Tour de France news roundup, stage 6

Armstrong fears, Rogers, Sastre crash, Menchov misery, white Martin, new test

Armstrong feels the fear on rain-hit sixth Tour stage

Lance Armstrong admitted feeling the fear on Thursday's rain-hit sixth stage of the Tour de France as wet conditions and slippery roads into Barcelona conspired to send riders tumbling.

Norwegian Thor Hushovd claimed the stage victory after what was a treacherous 181.5km of riding from Gerona to Barcelona during which more than a dozen riders were left battered and bruised after some heavy falls.

Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara retained the race leader's yellow jersey with a 0.22sec lead on seven-time Tour winner Armstrong ahead of the first day of climbing in the Pyrenees on Friday.

With four Astana riders in the top five overall, Armstrong's team worked to distance their yellow jersey rivals further with accelerations of pace on the small climbs, but the American admitted it had been a nerve-wracking day.

"There haven't been many days when I have regretted my decision to return, but today might be one of them," said Armstrong who won the last of his Tour titles in 2005.

"I am being facetious, but you just spend the whole day on edge with crashes all around you: there were dangerous downhills and slippery roads. The best way to sum up days like today is just one word: scary."

Armstrong said an added factor to consider had been finishing the stage in Barcelona, where extra oil on the road from cars in the metropolis made the roads slippery.

"When you come into a big city like Barcelona, you know it is going to have white paint (from road markings) and a bit of extra grease on the roads," he said. "You know there will be traffic controls and you know it's going to be nerve-wracking, which it was."

With the Pyrenees approaching, the focus now moves away from sprinters like Britain's green jersey-holder Mark Cavendish - who finished 16th on Thursday - while climbers, like Astana's 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador, come into the frame.

With the next three stages taking place in the mountains, Cancellara, not a realistic contender for the race's main prize, is almost guaranteed to lose the lead, which could go to second place Armstrong.

But Armstrong is backing his Astana team-mate Contador, who is third in the overall standings and 19 seconds behind Cancellara, to exert some authority on the road to Andorra.

"I know Alberto wants to assert himself in the race, I don't need a team meeting to tell me that," said Armstrong.

"I don't know if it is the most important day, but it is definitely a big appointment on this Tour."

Rogers, Sastre among stage six crash victims

Australian Michael Rogers was among the big name riders who crashed on the rain-hit sixth stage of the Tour de France on Thursday.

Rogers, riding for the Columbia team, appeared to take down Cervelo sprinter Heinrich Haussler and American David Zabriskie of Garmin as the peloton negotiated a roundabout.

The Australian, who finished ninth overall in 2006 but had to abandon after a serious crash on the eighth stage in 2007, was later taken to hospital for X-rays complaining of a sore elbow.

A team spokesman later told AFP that Rogers had broken no bones and was scheduled to start Friday's seventh stage, the first day of three consecutive days in the Pyrenees mountains.

Defending yellow jersey champion Carlos Sastre of Spain was the first rider to hit the tarmac, the Cervelo rider coming down after just 10 minutes after the start in Girona.

He was eventually brought back into the race, apparently unhurt, by his teammates, who finished the day celebrating their first Tour de France victory after Norwegian Thor Hushovd won a sprint to the finish line.

There were crashes aplenty during stage 6

Later in the race Belgian's Tom Boonen, of Quick Step, got up limping and in apparent pain after he crashed with another rider as they chased down David Millar's breakaway in the closing kilometres.

Boonen, who was only given an 11th hour reprieve to start the race from the Court of Arbitration for Sport - having not been invited by organisers following a second positive test for cocaine - is set to start on Friday.

In all 21 injured riders appeared on the official medical report after the stage, most with scrapes and bumps which should allow them to start Friday's 224km monster stage in the Pyrenees mountains.

More yellow jersey misery for Menchov

Denis Menchov looks like a man who doesn't want to be here

Russia's Denis Menchov saw his yellow jersey hopes all but evaporate in the rain of Barcelona where he ended the sixth stage of the Tour de France nearly five minutes in arrears.

Menchov, the recent Giro d'Italia champion who began this year's Tour as a contender, is now 4min 54sec behind race leader Swiss Fabian Cancellara after Thursday's 181.5km crash-marred ride to Barcelona.

Cancellara's grip on the yellow jersey could loosen on Friday's seventh stage which heads up to Andorra in the Pyrenees, where Lance Armstrong, only 0.22secs behind in second place, could be the man to replace him.

Menchov, meanwhile, is virtually out of the race.

His team manager at Rabobank, Erik Breukink, is not throwing in the towel yet, but the Dutchman, growing unhappier by the day, may do so after the climb to the Arcalís ski station on Friday.

Perplexed by Menchov being left trailing by most of his rivals in the latter stages of the race Thursday, Breukink refused to criticise his team leader, although his mood was obvious.

"Tomorrow is a totally different day and after that we will be able to assess Denis's chances far better," he said.

All in all it has been a disastrous Tour so far for the former two-time Tour of Spain winner, whose best result on the world's toughest bike race was fourth in 2008.

In Monaco Menchov flattered to deceive on the opening stage time trial in which he finished 1:32 down on winner Cancellara, losing over a minute to his more immediate rivals.

On the third stage he was among the many favourites to lose 41secs to Armstrong after the American joined an echelon created by Mark Cavendish's powerful Columbia team and which split the peloton into pieces.

A day later Menchov's Tour hopes suffered a bigger blow when he crashed on the first corner of the team time trial, in which Rabobank finished 11th at 2:20 behind Armstrong's winning Astana team.

Martin wants white jersey from Pyrenees to Paris

Tony Martin, best young rider

Germany's Tony Martin is hoping to emulate compatriot Jan Ullrich by wearing the Tour de France's white jersey all the way to Paris as he prepares to defend it through the Pyrenees this weekend.

The 24-year-old Columbia rider has held the prize for the best placed rider, 25 and under, since the end of Monday's third stage and finished Thursday's 181.5km race into Barcelona with the shirt still on his back.

Martin, whose parents fled Hungary in 1989 after the fall of the Iron Curtain and settled in the former East German city of Cottbus, has spent the entire year so far concentrating on the Tour and is pleased with his progress.

But he faces a stiff challenge during the next three mountain stages from the likes of Liquigas pair Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali, as well as the winner of last year's white jersey, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck.

"It has always been a dream of mine to wear the white jersey," said Martin. "All I want to do now is keep it for as long as possible."

Former Tour de France winner Ullrich was the last German to wear the white jersey until Paris back in 1998, a year after he had won the yellow jersey in the world's most famous cycling race.

But Martin, making his Tour debut as Columbia give him a taste of the world's toughest bike race, is keeping his feet on the ground.

"As long as the mountains are not too long and not too high, I am sure I will get over them with no trouble," he said with a grin.

And the German has earned plenty of praise from Columbia team boss Bob Stapleton.

"He's got a great engine, as you saw the past few days when he helped in the echelon (on Monday) and in the team time trial," said Stapleton.

"On this tour he's excited to do well. Sometimes we have to rein him in so he doesn't do too much damage to his team-mates!"

Although a time-trial specialist, Martin has phenomenal leg power which he showed after finishing second in June's Tour of Switzerland and winning the mountain jersey.

He has already shown his pedigree as a climber, but he refused to hear any talk of the yellow jersey.

"That is not realistic," said Martin, who is a policeman in his native Germany.

One Columbia team manager, Rolf Aldag, says Martin still has plenty to learn if he is to realise his potential as a future winner of the Tour.

"The primary goal is the white jersey," said Aldag. "He has to learn how to be a bit more tactical."

However, Stapleton believes Martin, with some more hard work over the coming years, has the potential to win the Tour de France yellow jersey one day.

"Tony is someone we can hope to look to, but it's a process that will take some time," he said. "He's a very good time triallist and he can climb, as you saw at the Tour of Switzerland, although this year's edition was not the hilliest.

"Winning the white jersey is going to be especially tough this year. You've got some good young guys like Roman Kreuziger, who has plenty of stage race experience, and Vincenzo Nibali, who is also strong."

Martin has spent the entire year so far concentrating on the Tour and is pleased with his progress.

"There is a sense of euphoria here that we have heard nothing negative about cycling," he admitted. "It is nice that all the coverage so far has just been on the cycling."

New test detects hidden drug

Anti-doping authorities have perfected a new test capable of detecting the drug Synacthene and it is currently being used by doping controllers at the Tour de France, sources have told AFP.

The substance, a synthetic hormone also known as ACTH, has up to now proved virtually impossible to detect and evidence has been limited to allegations made by ex-users.

The new test has been perfected by specialists at the Anti-Doping Laboratory in Cologne and was tried out experimentally at German cycling events last year before being approved by the International Cycling Union

(UCI) as part of its new battery of anti-doping measures.

"It is based on urine samples but can also be applied to blood samples,"

said Professor Mario Thevis, who developed the system.

"We prefer, however, urine because there are larger volumes and more samples available."

"Of course, Synacthene was considered relevant and important, but blood testing was not as frequent at that time and the first method was based on blood specimens," Prof Thevis said.

"Moreover, the collection and storage conditions were critical: nowadays everything is harmonised."

Experts say Synacthene has typically been used in association with anabolic steroids and testosterone, the cocktail of drugs being injected directly into a racer's body to boost resistance to pain and to enhance performance.

According to anti-doping expert Dr Jean-Pierre de Modenard, there is evidence of the drug having being used for many years - not just in cycling, but also in football.

Dr. de Modenard hopes the discovery will help fill one of the remaining gaps in knowledge relating to illegal substances.

"To state that only one percent of controls turn up positive is hypocritical, and this has been the perfect example of what happens when there is a lack of data," he said.

© AFP 2009

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