Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) claimed victory on a dramatic day of racing that saw Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) move into the yellow jersey and crashes wreak havoc in the peloton. On a tough uphill finish in Saint-Flour, Sánchez had too much in the tank for his French breakaway companions Voeckler and Sandy Casar (FDJ) and powered clear to take the third Tour stage win of his career.
Although well beaten by the Spaniard in the sprint, Voeckler received considerable consolation in the shape of the maillot jaune, which he took for the first time since 2004. "The last time I wore it, it was said they let me take the yellow jersey. But this time I went out looking for it," said Voeckler. "I made a clear choice. I sacrificed the stage to win it."
A race that has been packed with drama so far continued in the same vein almost from the start in Issoire. An early crash that resulted in Euskaltel-Euskadi's Amets Txurruka and Vacansoleil-DCM's Wout Poels quitting the race was, unfortunately, merely the prelude to two other serious incidents.
As the bunch descended the second climb of the day, the Pas de Peyrol, a number of riders went down, both on the road and into the ditch and woods on the right-hand side of it. The most seriously affected were Omega Pharma-Lotto GC leader Jurgen Van den Broeck and teammate Fredrik Willems, who both broke a collar bone, Astana leader Alexandre Vinokourov, who broke an elbow and his femur, and Garmin-Cervélo's Dave Zabriskie, who broke a wrist. All were forced to abandon, although Zabriskie did briefly attempt to continue.
Zabriskie's Garmin-Cervélo teammate David Millar was riding with race leader Thor Hushovd, and both just managed to avoid the crash, as Millar explained to ITV at the finish. "That crash was horrific. We were coming down the high-speed descent and there was a corner that kept tightening. The guy in front of Zabriskie just made it around, but Dave clipped the barriers and went flying over the edge. The Lotto guy who was on his wheel hit the barrier and stopped dead but was spinning on the floor. I just squeezed through. Thor jumped over the bike and just made it by and it all went piling down behind us. It was one of the scariest crashes I've seen. It was carnage."
More controversial was a crash in the breakaway group of five just 36km from the finish. As the riders sped down a descent, a car from French TV attempted to pass them going partly down the grass verge on the left-hand side of the road. The car driver swerved back into the road and the riders to avoid a roadside tree, hitting Team Sky's Juan Antonio Flecha and sending him cartwheeling down the road. The Spaniard clipped Vacansoleil-DCM's Johnny Hoogerland, who was sent somersaulting onto a barbed wire fence on the other side of the road.
Thankfully, both riders were able to continue, although both were bloodied, Hoogerland suffering what appeared to be deep wounds to his lower legs. The Dutchman received some compensation at the finish in the shape of the King of the Mountains jersey, having led over four of the day's eight categorised climbs.
"We can be happy that we're alive. It's horrible," said Hoogerland. "I can blame everyone but I don't think anyone does this sort of thing on purpose. I think the people in the car will have a very big guilty feeling and they will surely apologize to me and Flecha...I have three cuts that are about seven centimetres long and quite deep too. I'll go to the hospital now and I think I'll need about 30 stitches at least.
"I did what felt like a few somersaults. I don't know where the car came from. Before I knew it, Flecha was on the ground and there was nothing I could do. I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, ‘Is this what cycling is about?' I have the polka-dot jersey but I'm going to spend the rest day in a lot of pain."
The green jersey stayed firmly on the shoulders of Philippe Gilbert, who once again stormed clear on the main group to claim fourth place on the line, although he admitted he was disappointed not to have been in contention for the stage win.
"We had a bad day because we lost VDB and Willems, and we were hoping to win the stage today. Because of the big crash we had to stop [chasing], then Garmin didn't want to ride, then they did, then they stopped again. The atmosphere was very bad after the crash. I told my teammates that if we were in contention for the win today I would take it easily because I was very strong, and I'm disappointed because of the situation of the crashes and the situation of the race."
How it unfolded
Flecha and Casar lead the break
Although numerous riders attempted to break the shackles of the fast-moving peloton in the first hour, no one managed to get a significant advantage until the summit of the first climb of the day, the 3rd-category Côte de Massiac. Voeckler led over the summit, followed by former KoM leader Hoogerland. This pair pressed on over the climb and were joined by Sky's Flecha, FDJ's Casar, Rabobank's Luis León Sánchez and Quick Step's Niki Terpstra.
Voeckler and Hoogerland's duel for mountains points continued over the 2nd-category Pas de Peyrol, where the Frenchman beat the Dutchman. This pair and their three breakaway companions were already heading towards the third climb of the day, the 2nd-category Col du Perthus, with a lead of around three-and-a-half minutes when the day's biggest crash halted much of the peloton on the descent of the Pas de Peyrol.
Most of the field was held up as riders tried to pick their way past stricken colleagues. A gaggle of Astana riders headed into the foliage below the right-hand side of the road to aid team leader Vinokourov. The Kazakh was eventually lifted off his bike and back up to the road, but was unable to continue. Van den Broeck, Willems and Zabriskie were also forced out, and several others went down heavily too, including RadioShack leader Andreas Klöden, although the German did manage to continue.
A truce is called
Jonny Hoogerland meets the barbed wire
After some brief discussion, a truce was called at the front of the peloton to allow those riders who had either crashed or been held up to get back up to the group. The drop in pace resulted in the break's lead ballooning out to almost eight minutes as Hoogerland led Voeckler over the fourth of the day's eight categorised climbs, the 3rd-category Col de Cère.
Little more than a minute down on yellow jersey Hushovd, Voeckler realised that the overall lead was now a serious possibility and allowed Hoogerland to take the next couple of climbs unchallenged in return for a degree of cooperation in between the summits. When the Dutchman led the leading quintet over the 2nd-category Prat de Bouc, he guaranteed himself the polka dot jersey at the end of the stage and would almost certainly have contended for the stage win if not for the intervention of France TV's car.
After remounting following extensive treatment, Hoogerland was caught by the bunch just before the day's intermediate sprint, where Gilbert took fifth place uncontested to extend his lead in the points competition. Garmin-Cervélo were by now working hard to defend Hushovd's yellow jersey. But inside the final 20km they realised his lead was gone and they let BMC and eventually Leopard Trek take over the pace-setting.
At the front of the race, Casar and Sánchez were happy to let Voeckler do the lion's share of the work heading into the finish. The Europcar team leader led the way until well inside the final kilometre, as his two companions rode side by side, eyeing each other. So intent were Casar and Sánchez on each other that Voeckler was able to drop back behind them on the 1.3km climb up to the finish, and it was he who made the first acceleration from 300m out.
Sánchez responded immediately, surging clear of Voeckler as Casar offered no challenge. Crossing the line, the Spaniard first sucked his thumb and then gave a sign to indicate his wife's pregnancy as he claimed Spain's first stage win of this year's race. The grimacing Voeckler came in five seconds later with the crowd roaring their approval.
Although he will probably not hold the maillot jaune for the 10 days he kept it in 2004, the Frenchman will be hard to shake from the race lead, especially after such a brutal first week that has taken a toll on the whole field. They will all be glad of tomorrow's first rest day.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com