Stage nine analysis: The Tour licks its wounds

The final stage before the rest day saw crashes, fallen favourites, and a terrible incident with a car, but also a popular new yellow jersey, Thomas Voeckler.

Words by Lionel Birnie in St Flour

Sunday July 10, 2011

The image of the day should have been Luis Leon Sanchez crossing the line, sucking his thumb and drawing a bulge over his stomach with his hand.

Or it should have been the sight of Thomas Voeckler embracing Jean-René Bernaudeau having returned from the podium in the yellow jersey, earned after a ride of extraordinary courage.

But it was neither.

The defining moment of the ninth stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour came with around 35 kilometres to go, when the leaders were on a narrow lane typical of the most rural areas of the Massif Central.

The leading five riders, Voeckler, Sanchez, Sandy Casar, Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland had a lead of around five minutes. All the day’s big climbs were behind them and, with just two fourth-category ascents left, they knew they would fight out the finish.

That was until a Citroën car from the host broadcaster France Television tried to pass the group. With two wheels on the verge, the driver suddenly swerved to avoid a tree, which stood very close to the edge of the road.

The car shunted Flecha and the Sky rider went down. Voeckler narrowly avoided falling but Hoogerland, who was behind them, was sent flying and landed on a barbed wire fence.

Hoogerland was bleeding from his arm and knee. He stopped to have his knee bandaged but the blood just oozed through. The back of Flecha’s jersey was torn. They dragged themselves to the finish, almost 17 minutes behind Sanchez.

This Tour has extracted a high tariff from the overall favourites. Everyone who has reached the rest day unscathed will breathe a sigh of relief. Before today, three riders with ambitions of a high finish had crashed out, Janez Brajkovic and Chris Horner of Radioshack and Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.

With 102 kilometres to go, two more followed them to hospital. Jurgen Van den Broeck, the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider who was fifth last year, and Alexandre Vinokourov, of Astana, were both among those who came to grief on the descent of the Col du Pas de Peyrol.

The morning’s rain gave way to the first sunshine the Tour had seen since the Vendée. Roads are never more treacherous for a racing cyclist than when they are in the process of drying out. Patches of damp lurk in shady corners and the change from dry to slick can be too much for even the grippiest tyres.
Throw in a tricky, off-camber left-hand bend and handfuls of grit and the riders’ skill and judgement was put to an extreme test.

Van den Broeck crashed hard and broke his shoulder. Vinokourov flew over the low guardrail and was found wedged in a tree. Two Astana riders had to help him down. Vinokourov couldn’t walk, he had broken his femur. David Zabriskie also fell, breaking his wrist, as did Frederik Willems, who cracked his collarbone. It later emerged that Andreas Klöden, the last of Radioshack’s four contenders still standing, had gone to hospital for x-rays after crossing the finish line.

A little while earlier, Alberto Contador was also sent sprawling. It didn’t take long for video of the incident to appear on the internet. The judge and jury that is Twitter decided it was conclusive proof that the Spaniard had been shoved over by Katusha rider Vladimir Karpets. This was despite the fact the pictures were extremely ambiguous. The absence of any outraged reaction from riders who saw the incident was telling. Contador may or may not be popular with his peers but no one would stand by if one of their fellow professionals was subjected to such treatment. After the stage, Contador explained that his brake lever had got caught under Karpets’s saddle. Karpets said there was an innocent collision and Contador came off worse. Conspiracy theorists will probably claim that’s just what they want us to believe.

Thomas Voeckler’s popularity is understandable. If only there were another half-a-dozen like him in the peloton. The Frenchman attacked on the first of the day’s eight categorised climbs, seemingly undaunted by a size of the task ahead of him.

Hoogerland and Flecha were first to react and they were joined shortly afterwards by Casar, Sanchez and Niki Terpstra, although the Quick Step rider later dropped back, leaving five at the front.

After the crash on the Pas de Peyrol, several of the leaders, notably Fabian Cancellara of Leopard and the yellow jersey Thor Hushovd, urged the group to ease off to allow the fallen riders to regain contact. That played into the hands of the leaders and the gap grew to seven minutes.

Voeckler’s work-rate was astonishing. At one point he had a rear wheel puncture and had to chase back. Once he rejoined the leaders, he went back to the front. It is true he stood the gain the most. Just 1-29 down overall, he knew there was a very good chance of taking the yellow jersey, which he’d also worn in 2004.

No one can blame Voeckler, Sanchez and Casar for continuing after Hoogerland and Flecha had been taken out by the car. They were extremely fortunate not to join them on the floor or in the ditch.

Of course, the driver of the France Television car did not intend to knock off two riders. In order to overtake a group of riders, a driver has to get permission from the commissaire. [Note: Tour director Christian Prudhomme later said the car driver had been told to wait by Radio Tour, the channel that gives information and instructions to all cars in the race.] The problem was the tree narrowed the space available to overtake but it was an awful incident and one which should serve as a warning to all drivers how vulnerable cyclists are.

We were denied the intriguing spectacle of seeing how five very different riders might resolve matters. Instead, Voeckler drove on towards yellow, with Sanchez and Casar barely contributing at all. Even when Voeckler flicked his elbow, encouraging the others to come through, they refused to. They weren’t stupid.

On the final climb to the finish, Voeckler finally managed to get off the front. It is to his great credit that he even managed to summon the strength to open up the sprint.

From the moment Casar’s shoulders slumped and he allowed the gap to open, there was no doubt that Sanchez was going to win, just as he did in nearby Aurillac three years ago.

Hushovd’s Garmin-Cervélo team gave up the chase with about 15 kilometres to go, once they realised that they were not going to bring the gap down under 1-29 and preserve the yellow jersey.

Flecha was whisked away by Dave Brailsford without speaking to the media. Hoogerland went to the podium to collect his polka-dot jersey and then went to hospital for treatment.

And the Tour de France’s organisers issued the results of the Prix de la Combativité, the prize for the day’s most aggressive rider. For the first time in the competition’s history, there was a joint award for Hoogerland and Flecha.

Somehow it felt like adding insult to injury.

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