Early stages shake up Tour de France

Only a couple of days into the 2010
edition of the Tour de France, the race is already without a number of its
overall contenders.

On Monday what should have been a
routine stage through Belgium turned nasty when rain turned an already
dangerous descent into a skating rink. Most of the peloton went down, including
most of the overall race favourites, including Lance Armstrong (Radioshack),
Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxobank) and Christian Vande Velde
(Garmin-Transitions), while Alberto Contador (Astana), although he escaped
relatively unscathed, still found himself caught behind the crashes. A number
of the top sprinters also went down heavily, with Robbie McEwen (Katusha),
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) and points leader Alessandro Petacchi
(Lampre) hitting the deck.

The road surface was so slick that
a number of riders went down twice in the space of 400 metres.

Fair play

Panic ensued as cyclists waited for
their fallen team leaders in order to pace them back to the head of the race.
However, with the peloton broken into a number of small chasing groups, it was
decision time for all involved. The day’s breakaway group remained in front of
the race, but the chasing group contained the leader of the Tour, Fabian
Cancellara (Saxobank), as well as top sprinter Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team)
and overall contenders Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Michael Rogers
(Columbia-HTC). As the teams behind took up the frantic chase, the front group
sat up and waited for those who had lost time, with the group containing
Armstrong and Contador joining up first, followed by the group containing the
Schleck brothers.

However, a number of cyclists,
including Vande Velde and Petacchi, were not able to chase back to the bunch.

Neutral finish

Once everyone was back together,
the leader of the Tour, Cancellara, slipped back to the car of the Tour
director and informed him that the riders had decided not to sprint it out for the
finish. Only Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) remained in front, holding onto a
lead he gained before the crashes took place, and with his exploits he took
over not only the yellow leader’s jersey, but also the green points jersey.

The main bunch crossed the line
without contesting the sprint, with no points or placings being awarded.

Although many fans were not happy
that they could not witness the awesome spectacle of the peloton in full cry,
the message was clear – no one was to benefit from the misfortunes of others.
The winner of this Tour would win it fairly.

Injuries

Even though none of the top
contenders lost time on the day, the impact on the eventual outcome of the race
could still be immense.

Overall contender Robert Gesink
(Rabobank) suffered a hairline fracture to his wrist but opted to take the
start the following day, as did Farrar who is also racing on a fractured wrist.

Worst off was Vande Velde, who
broke two ribs, on top of the three fractured ribs he suffered during the Tour
of Switzerland a couple of weeks ago. The injuries were severe enough that
Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour, crowning a rather forgettable year
for the likeable American and leaving Garmin-Transitions without a viable
podium contender in the Tour.

Cobble chaos

On Tuesday the chaos continued, as
the peloton had to conquer the cobbled roads of northern France. Although these
ancient roads feature regularly in early season one-day races, they are not
popular with the Tour de France riders, as crashes abound when riders jostle
for position and are bounced around by the very uneven road surface.
Fortunately the crashes did not measure up in magnitude to the previous day.
Mechanical problems did, however, play a role, as contenders like Armstrong
lost time due to punctures. A number of the contenders did manage to hang with
the frontrunners on the day, including Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Andy
Schleck, who gained almost a minute over Contador, Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and
Menchov, and even more time over the unfortunate Armstrong and fellow
contenders Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), and Rogers, who lost more
than two minutes to the leaders. However, even though Andy Schleck managed to
gain time om most of his competitors, he lost his strongest ally for the mountain
stages as his brother Frank Schleck had to abandon the race with a suspected
broken collarbone.

The stage was won by Norwegian
sprinter Thor Hushovd with Cancellara reclaiming the leader’s yellow jersey he
had lost the previous day.

Bring on the mountains

Although the flat stages have
already had a major impact on the overall outcome of the race, the big test
will come over the weekend when the Tour hits the mountains. With a medium
mountain stage on Saturday, followed by a high mountain stage on Sunday, a
picture should begin to emerge of who can challenge for overall victory this
year. This will be followed by the Tour’s first rest day on Monday, 12 July,
and then two more days in the mountains.

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