BRADLEY Wiggins has led the way in this year’s Tour de France, but not in the way he might have hoped. Following the Englishman’s abandonment on Friday, the Tour de France’s list of crash victims mushroomed yesterday. A huge accident saw two major contenders quit while Sky rider Juan Antonio Flecha and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland somersaulted into a ditch after being sideswiped by a French TV car.
In what is becoming a depressingly familiar pattern, the latest big pile-up happened about two-thirds of the way back in the bunch, on a sweeping left-hand bend rendered treacherous by heavy rainfall.
What seemed like a perfectly compact, well-organised bunch suddenly crumpled, with the television showing blurry images of riders flung over a barrier and down a ravine, while others - legs splayed and blinking - sat on the roadside, trying to work out how they got there.
One official yelled at a TV cameraman to move away but not before we had seen major contender Alexandre Vinokourov’s arms wrapped around two team-mates as they tried to carry the Kazakh, suffering from a broken femur, back to the road and a waiting ambulance. Jurgen Van Den Broeck did not fall as far as Vinokourov, but his exit was equally definitive, the Belgian left clutching his shoulder in agony.
“I went past a little later and saw a rider down and my hair stood on end,” race leader Alberto Contador - also affected by a crash - said. “That curve should have been signposted.”
In total, no less than four riders ended the Tour in an anonymous patch of dense woodland deep in the French Massif Central, with Vinokourov and Jurgen Van Den Broeck the top names, along with former maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie and Van Den Broeck’s team-mate Frederik Willems.
Third in the 2003 Tour, the 2006 Tour of Spain champion and a stage winner last year, veteran Vinokourov’s positive test for doping in the 2007 Tour makes him a controversial figure, but one who has never failed to make an impact on the race: this year was supposed to be the Kazakh’s last Tour and yesterday’s accident was the worst way to end it.
Van Den Broeck, on the other hand, was just starting to climb up the Tour hierarchy. Fifth in last year’s race, the young Belgian was Wiggins’s most aggressive rival in the Criterium du Dauphine. Now, like the Briton, he will be watching the rest of the race on television.
It will be of scant consolation to either that yet more riders crashed out on Saturday - seven in total - while some, like Spain’s Juan Garate, winner of the 2009 Mont Ventoux stage, did not even make it to the start because of shoulder and back injuries from previous days.
There were others: Zabriskie, who led the Tour back in 2005, went down in the same pile-up as Vinokourov and broke his wrist, and pint-sized Spanish climber Amets Txurruka hit the road and smashed his collarbone.
The most bizarre collision of the 209-kilometre slog happened to leading favourite Contador, whose saddle tangled with a Katusha rider’s handlebars.
“It was just bad luck,” Contador later told Spanish radio, although his misfortune left him nursing a sore knee and chasing for ten kilometres on a spare bike. “My knee is hurting a lot more now than it was when I went down,” Contador said at the finish, “and that’s worrying. It’s really not been my Tour this year.”
It can be argued that crashes are part and parcel of the Tour’s first week, but events this year have been extreme, with Contador blaming a combination of exceptionally wet weather and narrow roads. However, at least one of yesterday’s accidents - when a French TV car completely mistimed its overtaking and sideswiped Sky’s Flecha and Hoogerland when they were in the break of the day - was completely avoidable.
The sight of two riders somersaulting into the road brought a gasp of horror from the press room. Fortunately, neither was hurt badly, although Flecha had an open wound on his back and Hoogerland gashed his knee.
Such collisions between vehicles and riders are so rare they can still be called freak accidents but it underlined just how much crashes, rather than racing, have shaped this year’s Tour.
“Look at Hoogerland and Flecha, their chances of getting to the finish were wrecked by some idiot,” retired rider Pedro Horrillo, now reporting for El Pais on the Tour after an appalling crash in the Giro ended his career, told The Independent.
“You can accept accidents will happen, but not like this. If that is what is what decides a race, I wouldn’t want to be a cyclist any more.”
The three riders - Frenchmen Thomas Voeckler and Sandy Casar, together with Luis Leon Sanchez - who were lucky enough not to be hit by the vehicle continued to lead the race over the bleak volcanic moorlands of central France. On the final uphill finish into Saint-Flour, Voeckler was the first to accelerate but Sanchez comfortably charged past to claim the third Tour stage win of his career, while the Frenchman settled for a return to the race lead for the first time since 2004.
However, even as the battered remnants of the peloton, including Britain’s David Millar with a cut on his arm, then heaved their way up the steep slope, Sanchez used his winner’s press conference to criticise the risks that he and other riders had been forced to take.
“There were guest cars going past us all day, far too close, and it was pretty much going to happen at any moment,” Sanchez said. “I have to ask the Tour organisation to sort this out. Measures have to be taken. You don’t expect something like that to happen in the best race in the world.”
Sky refused to comment, but Sanchez’s words were echoed by the new yellow jersey, Voeckler. “What happened to Flecha was terrible and it could have just as easily happened to me,” Voeckler said.
“You accept big crashes like the one that happened before on the hill because they are part of your job, but not those vehicles. I don’t want to get into polemics, but something has to be done, it was really bad.”
And on today’s rest day, for the first time since the race left the VendEe nine days ago, Tour organisers will have to reflect on what has happened.
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