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A Nervous and Shaky First Week for le Tour 2011


Johnny Hoogerland wound up tangled in a barbed wire fence. Just a second earlier he was going 35 miles an hour with the breakaway.) LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m not usually that enthusiastic about the first week of le Tour de France. It’s always been a good time to slowly settle into the ebb and flow of the race and listen to Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen chatter on contentedly about the world of cycling. Except for general nervousness and a few crashes as the riders settle into the tour’s routine, the leaders generally let the sprinters strut their stuff and try to keep from doing something stupid.

This year, however, the first week was anything but predictable; it’s easily the most chaotic (and exciting to watch) first nine stages I’ve ever seen in the tour, though I’m sure the riders would use the same adjectives. From the first stage, when race favorite Alberto Contador got caught behind a huge crash and ceded more than a minute and a half to his main rivals, to Sunday’s ninth stage, when a television vehicle struck one of the stage leaders and half a dozen riders abandoned after some serious accidents, the race has been nothing but chaos at 30 miles per hour.

This is our eighth tour, and until this year the race has always begun with a short, ceremonial individual time trial, with the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellera lately the favored winner. This year, however, it was a full-on first stage, with several crashes and Cancellara nowhere near the yellow jersey.

Since then, all the leading riders save the Schleck brothers and Australian Cadel Evans have suffered one ignominy after another. Broken collarbones have forced top riders like Bradley Wiggins and Jurgen van den Broeck to withdraw. Both Tom Boonen and Chris Horner (one of the oldest riders, and my own personal favorite after watching him win the Tour of California in May) left the race dazed and confused with serious concussions. The Radioshack team, which came to the tour with three contenders for the yellow jersey, only has a bruised Andreas Kloden left to compete after he got caught in a pile-up.

On that vicious crash on a mountain descent Sunday, Alexandre Vinokourov broke his right femur in a massive tangle that also ended van den Broeck’s and David Zabriskie’s tours. If that wasn’t enough, a television car, in front of motorcycle cameras and ignoring race radio instructions to stay back, sideswiped Juan Antonio Flecha, one of the riders in a breakaway that was ultimately successful, sending him skidding into the pavement at about forty miles an hour and tossing Johnny Hoogerland, who was having a rousing first tour, at full speed into a barbed-wire fence. The peleton seems afraid, which can date back to the death of cyclist Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’ Italia in May. The riders seem especially nervous and shaky.

I watched the Giro this year, and Contador defeated his opponents (none of whom included Evans or the Schlecks or Wiggins or Levi Leipheimer) with hardly a spot of bother, as commentator Paul Sherwen likes to put it when a rider is in full control. But Contador has fallen four times (that we know of) in nine stages, and he’s going to be hard-pressed to gain back the time he has lost to Evans and Andy Schleck, both of whom can be expected to stay with Contador, especially if he’s riding with leg injuries, through the high mountain passes this weekend.

French rider Thomas Voeckler, riding for a new team, Europcar, was the main beneficiary of the Stage Nine carnage. He barely escaped being hit by the car and wound up taking a minute and a half lead on the yellow jersey contenders and ending a week in yellow for Thor Hushvod, who deserves credit for keeping the yellow jersey on a course that seems much harder than most first-week sprinter stages.

Voeckler won the yellow jersey several years ago and kept it for almost ten days through brute tenacity and strength, impressing even Lance Armstrong. I expect him to tenaciously try to keep yellow as long as he can, even into the Pyrenees this weekend,, but he will be hard pressed to keep it.

And who will be wearing the yellow jersey come Paris? Like everything else about the 2011 Tour, I don’t have a clue. But I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

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