Stage Two: Carnage and Decisions
In one of the strangest stages in recent Tour de France history, there was no sprint for the finish, QuickStep’s Sylvain Chavanel is wearing the yellow jersey after perhaps the best ride of his career, three minutes ahead of everyone else, a favorite has dropped out and his teammate, one of the top sprinters, will continue with a broken left wrist.
And a crash less than twenty miles from the finish at a particularly treacherous point in the course forced everybody in the peleton, especially the leaders, to make decisions that might affect their entire race.
Chavanel, a regular peleton attacker, would not have been chosen by anyone to be wearing the maillot jaune, and only by a few to win the stage, for that matter. But this was a textbook example of why riders, against all logic and natural laws, still challenge the peleton. Though the odds are almost always against them, there’s always a chance that some black swan will come along.
This particular unforeseen circumstance came about seventeen miles from the finish in a forested area of Belgium. The peleton, chasing Chavanel and a couple other peleton challengers, were coming down from the Col de Stockeu, a short category 3 climb along a narrow, wet country Belgian lane. Bikers come down these lanes at terrifying speeds and when one of the leader’s bike slid out from under him, possibly on some oil on a wet road from a previous motorcycle accident, pretty much everybody in the main group went down behind him.
It left the rest of the race in complete chaos and erstwhile race announcer Phil Liggett, who had said earlier in the telecast that the ride down the Col de Sockeu was particularly treacherous, tongue tied trying to sort out who was where for the rest of the race.
But the images spoke for themselves, and of the decisions everybody had to make. First was Andy Schleck, who came in second last year. He went down hard. The first images were of Schleck holding his left arm in a strange position, and Liggett suggesting that it looked like he might have a broken collarbone.
His collarbone wasn’t, but Schleck’s bike was broken, and the camera caught one of his teammates giving Schleck his bike, and, improbably he took off again. His decision would be momentous; within minutes he was looking pretty well, and by the end of the race, he had caught back up with the rest of the contenders. I’m guessing he’s really sore about now, though.
Christian Van de Velde, considered a contender but nursing some broken ribs that almost left him out of the tour before it began, went down in the melee and wound up limping in twenty minutes late. He won’t be continuing today.
Lance Armstrong, in a group with Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans, went down and sustained some superficial injuries. No word on Contador or Evans yet, but each of them had to make the decision to get back on their bikes, try to find teammates and stay within sight of each other or any one of them could lose the race right there.
Not long after the crash, Jens Voigt, whose spectacular crash coming down a hill last year was considered at the time career ending, was seen leading his Saxo Bank teammates, Andy and brother Frank Schleck, back into the main pack.
Fabian Cancellera, a man who rides a bike so fast at times that officials checked his machine for a motor after he won the Prologue, was the leader of the race at the time of the crash. He had the toughest decision of anyone. If he waited for Voigt to lead the Schlecks back into the peleton, Chavanel would take the yellow jersey from him and gain significant ground.
Of course, Cancellera waited, and took on the added task of negotiating with officials and other riders to slow the peleton and allow those caught in the crash to join the peleton again. He reached an agreement a mile from the finish with race officials and the riders, and the peleton rode in together, with no sprint for second place.
Chavanel, one of my favorite riders, deserved his win. Nobody gives him a chance in hell of winning the race, but for now at least, he has a formidable lead, and his Quick Step team, which lost workhorse Brian Hansen, now has a reason to get back into the tour.
On to the cobblestones, where even more carnage is expected in Stage Three.