Contador tames cobbles, team now looks to climbs
At just 62kg, Spaniard Alberto Contador wasn't supposed to have enough weight to even stay on his bike during the third stage of the Tour de France.
But on Tuesday the reigning yellow jersey champion showed equal measures of determination and class, while also riding his luck, to steal some time on his rivals during a chaotic, cobblestone-riddled finale to the race. Ultimately, Contador lost time to rivals Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, last year's runner-up, and Australian Cadel Evans, who has twice finished in that position.
But those were losses tempered by the fact the 27-year-old climbing specialist left Lance Armstrong in his wake as the American first struggled to keep pace and then dropped back further when he suffered a puncture.
Contador is now 1min 40sec behind Swiss Fabian Cancellara, who is not a real yellow jersey contender, and is well within sight of Evans and Schleck. But now he has a 50sec lead on Armstrong.
Contador could have done even better had he not suffered a mechanical problem in the final 30km, during which his wheel, buckled after he lost a spoke, was slowing him down by rubbing off his brake pads.
"I did the last 30 km with the rear wheel absolutely braked so at the end, and despite the fact I crashed earlier, the result is not so bad," said Contador. "I knew that if I changed the bike would be much worse and I preferred to continue with the wheel braking. I could not stand up, but hey, we saved the day."
Contador would make no comment on his time advantages to Armstrong because he didn't know what it was.
But Astana team manager Yvon Sanquer put their day into perspective.
"Overall it's a positive outcome for us," said Sanquer. "When you look at the result, he's taken some time except on Andy (Schleck) and Evans.
"The main thing today was not to lose too much time on his main rivals. And after three days of difficult racing, I think Alberto's come out of it okay."
Heavier riders, like stage winner Thor Hushovd or Cancellara, are comparative heavyweights to Contador and usually fare much better on the cobbles. But on this showing the slight Spaniard showed the world he can battle with the best on terrain which is known for producing cycling's hard men.
"We had a little glimpse of Paris-Roubaix in the sunshine, and we saw that a lot of riders weren't used to the cobbles. That's all part of the game," added Sanquer. "Alberto has shown that he's got talents for all kinds of terrain. He's an all-round champion, especially when he's motivated by the thought of winning the Tour."
He added: "Armstrong had a little bit of bad luck, but that can happen to everybody. After all, when it comes to the cobblestones he's just the same as everybody else."
For many, the hardest stage for Contador is now over. But Sanquer is not getting carried away ahead of the first Alpine stages this weekend.
"There are more complicated stages for us to tackle, but we're very happy to have got to this stage of the race in this position."
Evans launches yellow jersey bid on the cobbles
Cadel Evans launched his 2010 yellow jersey bid in the most unlikely of places on Tuesday - on cobblestones that played havoc with Lance Armstrong's futile bid not to lose time to key rivals.
"I'm not quite built for the cobbles, but I got through it not bad - not bad for a guy who goes uphill anyway," the Aussie said after the punishing 213km ride from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg.
But for Evans, it's not an experience he would like to repeat.
"It's ridiculous. It's incredibly tough and tiring," he added.
As Armstrong struggled to keep pace, losing precious time after a puncture, Evans was one of only two yellow jersey contenders, including Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, to put time into the 38-year-old American.
Armstrong lost 50secs to reigning champion Contador to drop to 18th place at 2:30 behind new race leader Fabian Cancellara, who is not a serious challenger for the race's top prize.
The American is also 1:01 behind Evans and 31sec behind Schleck, and with two difficult stages in the Alps just around the corner hinted that he could be forced to make amends.
While Contador finished the stage in 13th place, Evans could not have raced any better.
He took 1:13 from Contador, the man who beat him to the yellow jersey by just 23sec in 2007, and over two minutes from Armstrong.
Known primarily for the climbing and time trialling skills that also gave him a third place finish on last year's Tour of Spain, Evans showed guts and determination on what was billed as the most treacherous stage of the Tour to finish third overall at 39secs off the yellow jersey.
Evans' relief at not courting disaster was palpable.
"Just to get through it as a GC (general classification) riders, without losing any time, obviously I'm delighted. But it's easier said than done, because I think very few GC guys got through," said the Aussie.
"I didn't lose any time to the favourites and maybe made some time to others."
Armstrong eats dirt as rivals soar on the cobbles
Lance Armstrong in the dust
Lance Armstrong is already looking towards the Alpine stages of the Tour de France after a frustrating day of chasing wheels on the dreaded cobbles third stage left him tumbling down the standings.
On what proved to be an epic day of bike racing over 213km from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg in northern France, only 13km of cobbles, spread over seven sections, played the most decisive role.
And Armstrong ultimately emerged as the main loser.
He went from fifth place with a five-second lead on Spain's reigning champion Alberto Contador to 18th overall at 50secs behind the Astana team leader and 1min 51sec behind Australia's two-time runner-up Cadel Evans.
It was all going so well for the seven-time champion until the peloton arrived in France, where the cobbles are practically double the size as those in Belgium.
As Andy Schleck's Saxo Bank team upped the pace in a bid to drop as many rivals as possible on the fourth sector, Armstrong's luck ran out.
Ultimately, it left him crossing the finish line in 32nd place at 2:08 behind stage winner Thor Hushovd as Contador, Schleck and Evans, all of whom are yellow jersey rivals, spent comparatively fruitful days in the saddle.
Armstrong said it was the crash involving Andy Schleck's brother Frank which split their group as Saxo Bank ramped up the pace. From then on, it was dog eat dog just to get to the finish.
"Section four was the major selection," said the American. "Then something happened in front and Frank Schleck came down, and that just kind of opened the group and we hung in there, we were right behind them, and just as we were coming back on to them in section six, I believe, I just got that front flat (tyre)."
Armstrong lost precious time waiting for a wheel change, and that left him fighting simply to join a group ahead of him which contained Contador and Britain's Bradley Wiggins, with Evans and Schleck even further up the road.
"For a little bit, Popo(vych) came back, gave me a hand and then on the final section I went at it alone, stuck in the cars, dirt, and dodging people.
"But no complaints. Bad luck was with me today. Look at the results," added the American. "Everybody thought the climbers were going to lose minutes today, and they're the ones at the front."
Armstrong, like many of the top favourites, had ridden the cobblestone in training.
But he said they were hardly recognisable as Saxo Bank hammered towards the finish.
"You can't simulate the effort it requires to get to the front," he added. "Saxo Bank is a perfect example. Andy (Schleck) was in the front, but he had a great team and he didn't have to do anything. He went in completely rested and we were just fighting for their wheel.
"When we hit the key sections - I can't lie, I was on the limit. So it was a lot different to training."
Armstrong's "very frustrating" day could soon be forgotten. The Tour heads upwards as of this weekend for three stage which, nevertheless, do not offer the best terrain for attacking in the mountains.
But he now knows what he has to do to claw back the lost time.
"We lost significant time, so we just have to keep our head up and take our chances on the climbs," he said. "Our chances took a knock today, but we're not going home. We'll stay in the race.
"Sometimes you're the hammer and some days you're the nail. Today I was the nail. I've had plenty days when I was the hammer."
Wiggins buoyed after Tour's cobblestone test
Brad Wiggins talks about stage 3
Tour de France contender Bradley Wiggins finally had a reason to crack a smile, albeit dirt-caked, after a superb ride on the race's third stage relaunched his bid on Tuesday.
Wiggins went into the 213km stage from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg in northern France in 57th and more than 30 seconds behind some of his main rivals after a disastrous performance in the opening prologue.
But on a day when 13km of cobblestones, and some dominant riding by the Saxo Bank team of Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara, played a huge role in deciding matters the Londoner got his campaign right back on track.
Wiggins was able to avoid major disaster to stay with reigning champion and Tour favourite Alberto Contador as they raced over the final four and most difficult cobblestone sectors.
Although fellow challengers Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans finished 53sec ahead of him, Wiggins was able to finish more than a minute ahead of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, the day's big loser as the cobbles took their toll.
"It was carnage, but we've known for seven months it was going to be carnage," said Wiggins, who is now in 14th place at just 1:49 behind Cancellara and 1:10 behind Evans.
"Fortunately we ended up on the right side of it and we're back in business."
Wiggins was among the dozens of riders who crashed on the second stage, and he knew Tuesday could have hampered his bid further.
"I responded well from the crash yesterday," he said. "I knew this morning that it was going to be those who went out there with a fighting mentality would come out the other side well today.
"Fortunately it worked out."
It proved to be a huge day for Team Sky, with Welshman Geraint Thomas showing his all-round talents by staying up front all day and only missing out on the stage win to Norwegian cobbles specialist Thor Hushovd.
In the process, Thomas took possession of a white jersey for the best young rider (aged 25 and under) on the Tour.
Thomas is now second overall at 23sec behind Cancellara, who is not a long-time favourite for the yellow jersey, with two-time runner-up Evans in third at 39.
Schleck is at 1:09, Contador 1:40 with Armstrong dropping to 18th at 2:30.
Former track champion Thomas seemed happier with showing his British national champion's jersey throughout the ride over the cobbles than he did with his second place finish.
"It was a massive buzz going across the cobbles in the front group with Cancellara and Thor and Cadel - you don't get any better group than that," said Thomas, who played down his own yellow jersey ambitions.
"I'm here for Brad, but it's a nice bonus. It was a good day."
For British sprint king Mark Cavendish it was another disastrous day.
Two days after crashing on the first stage, thus losing out on the chance for a sprint win and with it the points towards his aim of the green jersey, the Isle of Man rider finished over two minutes down on stage winner Hushovd.
Hushovd pulled on the sprinters' green jersey for the first time and now leads the competition with 63 points. Cavendish, who won six stages at last year's race and just missed out on the green jersey to Hushovd, is last in the competition with one point.
Frank Schleck breaks collarbone in three places
Frank Schleck broke his collarbone in a crash
Luxembourg's Frank Schleck broke his collarbone in three places, his Saxo Bank team said Tuesday after the Tour de France hopeful crashed out of the race on the chaotic third stage.
Schleck hit the ground on the fourth, and one of the most difficult, of seven cobblestone sectors on the finale of the 213km race from Wanze in Brussels to here.
His brother Andy, last year's runner-up to Alberto Contador of Spain, finished among the front group with Australian Cadel Evans and stage winner Thor Hushovd to leave rival Lance Armstrong down the standings.
Andy's superb ride on one of the most treacherous stages of this year's race was tempered by the fact he lost his brother for the rest of his campaign.
Saxo Bank later said in a statement: "After the horrible crash earlier today, Team Saxo Bank's Frank Schleck was examined at a local hospital where x-rays revealed three fractures of his left collarbone which obviously stopped the national champion of Luxembourg from continuing today's stage.
"After having congratulated his teammates tonight after a job well done on the cobblestones, he is undergoing immediate surgery and will be out of competition for a longer period of time."
Garmin refocus aims after losing yellow jersey man
Garmin's David Millar chats to Lance Armstrong
Garmin-Transitions have had a literally agonising 24 hours, but they are determined to make their Tour de France campaign one to remember for all the right reasons.
The American outfit came to the race hoping for Christian Vande Velde to aim for yet another top five finish, but Vande Velde is heading home to Spain on Tuesday after crashing twice and breaking ribs during the chaotic second stage.
Team manager Jonathan Vaughters admits it has scuppered their plans for overall success at this year's Tour, where Lance Armstrong and Andy Schleck look to be the biggest challengers to yellow jersey champion Alberto Contador.
However Vaughters is not one for giving up.
Despite injuries to most of his team, in particular American sprint ace Tyler Farrar who began the treacherous third stage with several knocks including an injured wrist that will make riding over the cobbles painful, he remains upbeat.
"We just have to be a more flexible team, with our objectives and our strategies," Vaughters said ahead of the start of Tuesday's stage which headed into Paris-Roubaix country.
"I feel like this team has the ability to manage that. We won't have a rider (finishing) in the top five, but we're still going to give it everything to make sure we have a great and exciting Tour de France."
Farrar remains Garmin's biggest hope for a stage win in the coming days and, providing he gets through the cobbles on Tuesday, will look to Wednesday's 153.5km ride from Cambrai to Reims, a relatively easy stage which is expected to finish in a bunch sprint.
Vande Velde's unexpected departure has also opened up possibilities for Scot David Millar, who came close to adding to his stage success on the race last year before being caught by the peloton in Barcelona.
Millar described the crash-marred second stage, on which over half the peloton came to some kind of crash mishap, as one of the "top five worst days on a bike, ever".
In spite of their misfortune, he is trying to keep his spirits up.
"I'm very proud of the fact that all of us finished (stage two) considering the disparity of some of our injuries. It reflects why our team is what it is, and why I love it," said Millar.
Vaughters said that despite his injuries, Farrar was determined to carry on.
"It was his decision to start this morning, the injury he has is not in jeopardy in the long-term," said the American.
"If he doesn't want to continue, he doesn't have to."
© AFP 2010