Tour de France news roundup, stage 14

Freire and Dean, tragedy strikes, Voigt and Pellizotti

French police have lodged official complaints from Tour de France riders Oscar Freire and Julian Dean after the pair were hit by pellets fired from an airgun on the race's 13th stage Friday.

Freire, from Spain, was hit on the leg and New Zealander Dean was hit on the hand after shots were fired near the 165km mark, on a 2.1km long climb called the Col du Bannstein, of the 200km ride from Vittel to Colmar.

Both riders emerged relatively unscathed from the incident and were visited separately by police on Friday night.

After giving statements Freire and Dean lodged official complaints for "assault with a dangerous weapon", according to the public prosecutor in Colmar Pascal Schultz.

Schultz said at a press briefing that police had not yet found the gunman, although investigators said one Tour de France rider claims to have seen two teenagers, aged around 16 or 17, acting suspiciously and hiding behind a tree.

Schultz added: "Several riders have also said they heard between three and five dull shots. It seems probable that they came from young adolescents who didn't have anything better to do. We have a very precise statement from one rider who said he noticed two teenagers hiding behind a tree on the right side of the road, contrary to the rest of the crowd who were watching the race."

Police have been drafted in from Strasbourg and Colmar and are now hunting the gunman, or gunmen.

Freire, who had to have a pellet removed from his leg by his team doctor after finishing the stage, said he felt the shot hit him, and looked down to see some blood dripping from his leg.

But the Spaniard, a specialist sprinter who won the green jersey for the points competition last year, played down the incident as he prepared to ride Saturday's 14th stage from Colmar to Besancon.

"My leg is okay," said Freire, a former three-time world road race champion. "The publicity from this whole incident is bigger than if I'd won a stage."

A spokesman for Freire's Rabobank team said after the stage: "Oscar heard three shots and then felt a sting. A small shot was removed from his leg."

Dean, the main lead-out man for American sprinter Tyler Farrar, was hit on a finger of his left hand, according to his Garmin team.

"Julian was shot by an air rifle or BB gun (pellet gun) at the top of a climb during the stage. He has a minor injury on his finger but he was able to finish," a Garmin-Slipstream spokeswoman confirmed.

The New Zealander said he felt a sharp nip when he was hit on his left hand and his team manager Lionel Marie later described it "like he had jammed his finger in a door".

Dean said Saturday he hopes things can get back to normal: "The riders have trusted the fans on the side of the road for 100 years, and that's part of the beauty of the Tour, and I hope it can continue as it has done. It hasn't affected me, but I hope the police are looking into this with all their best resources. I'm just ready to get racing again."

The last time the Tour de France stopped in Colmar, police also had to intervene after a man rammed a car into the crowd, injuring 10 people, after the race had finished.

The man was later acquitted after he claimed he had heard voices telling him to go and talk to stage winner, retired French rider Laurent Jalabert.

Tragedy strikes Tour stage 14

Saxo Bank's Chris Anker Sørensen admitted he was deeply affected by seeing a spectator lying fatally wounded after being hit by a police motorbike during Saturday's 14th stage of the Tour de France.

A man and woman were also badly injured in the accident which occurred in the village of Wittelsheim, about 40km from the start of Saturday's stage in Colmar.

Organisers confirmed three spectators were treated by paramedics before being taken to hopsital in Mulhouse, but it later emerged that a woman in her 60s died at the scene.

Sørensen, who finished the race in the peloton at 5:36 behind stage winner Sergei Ivanov, said seeing the woman lying unconscious had troubled him greatly.

"I saw a woman just lying there, very still, and I lost my focus straight away," said the 24-year-old Dane. "It was really horrible. It is something I think about a lot - one of the incredible things about the Tour is how close the fans can get to the race.

"But what is normally a good thing was tragic today."

Sørensen said he also heard cyclists in the peloton riding over debris from the crashed motorbike and Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis, a former Tour winner, said incidents like this highlight the dangers for spectators.

"It is a tragedy, of course, but it happens again and again that people don't look before stepping out," said the 45-year-old Dane. "Vehicles are moving at around 60km per hour, so things happen very, very fast, but something like this is terrible."

According to France Info radio, the woman was crossing the road after a breakaway group of riders had passed just ahead of the peloton when she was hit by one of the several police motorbikes which accompany the race.

After the collision, the motorbike landed on its side, hitting two roadside spectators, a 37-year-old woman and a man in his 60s.

Both victims were transported by helicopter to nearby Mulhouse.

In the 106-year existence of the race fatalities from outside the race have been relatively rare, the last occurring in 2000 and 2002.

Tour de France general director Christian Prudhomme said the spectator's safety was a top concern for the organisers.

"The security for the spectators has always been the priority of the Tour de France," said the Frenchman. "We offer our condolences to the families and friends of the victim."

In 2002 during the Bazas-Pau stage a seven-year-old boy died at the scene after being hit by a vehicle from the publicity procession, which travels the race route daily throwing out free gifts to spectators.

A similar accident occurred two years earlier on the Avignon-Draguignan stage when a 12-year-old boy was killed. Following both tragedies organisers reduced the number of publicity vehicles by a third.

The biggest accident on the race by far was in 1964, when a police supply van collided with a bridge near Pont de Couze in the Dordogne, killing 20 people.

Voigt's flat tyre cost him stage win opportunity

Saxo Bank rider Jens Voigt admitted Saturday he felt like punching someone in anger after a flat-tyre cost him the chance to stay with a breakaway group on the 14th stage of the Tour de France.

The 37-year-old suffered a back-wheel puncture at the 57km mark and despite receiving a new wheel from the neutral spares car, he lost his place in a 13-man escape which included eventual stage winner Sergei Ivanov of Katusha.

The flat-tyre cost him 40 seconds with the German insisting he was powerless to close the gap and resigned himself to being caught by the peloton.

"That is the third time I have been in a breakaway which gets close to the finish line without me, so I feel like I want to shoot myself," quipped the German, displaying a dry-sense of humour. "It was just bad luck, like crashes, you have to have a few per year, but it was just very, very bad timing.

"It's just 'c'est la vie', like the French people say.

"After fixing the wheel, I calculated my chances of catching alone 12 riders who were going as hard as they could were pretty small," he added. "There was not much I could do, so I waited for the peloton. I was looking around for a victim to punch, I was cooking in my own anger and frustration. I was just waiting for someone to make a stupid comment to me so I could release my anger.

"I had a cameraman filming me on the back of a bike, I rode up to him and said: 'hey, this is a pretty shitty situation, why don't you just leave me alone with my misery?'

"I was close to punching him off his bike, but I didn't, of course."

But the breakaway specialist says his bad luck on this year's Tour is probably balanced by a few years of good fortune in previous years.

"To be fair, I have had many moments of good luck in the past and maybe I have to pay my dues and it will be better next year," said the German.

Pellizotti's polka-dot prize

Italian Franco Pellizotti took a small but symbolic step towards achieving one of his dreams at the Tour de France Friday when he pulled on the race's polka dot jersey.

The Liquigas rider, who on Thursday missed out on the chance for a stage win for the second time in a week, battled through cold and rain to collect 27 points from three of the five climbs featuring on Friday's rain-hit 13th stage.

He now leads Spaniard Egoi Martinez, of Euskaltel, by three points in the King of the Mountains competition, which will only really get going in the coming days in the Alps.

"I'm so happy to have the jersey," beamed Pellizotti, who is aiming for a stage win, and hoping to emulate his boyhood heroes by winning the prestigious 'King of the Mountains' title.

"When I started watching cycling in the 1980s Claudio Chiapucchi was my hero, then I liked to watch Richard Virenque."

Overnight leader Martinez boosted his tally early when came over the summit of the Col de Schlucht in fourth place, one ahead of Pellizotti, to take seven points to the Italian's six.

However the polka dot jersey wearer soon ran out of juice, prompting him to send two team-mates up the road, Ruben Perez and Mikel Astarloza, to hinder Pellizotti's quest for the points available to the first riders over the summit.

On the difficult 8.7km climb over the Col du Platzerwasel where the first eight finishers were awarded points, Pellizotti shook off the close attention of his Basque rivals to grapple nine points.

Up ahead, as eventual stage winner Heinrich Haussler attacked his fellow breakaway riders on the descent, Sylvain Chavanel, Amets Txurruka, also of Euskaltel, and Brice Feillu gobbled up the points on the 2.1km Col du Bannstein.

On the Col du Firstplan Pellizotti dug deep to make sure he was among the first six riders over the summit, crossing in fifth to add 12 points to his tally.

Although he expects to lose ground in the race on Sunday when the main yellow jersey contenders are expected to battle their way to Verbier in Switzerland, Pellizotti is confident he can challenge in the long run.

"I think in Verbier on Sunday it will be hard for me to stay up there if all the big (yellow jersey) favourites are racing," he added. "It looks like it will be a great fight with Martinez. But I'm feeling strong and I'm really confident of my chances."

© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar

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