Stage Three: Cobblestones, Winners and Losers
Another dicey day at the Tour de France as the riders had to traverse eight miles of cobblestones in six sections today.
There was no dearth of drama during this rare event – it’s only the second time I’ve seen cobblestones on the course in the seven years I’ve been watching. Saxo Bank had dominated the front of the peleton all day, and was jockeying for position as the road narrowed, when Frank Schleck went down hard and broke a collarbone, ending his tour right there. Since it was at the front of the peleton, everybody had to stop and try to get around the pile-up, which split the field completely into disarray.
Thor Hushovd, angered about Monday’s decision by the peleton not to sprint after the crash and melee coming down the Col de Stockeu, took the green jersey, winning the stage handily over Fabian Cancellara, who kept Hushovd from sprinting yesterday. Cancellara managed to take back the yellow jersey he lost bringing Andy Schleck back into the peleton yesterday, and though the team lost Frank, Andy Schleck was right there next to Cancellara at the end, picking up the time he lost during a poor Prologue.
Sylvain Chavanel was a loser today. After winning Stage Two by staying ahead of the field and avoiding all misfortune Monday, today he had to change bikes at least twice after blowouts during the cobblestone sections. The lost momentum each time lost him the maillot jaune, too, which he had dreamed of keeping until they hit the Alps this weekend.
Cadel Evans found himself in the best Tour position I can ever remember. Always a favorite the last few years, Evans has also been a target for other teams — last year he was shut down by Astana any time he made a move. There are too many good riders for teams to go after individual riders, and today Evans missed the Schleck crash and was there with Cancellara and Hushovd and Andy Schleck at the finish line, also picking up valuable seconds on the leaders. Evans, now on BMC Racing Team, might finally be able to contend this year. The addition of George Hincapie to his team can’t hurt his chances, either. Bradley Wiggins, another contender riding for the new Team Sky, and Denis Menchov were 53 seconds back. Other GC contenders Ivan Basso, Michael Rogers and Carlos Sastre all came in a group at 2:25.
Favorite Alberto Contador, who the announcers reminded us several times early on, had never actually raced on cobbles, rode a strong, relaxed, sensible race. He was behind the Saxo Bank crash group, which left him more than a minute behind the Armstrong group. But he steadily rode himself back into competition. A leak on his back tire coming down the final stretch left him 1:13 behind Hushovd at the end.
Of the leaders, Armstrong, who had a flat tire at a critical moment on a late cobble section, fared the worst. After a frantic dash to try and cut his losses, he was still 2:08 to the finish line behind Hushovd. At one point, the camera caught the man who has won here seven times, lost behind a gaggle of team cars, dirt smearing his face, desperately trying to save his race.
The lost time can be made up – as we have found out, anything can happen in this one — but it’s a real blow to Armstrong’s chances. Much of the narrative on Versus has focused on the Contador rivalry and Armstrong’s desire to go out a winner. Many have noted that Armstrong needs to shave time anywhere he can so he is ahead of or close to the other contenders by the time the Tour hits the mountains. That hasn’t happened. He is now in 32nd place in the race, 1:51 behind Cancellara with little chance to pick up time in the flat stages that precede the Alps.
The drama already unfolding this year is a night-and-day difference from 2009, where the first fireworks came when Contador dashed away from the field on Stage 7. He is still the favorite, but everyone is vulnerable.
Last year’s rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, both on the same team, was more distracting than compelling, especially after Contador showed he was the superior rider and put Armstrong in his place. Whatever psychological advantage Armstrong might have had over Contador after a strong Prologue (and that’s hardly a given) is completely gone now. In this year’s narrative, it’s anybody’s race.