Tour rest day welcome after crash carnage

The Tour de France rest day will be a welcome break for riders after Sunday’s ninth stage produced the worst series of crashes in this year’s race, including riders being sent flying by an out-of-control car.

When riders ease their aches and pains on Monday after nine frenzied crash-marred stages, Alexandre Vinokourov will be waking up in a Paris hospital after surgery on a fractured thigh bone.

Defending Tour champion Alberto Contador’s right knee will be bathed in ice, and the back of Juan Antonio Flecha’s jersey sewn back together while he mops the cuts on his legs after being slammed by a car.

“It is too bad to see riders crashing out of the race like this,” two-time Tour runner-up Andy Schleck said.

Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez won stage nine after a long breakaway in the second day of mountains, and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler took the yellow jersey from Thor Hushovd. But this paled into comparison compared to what happened behind them.

Riders are a hardy bunch, and cope with most things during more than three weeks of racing: wet roads, extreme heat, dehydration and the scarred knees and elbows that come from inevitable race-related crashes.

The tolerance doesn’t extend to being sent flying into the air by a Tour car, even less so when you’re exhausted and chasing a stage win.

That’s what happened to the Spanish rider Flecha, and to Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland as they entered the final stretch of Sunday’s 208km trek from Issoire to Saint-Flour in the Massif Central, where they were in a five-man front group including Voeckler, Sanchez and French rider Sandy Casar.

If Vinokourov’s crash, which involved about 30 other riders midway through the stage, was not scary enough, the sight of an out-of-control car swerving right into Flecha was a perplexing sight — even in a race that is over a century old.

The impact hit Flecha like a shovel hitting a fly, sending him flying sideways into Hoogerland — who then soared upward, just scraping a barbed wire fence which — had he hit face-first — would have caused unspeakable damage.

“I understand that guests want to have a close look at the race,” Sanchez said. “But we need to get a message across to the organisers so that the drivers are more careful.”

Remarkably, Hoogerland, who landed in a roadside ditch, and Flecha, both got back up: speed gone, spirit intact.

Hoogerland’s Vacansoleil manager Michel Cornelisse said the rider had “deep cuts in both legs” but he still had enough strength to hobble to the podium and slip on the red and white polka dot jersey as the new leader in the King of the Mountains competition.

Flecha’s Sky team manager, Dave Brailsford, was considering a formal complaint.

“We might bring the matter forward tomorrow, but tonight we are not making comments”, he said.

Tour organisers banned the car and its driver from the rest of the race, saying the driver ignored a warning to let a team car pass to bring a water bottle to Voeckler.

Last week, a photographer’s motorcycle hit Danish rider Nicki Sorensen and sent the Saxo Bank cyclist skidding along the roadside while the motorbike dragged away his bike. Race organisers also barred that driver.

Earlier in Sunday’s stage, Hoogerland and his four companions were several minutes ahead of a huge crash that left dozens of riders sprawled over the road like marbles as they flew into a turn descending down the Col du Pas de Peyrol.

It was a frightening sight for those behind them, including Tour contender Cadel Evans.

“I came around a blind corner and they were all lying there,” Evans said. “I saw a lot of riders in the road and honestly, it really, really frightened me, especially after what happened to Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’Italia.”

Weylandt was a Belgian rider who died in a crash during the Giro d’Italia in May, clipping a wall during a descent.

Vinokourov’s crash sent him into a ditch and was he was carried back up a small bank by an Astana teammate and staff member. They helped him up by putting their arms around him.

As other stricken riders peeled themselves off the ground, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Frederik Willems, both Belgian riders on the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, and American David Zabriskie of the Garmin-Cervelo team all had to quit.

“This crash came at the front of the peloton in a slippery turn,” Schleck said. “The reason so many guys were seriously injured when they went down was because there were no concrete blocks on the right side of the road.”

Vinokourov was to be taken by helicopter to La Pitie Salpetriere hospital in Paris to undergo immediate surgery, his team said.

Amidst all this mayhem, it almost went unnoticed that three-time defending champion Contador had crashed for the second time in five days, although he did not point the finger at blame further than his own bike.

Contador, who had hurt his right knee crashing on stage five, fell early but recovered to finish the stage in 12th place.

“I had a problem with my handlebars, which knocked into another rider’s saddle,” Contador said. “The bike hit me on the right knee again. It was a bad day, I was in pain for the whole stage … with a bit of ice and rest I can recover.”

Voeckler leads Sanchez by nearly two minutes overall. But neither is a Tour contender and will drop in the Pyrenees.

Contador remains one minute, 30 seconds behind Schleck in the overall standings, and 1:41 behind Evans — his two biggest rivals, both twice runners-up.

After the rest day, there are two relatively short flat stages before riders enter the Pyrenees on Thursday’s 12th stage, with its colossal climb up Col du Tourmalet — one of the Tour’s most famed and feared climbs.

That stage is so demanding it could go a long way to outlining who the handful of genuine Tour contenders will be. – Sapa-AP

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