today, for about 25km, with the likes of Tim Declercq (Lidl-Trek).

Rafferty ended the stage in 77th at 1:54 while fellow Irishman Dillon Corkery (St Michel-Mavic-Auber 93) was just behind him; placing 87th at 2:25.

Today’s stage – some 164km from Marguerittes to Rousson – should have been the second stage of the race but yesterday’s intended opener was cancelled due to farmers’ protests.

Tomorrow’s stage is likely to suit the sprinters before the general classification men dominate on Saturday, when the stage finishes on the 4.4km climb of Méjannes-le-Clap. The race then concludes with a 10.645km TT in Alès on Sunday.

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