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tour de france

Tour de France: Two Favorites Emerge From a Pile of Carnage

Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan grew up watching eight-hour*** silent Japanese satellite feeds of the Tour de France because her dad needed more than ABC's meager coverage. She'll be writing about the Tour (or TDF) for the next few weeks. Today's installment: What's happened so far, stage by stage.

As you know from yesterday's overview, every rider but Lance Armstrong would have to quit and go rebuild the French soccer team for the former champ to have a prayer of winning. He crashed three times in Stage 8 on Sunday (Monday was a rest day) and finished the day thirteen minutes and 26 seconds behind the leaders — Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, and Alberto Contador.

Is it even worth watching the Tour anymore now that Armstrong is out of the running? Hells yes! One, at nearly 39 years old, did you really think Armstrong had a chance? No. So stop crying. Seriously, stop it. And two, this thing is so freaking close. As of today's Stage 9 (SPOILER ALERT) the Tour has suddenly become a two-man race between Schleck, now in the yellow jersey, and Contador, hot on his tail at 41 seconds back.

Coming up, we still have a week and a half of what many consider the hardest TDF route in years. (Check out Velonews.com for profile views of each stage.) There's one more stage in the Alps, then a flat-ish stage in the foothills, a seemingly flat stage that sneakily contains the steepest climb in the entire Tour, another flat stage, and finally four days in the Pyrenees. That leaves ample opportunity for riders to continue attacking each other on many, many ascents. Stage 17, three from the end, finishes atop the crazy-steep Hors Categorie Col de Tourmalet (climbs are rated 4-1, with Category 1 being way hard and Hors Categorie being so hard it's "beyond categorization"). Stage 19, the last stage before Paris, is an individual time trial. Even after 21 days, the outcome could still be in question up through the bitter end. How'd we get here?

What happened: Prologue. The hunt for tiny little motors. Route: Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Rotterdam. Terrain: Flat. Distance: 8.9 kilometers (5.5 miles).
The field of 198 had already been cut to 197 because drug tests found the banned substance ephedrine in Xavier Florencio's (Team Cervél) blood work. He claimed he'd been using it to treat saddle sores. No one seems able to explain how ephedrine can be used to treat saddle sores. Ew. Saddle sores.

Besides the unusual starting location of Rotterdam, Netherlands, the traditional opening time trial was relatively uneventful for GC riders (General Classification; the guys vying for the overall title). There was some rain and two riders had to pull out after crashes: Mathias Frank (broken thumb, torn thigh muscle, stitched lip cut) and Manuel Cardoso (broken jaw, broken shoulder blade). Armstrong finished fourth, 22 seconds back from first place, but five seconds ahead of Contador, who finished sixth. The stage winner was, as expected, Swiss time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara, who finished in exactly ten minutes and wore his number, thirteen, upside down to ward off its bad luck. That was cute. The fun began the minute Cancellara stepped off his bike. He's been clocking such fast times in recent events that the International Cycling Union confiscated his bike, along with thirteen others, for immediate examination via X-ray to make sure he hadn't cheated with a tiny electrical motor. He hadn't. Or so they tell us. Who knows what to believe in this crazy sport anymore?

What happened: Stage 1. Crashes galore. Route: Rotterdam (they didn't actually go anywhere in the prologue) to Brussels, Belgium. Terrain: Flat. Distance: 223.5 kilometers (139 miles). Armstrong called the stage "total mayhem." The Dutch crowds were enormous and partying hard, often spilling into the street and giving the riders very little room to maneuver in the already dangerously windy and narrow streets filled with hard-to-see medians. Netherlands had just beaten Brazil in the World Cup the day before, so that likely had a lot to do with the chaos (read: drunkenness). Belgian crowds were just as big — an estimated 1 million spectators. ("There must not be anyone else in Belgium!" said awesome announcer Phil Liggett.)

Race-wise, Belgian rider Maarten Wynans won an award for the day's most aggressive rider, spending the entire race (five and a half hours) out front, only to get caught by the Peloton with 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) to go. But really, the story was the crashes. And if riders weren't crashing, they were stuck behind crashes. In one instance early on, a dog ran onto the course, taking out several top riders including Giro champ Ivan Basso. Closer to the end, sprinters Óscar Freire and Mark Cavendish — who won six stages in the 2009 TDF and was a favorite to win the Stage 1 sprint — crashed while rounding a sharp reverse-hairpin turn. Then a massive pileup half a mile from the finish blocked the road and took out, well, everyone, including race leader Cancellara (he may have caused the pileup, in fact, after some other rider hit is back wheel and caused him to do a weird hairline diagonal across the field). He still kept the yellow jersey. Italian Alessandro Petacchi managed to cross the finish line first among the small group of twenty or so who escaped in front of the sea of injury. But even within that group, top American sprinter Tyler Farrar ended up having to cross the finish line on foot after another rider hit his back wheel and broke his derailleur. By the end of the day, fourteen riders, including Basso and Team RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer, were on the injured list with multiple cuts and bruises, while two others (Juan Jose Oroz and Adam Hansen) had sustained worse (injured wrist and possible broken collarbone, respectively). Said Petacchi to the New York Times: "I am happy that I won. Also happy that I survived."

What happened: Stage 2. Crashes galore, part two. Route: Brussels to Spa, Belgium. Terrain: Mostly flat with six minor climbs, three falling in the last 40 kilometers (24 miles). Distance: 201 kilometers (124 miles). The day started without Adam Hansen, who did indeed break his collarbone, making him the only casualty of the Stage 1 carnage, which is pretty remarkable. Even the dog was reported to be doing well. But then the rain started coming. A crash mid-race behind the GC left French rider Mickael Delage bleeding from the face and he had to drop out. Later, a wet descent on the Stockeu pass caused a motorcycle carrying television cameras to skid out, leaving oil on the road, and then riders started going down like dominoes. By day's end, nearly half the field of 198 had been involved in a crash. Armstrong and Contador both fell, Armstrong emerging with a scraped leg and hip and a re-injury to the elbow that caused him to drop out of the Tour of California earlier this year. Farrar, the guy who walked across the finish line in Stage 1, fell again, spraining his left elbow and breaking his left wrist, but continuing on. One of the favorites to win overall, American Christian Vande Velde, also fell in the slick, breaking two ribs to add to the three ribs he broke just before the Tour. He finished, but in 146th place, nine minutes back, and dropped out. Contenders Frank and Andy Schleck fell, with Andy hurting his elbow and wasting tons of time looking stunned on the side of the road before jumping on a teammate's bike. (It was pretty cool seeing his tech team pull up in a car and adjust his seat height as he rode.)

Cancellara didn't fall but he slowed down and effectively gave up the yellow jersey to help the Schleck brothers, his team leaders, who at that point were three minutes behind. The stage winner by a long shot and new overall leader was Sylvain Chavanel of France who broke away seven kilometers in and simply managed to hold on to the lead. In his last act as the yellow jersey, Cancellara took control of the Peloton and slowed the pace out of fairness to allow 100 crashed riders (100!), including many GC condenders — Armstrong, Contador, Basso, Andy and Frank Schleck — to catch up. He also used his position as race leader to ask the race organizers not to award any points for the final sprint and to give everyone the same finishing time, so the front group all crossed in a line, a sort of protest to the conditions of the course. It was a classy move, but eliminating the sprint felt pretty unnecessary at that point. Fans were upset because it deprived them of an exciting ending. The sprinters, understandably, kind of hated it too.

What happened: Stage 3. The dreaded cobblestones (a.k.a. crashes galore, part 3). Route: Wanze, Belgium to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France. Terrain: One climb, seven sections of cobblestones. Distance: 213 kilometer (132 miles).
Um, yeah, so as expected, this stage sucked. But it was exciting! The route went over seven stretches of cobblestones nicknamed "The Hell of the North," many of which are featured in the famed, one-day Paris-Roubaix race. Anyone who's ridden a bike in Soho knows that cobblestones are murder on the arms and other delicate parts, particularly when one is riding a road bike with high-compression tires and no shock absorption. Lightweights like Contador were in particular danger of getting jostled off the road. And with high-pressure tires bouncing along cobbles at insane speeds, flat tires were almost a given. Things were further complicated by a change in the rules this year that banned riders from taking spare parts from anyone other than a teammate or a team car. (In the past, sometimes, teams would leave strategically placed spare parts on the side of the road.) This because race organizers still feared riders were cheating with tiny little motors, and might have implanted said motors in those uninspected spare parts. But because of the narrow, dangerous roads, team cars were following at quite a distance from the riders they were assisting. That meant that anyone in mechanical difficulty would have to wait by the side of the road until help arrived, and was almost guaranteed to lose serious time.

Carnage, then, was expected. And carnage, oh it was. Farrar rode despite a fractured wrist, though he seemed in obvious pain the whole time and finished 134th. Two riders fell on their faces; ten others had minor injuries. The worst injuries went to GC contender Frank Schleck, who broke his collarbone in three places, as well as his elbow, and had to pull out of the race, leaving his brother Andy alone to fend for himself in the mountains. Both Armstrong and Contador got caught behind Frank Schleck's crash, while a small group of riders, including former leader Cancellara and Andy Schleck, took advantage of smooth pavement to build some distance. Armstrong got free first and gave chase; Contador eventually caught up. Then Armstrong got a flat and Contador sped ahead. The day ended with Armstrong finishing 32nd, two minutes and eight seconds behind the leader, almost a minute behind Contador, who finished fourteenth despite low expectations for his cobblestone-handling abilities. (Contador, it should be noted, did a truly awesome job of handling his bike — hopping over "road furniture" left and right — in terrain that really is not his forte.) Armstrong also fell behind podium contenders Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. Sylvain Chavanel, who'd won the yellow jersey in a great breakaway the day before, had to switch bikes three — yes, three — times and lost four minutes in the process. As a result, Cancellara reclaimed the overall lead. Sprinter Thor Hushovd of Cérvelo took the stage.

What happened: Stage 4. The day no one important fell. Route: Cambrai to Reims. Terrain: Flat. Distance: 153.5 kilometers (95.3 miles). Field down to 189. The cobblestones had claimed Frank Schleck and David Le Lay of Team Ag2r. There was a crash. No one you care about. Some guys broke away. They got caught. Alessandro Petacchi, winner of Stage 1, won the sprint and took his second stage. Cancellara remained in first overall. Armstrong remained two minutes and 30 seconds off the lead in eighteenth overall.

What happened: Stage 5. When brashness wins. Route: Épernay to Montargis. Terrain: Flat, but the Alps loom close. Distance: 187.5 kilometers (116.5 miles). In the morning Contador gave watches to his former Astana teammates as thanks for helping him win last year, a tradition for Tour victors started by Greg LeMonde in 1987. The heat and sun were relentless. There were a few minor breakaways. The stage ended in a sprint, with British sprinter Mark Cavendish taking an emotional win. He's won ten TDF stages, six last year. But he lost the green jersey in 2009 after being penalized for veering from his line in the final sprint of a stage. And this year he crashed in Stage 1, couldn't sprint because of the protest in Stage 2, and got caught behind Frank Schleck's crash, along with Armstrong, in Stage 3. He was so frustrated when Hushovd won Stage 4, he slammed his bike down and threw his helmet out the bus window. So, um, yeah, glad he won this one. He cried a bunch. No change in the GC standings.

What happened: Stage 6. The longest day. Route: Montargis to Gueugnon. Terrain: Rolling hills, high plains. Distance: 227.5 kilometers (141.4 miles). The longest distance for a single stage in this year's Tour. A group of three non-GC riders managed to break off at the start of the stage and got up to a seven-minute lead on the field. They were caught with around nine kilometers to go. It was impressive they held on that long, but, you know, sucks for them. Cavendish took the win again. No major GC movement.

The most exciting stuff happened after the race ended. Top Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen crashed into an overeager television cameraman just past the finish line while he was still doing 60 kilometers per hour. He went to the hospital with a sore back and decided to continue on in the race. The cameraman was suspended from covering Stage 7; McEwen thought he should have been banned from the whole Tour. Also after the finish line, Carlos Barredo of Spain (Quick Step) attacked Rui Costa of Portugal (Cassie D'Epagne) with a bicycle wheel. Footage showed Barredo charging toward Costa and trying to hit him over the head with the wheel. Then they both started punching each other in the face and fell to the ground screaming. Barredo claimed Costa had elbowed him while riding and nearly knocked him off his bike. Both were cited for "insults and threats" and "incorrect behavior" and fined about $380, but since the incident took place after the finish, they were allowed to continue to race. Watch the fight here.

What happened: Stage 7. The rare day Frenchmen ruled the Tour de France. Route: Tournus to Station des Rousses. Terrain: Foothills of the Alps. Flat for the first 45 kilometers, then a series of three Category 2 (medium hard) climbs at the end. Distance: 165.5 kilometer (103 miles). Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of Quick Step reclaimed the yellow jersey for the first time since losing it after falling twice and getting a flat on the cobbles in Stage 3. (Fun fact, he'd been in an induced coma only a few months earlier after fracturing his skull.) At around eight kilometers, Chavanel's Quick Step teammate Jerome Pineau joined a five-man breakaway that built a lead of over eight minutes. Then 43 kilometers to go, with the gap down to two minutes and twenty seconds, French cyclist Thomas Voeckler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom led a chase group, followed soon by Chavanel on his own. He caught up with Voeckler, then attacked that group, closing in on his teammate Pineau, who by that time had run out of juice and eventually got swept up by the Peleton. Pineau won his second stage of this Tour 57 seconds ahead of his nearest chaser, and finished the day in yellow, one minute and 25 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans. Cancellara, the previous yellow jersey, finished more than fourteen minutes down.

In an odd but perhaps telling moment for the events of Lance Armstrong's terrible Stage 8, Armstrong was the only member of Team RadioShack who finished in the lead group with Schleck, Contador, and the rest of the GC contenders. Among the major concerns about Team RadioShack was that most of the guys in it are nearly as old as Armstrong. They're experienced, but once one passes age 33 or 35 in cycling, recovery after a tough mountain stage is much harder. And if your job is to be the guy who exhausts himself for the team leader, then there's going to be a time after a few consecutive mountain stages when all of the domestiques on the team are too old and tired to be any help. So when Armstrong finished by himself in this stage, was it a strategic move by Team RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel to rest the legs of Armstrong's domestiques for the next day? Or was it yet another sign that Armstrong's team was incredibly experienced, but incredibly old?

What happened: Stage 8. The day Lance Armstrong's luck ran out. Route: Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz. Terrain: The first real stage in the Alps. Final 50 kilometers incredibly difficult, starting with the Category 1 Col de la Ramaz (14.3 kilometers at 6.8 percent), followed by a steep descent, a Category 3 climb, and then a final Category 1 climb up to the ski hill of Avoriaz (13.6 kilometers at 6.1 percent). Distance: 189 kilometers (117 miles).
It's sad that a legend like Lance Armstrong has had so many bad breaks this early in the Tour. He was in much better shape than last year, and he'd never before crashed in the TDF. But he fell badly in Stage 2 and it felt like every other day he was getting caught behind someone else's crash. He started the day a minute and 40 seconds back from Contador thanks to that flat tire on the cobbles in Stage 3. Ten kilometers into this first big Alpine stage, he had to ride off the road to avoid a crash ahead of him and chase his way back up to the Peleton. Then, with 55 kilometers to go, at the bottom of the ascent up Col de la Ramaz, he had his worst crash yet going about 40 miles per hour through a roundabout. He got a flat, lost his front tire, tore up the back of his jersey, injured his left hip, and lost the seat on his bike, forcing him to grab a spare bike from the team car. He spent the rest of the ride bleeding from his knee and both elbows. A number of his RadioShack teammates stayed back to help him give chase, and he caught up with the back of the Peleton, only to get dropped again soon after once Team Astana realized he was in trouble and started setting a pace at the front he simply couldn't match. As if that weren't enough, as he was five minutes back and about to start the final ascent up to Avoriaz, he even managed to get entangled in yet another minor crash. An Euskaltel-Euskadi rider missed grabbing a food bag and tumbled into Armstrong, forcing him to unclip his pedals and come to a complete stop, at which point he just stood there for a minute and gave his bike a look that could turn it to stone, like, Really? He crossed the finish line eleven minutes and 45 seconds back from the leaders, an insurmountable gap. He'll now become a helper to Levi Leipheimer, the new RadioShack leader, who's now in eighth place.

Elsewhere in the race, Cadel Evans, the eventual race leader, was involved in that first crash ten kilometers in and rode the rest of the day with torn shorts and bleeding road rash on his left hip. There were a number of breaks throughout the day, none successful, thanks to the brutal pace set by a select group of GC riders (the same pace that eviscerated Armstrong's hopes of catching up after his many setbacks). Andy Schleck attacked 1km from the end and took the stage win, as well as another ten seconds on Contador, who didn't have enough energy to respond. He finished in second, just twenty seconds behind Evans. Afterward, Schleck commented that he'd been riding just behind Armstrong in that worst of three crashes and felt pretty bad for him. "He came back, but he was pretty beaten up, and on the Col de la Ramaz climb he lost contact with our group. I thought he could be up there at the front, and all respect for him, to still be there, and to see what he did all year already. To be honest, I'm a little sorry for him; he really wanted this, his last Tour. I'm sure his morale is down. But I think he could still win a stage." And with that, we've picked Schleck as this year's winner. Not only because he's clearly in great form, but also because he's a nice guy. Go Andy!

What happened: Stage 9. The day this became a two-man race. Route: Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Terrain: Day three in the Alps. Five rated climbs, including two Category 1 climbs up Col de la Coumbiere and Col des Saises and one Hors Categorie climb up the famous Col de la Madeleine (6.2 percent grade for sixteen miles). But no mountaintop finish, which means riders dropped on the final climb have 30 kilometers to catch up. Distance: 204.5 kilometers (127 miles). The day began without four (rather inconsequential) riders who'd been knocked off the end of the pack after Sunday's trip through the mountains. Attacks began less than one kilometer into the stage. It's complicated, but there are several points contests within the TDF, one is for the best young rider (white jersey), one is for the best sprinter (green jersey), and one is for King of the Mountains (white jersey with red polka dots). You gain points by being first, second, third, etc, to cross certain points-gaining-lines set up throughout each stage. In the race for the sprinters' jersey, the designated line is usually set up in some flat straightaway. In the KOM contest, points are awarded to the first riders to finish a climb. So if you're wondering why a bunch of guys who don't stand a chance of winning the TDF are suddenly racing up a mountain only to get caught by the Peloton seconds later, that's why.

Let's see, so there was an early break of eleven that went off the front early and built, at one point, over a six-minute lead on the main group. The breakaway included KOM leader Jerome Pineau, Andy Schleck's Saxo Bank teammate Jens Voigt, and strong climbers Sandy Casar, Luis Leon Sanchez, Damiano Cunego, and Anthony Carteau, with Sanchez, who'd started off the day in twentieth place, in the best position overall. At first, the Peloton chase was led in alternation by BMC (team of Cadel Evans, the yellow jersey), and Armstrong, who indeed was working his hardest to put Team RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer in podium position and seemed to be trying to prove he's still an awesome rider despite his horrible Stage 8. With 100 kilometers to go, Saxo Bank (Andy Schleck's team) and Astana (Alberto Contador's team) moved to the front of the Peloton and began driving the pace, shredding non-climbers like early stage winners Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd off the back. As the riders began the climb up Col de la Madeleine, the breakaway shrunk to five men, and GC contenders Carlos Sastre and Ryder Hesjedal (who'd been in twelfth and sixth place going into Stage 9) failed to keep up with the Peloton. Armstrong, Leipheimer, Contador, Schleck, and Evans all remained in the main group.

With ten kilometers to go to the summit of Madeleine, Evans cracked, followed by Armstrong, followed by Leipheimer, leaving Contador and Schleck at the front. Schleck attacked, but Contador stayed in contact. They both got attached by Spain's Samuel Sanchez (who started off the stage in ninth place), but responded and passed him. Then the two seemed to come to an agreement to work together and gain time on the rest of the field. They started sweeping up foundering members of the breakaway, which at this point was down to three men, and continued racing up the mountain, this time with Schleck's Saxo Bank teammate Jens Voigt in tow. Ninety seconds behind the Contador-Schleck-Voigt group was a group led by Armstrong and Ivan Basso. In between the two groups was Leipheimer, along with Rabobank's Denis Menchov, another GC contender. Evans at that point was five minutes behind Contador-Schleck.

Just as Contador and Schleck crested Madeleine, two minutes and ten seconds behind the breakaway leaders, Voigt popped, coming to a dead stop. Sammy Sanchez, riding alone, followed at two minutes and 54 seconds. The Menchov-Leipheimer group crested at three minutes and 24 seconds back, and Basso-Armstrong at four minutes and 24 seconds. Contador-Schleck quickly started eating away at the breakaway's lead on the descent and in the fifteen kilometer ride through a valley to the finish. With less than one kilometer to go — with Schleck leading the effort and Contador hanging onto his wheel — they caught the remaining members of the breakaway. There was a frantic sprint 200 meters from the end, and Frenchman Sandy Casar took the stage. Sammy Sanchez finished 55 seconds behind. Leipheimer-Menchov finished two minutes and seven seconds behind, and the Basso-Armstrong group finished at two minutes and 52 seconds. Evans finished over eight minutes down.

As things stand now, Andy Schleck now has the yellow jersey. Contador is next, 41 seconds behind. Sammy Sanchez is third at two minutes and 45 seconds back, and thanks to their teamwork, Menchov and Leipheimer are still in it. Evans, who entered the day as the race leader, is now in eighteenth place, seven minutes and 45 seconds behind Schleck, and is basically now out of contention. Tomorrow: More Alps!

***Jada's dad objects and says they were only four hours long, but in kid hours, it really felt like eight. Jada's mom concurs.

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Photo: Lionel Bonavenutre/AFP/Getty Images