Stage seven analysis: the Tour leaves Wiggins behind

Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France, suffering a suspected broken collarbone, while Mark Cavendish was dominant in the sprint, taking his second stage in three days.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Chateauroux

Friday July 8, 2011

The riders never need reminding that the Tour de France is bigger than each of them or that the race wields its finger of fate randomly and without mercy. They live with the fact that danger and disaster lurk along every kilometre of road. And they hope.

That was not enough for Bradley Wiggins today. The British champion, who was sixth overall after a near-perfect start to the Tour, fell in the big crash that split the peloton with 37 kilometres of the seventh stage from Le Mans to Châteauroux remaining.

But while the finger of fate flicks one man’s hopes into the gutter, it gently lifts others to greatness. Mark Cavendish, Wiggins’ former Great Britain Madision partner, won the 17th Tour de France stage win of his career.

His first, in 2008, came in the same boulevard in the same town, the Avenue de la Chatre. Cavendish is now exactly halfway towards Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour stage wins, although the sprinter remarked that even to think of equalling it would be to aim beyond the stars.

Cavendish’s sympathy for his compatriot and almost-certain-to-be future team-mate was genuine. Wiggins was in superb form and the frustration will be that he will not now find out how far that might have got him.

As so often is the case, the crash happened on a long, straight piece of road. This is usually where the peloton is at its most fluid, with riders all seeing it as an opportunity to move up. The windy conditions of the past few days have made them even keener to be at the front, where the risks are reduced.

The crash split the bunch and while most of the riders picked themselves up and got moving again a cluster of Sky riders stood and waited, looking concerned.

Wiggins was wincing and holding his left arm. Team Sky’s doctor Richard Freeman was by his side and it was obvious that Wiggins had broken bones.

The Sky riders rolled on, while their leader’s Tour de France ambitions were strapped to a stretcher and carted away in an ambulance.

Crashes are part of life on the Tour but this opening week has been particularly nervy. As someone remarked a couple of days ago, the most important thing for an overall contender is not how he climbs the first mountain or does in the time trials, it is, first and foremost, whether he can survive the first week.

Since November, Wiggins and his coaches, Tim Kerrison and Shane Sutton, have planned for the Tour. Victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné suggested they were well on track. Wiggins, who has charted the power output of every ride for eight months and pared his body back to a skeletel 69 kilograms, was given the harshest possible reminder that you can prepare meticulously for every eventuality but two. Illness and injury.

Up until the crash, the stage had been unremarkable, and quite slow. The peloton was well behind the slowest time schedule predicted by the race organisers. Four riders attacked, all of them from the usual suspect teams. Mickael Delage and Gianni Meersman were there for FDJ, Pablo Urtasun for Euskaltel and Yannick Talabardon for Saur-Sojasun.

It is not necessarily anything new to note that the teams who are concentrating on the sprints and general classification do not tend to engage in the breaks but the trend has been taken to extremes this year.

Of the 22 teams in the race, 12 have yet to feature in an escape. The race has split in half and it has become the responsibility, so far at least, for the same teams to provide the early excitement. The likes of Garmin, HTC, Leopard, Radioshack, Sky, Rabobank, Saxo Bank and Astana do not deign to get involved in the long, fruitless away days.

That, of course, is their right. But HTC have complained in the past that the onus always falls on them to chase. Garmin’s Jonathan Vaughters remarked earlier this week that no one is stepping forward to share the work and that they, as holders of the yellow jersey (or more specifically Ramanus Navardauskas) are having to ride on the front for kilometres at a time. What if FDJ, Vacansoleil and the others decided not to go on the attack?

The crash ended Wiggins’ Tour and cost Geraint Thomas his white jersey and yesterday’s stage winner, Edvald Boasson Hagen, his top ten place overall because they were among the riders to wait for their leader.

It also split the bunch into two, making it a little more straightforward for HTC-Highroad to control. The gap to the four leaders was falling before the crash but, with the intermediate sprint coming so late in the day, at Buzancais, 27 kilometres from the finish, they were doomed.

Cavendish was led out so he could take fifth place in the sprint. Then HTC continued to press.

Although both Meersman and Delage tried to evade capture, they were all swallowed up and HTC were able to control the front of the depleted peloton without being challenged.

Inside the final 2.5 kilometres they still had five men in front of Cavendish. The sprint, though not as decisive or defiant as we have seen, was not particularly close. Cavendish was clear of Alessandro Petacchi and Andre Greipel and, with Tyler Farrar caught behind the crash and out of it, suddenly the Brit is right at the heart of the race for the green jersey.

Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar still leads the points competition, ahead of Philippe Gilbert, but Cavendish is now third, just 17 points behind the Spaniard and 20 ahead of Thor Hushovd and a healthy 74 clear of Farrar.

As he pointed out afterwards, the green jersey competition has not so much been shaped by the new intermediate sprints but by the fact there are so few out-and-out bunch finishes. There are probably only two left, with the next one likely to be in Montpellier, the other side of both the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, and after that Paris.

And so, the intermediate sprints will indeed assume greater importance in the coming days. The contest is likely to morph into a clash of cultures. The puncheur Gilbert versus the versatile and consistent Rojas versus the pure speed of Cavendish.

Wiggins was not the only rider to suffer misfortune. Tom Boonen, a former green jersey winner, pulled out of the Tour having crashed hard yesterday. Apart from a couple of bright days each April, the Belgian has endured a torrid couple of seasons. When Quick Step’s bus was searched by police on the eve of the race it was tempting to suggest that Boonen had actually enlisted their help to find his form. His Ghent-Wevelgem win this year only highlights the sparseness of his recent results.

Radioshack will hope that bad luck is limited to threes. Two days ago, one of their four leaders, Janez Brajkovic, crashed and pulled out. Yesterday, Levi Leipheimer crashed and lost time. Today the American was delayed by the crash while already in the second peloton following the crash and then he suffered a puncture. Chris Horner also crashed and lost 13 minutes. Reports suggested he had hit his head hard and might be a doubtful starter tomorrow. Of Radioshack’s four leaders, only Andreas Klöden has managed to avoid a problem, much as he has for his whole career. How does he do it?

Hushovd’s week-long spell in the yellow jersey will come to an end at Super-Besse tomorrow, with Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck or Klöden poised to take over.

Normally, the peloton dreads the mountain stages, but they must be looking forward to getting away from the nervous and crash-filled first week. The favourites who have made it this far should breathe a sigh of relief.

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