MORE SPILLS IN THE HILLS
Peloton keeps landing on ground; cobblestones today won’t help any
SPA, Belgium — One of the most difficult stages of the Tour de France comes today, when cyclists rumble over seven stretches of teeth-jarring cobblestones, four of which also are part of Paris-Roubaix, an intense one-day spring cycling event that European riders refer to as “The Hell of the North.”
After crashes marred the first two stages Sunday and Monday, it’s virtually certain that no rider will look forward to racing the hellish cobblestones.
“Between yesterday and today,” said Lance Armstrong, “I think the vast majority of the peloton has been on the ground at least once.”
Monday’s stage from Brussels to Spa, won by France’s Sylvain Chavanel, was cruel to the yellow-jersey
Armstrong skidded and suffered minor bruises. Defending champion Alberto Contador did the same and had to change his bike to finish the stage.
Andy Schleck, who was runner-up to Contador in the Tour de France last July, bloodied both elbows. Immediately after the crash, Schleck scared his team by gingerly cradling his left arm, a reaction that can indicate a broken collarbone.
Such was not the case, however, and Schleck, with help from his older brother Frank and teammate Jens Voigt, rejoined the peloton before the stage ended.
Chavanel won by 3 minutes, 56 seconds, a surprising margin that gave him the yellow jersey and an overall lead that could last for several stages to come. Armstrong, who had been in fourth place by less than a half minute, dropped a spot and was 3:19 behind Chavanel in the overall standings.
“I’d like to wear (yellow) as long as possible,” said Chavanel, who rides for a Belgian team and is not considered an overall yellow-jersey threat. “I think it’s possible to keep it for several days.”
Given his 2:57 overall lead over second-place Fabian Cancellara, it’s likely Chavanel will keep the jersey after the cobbles are concluded today.
Stage 2 was a bit out of the ordinary for a first week of the Tour. It included a trio of category three climbs in the hills of the Ardennes and featured many of the same roads included in Liege-BastogneLiege, another European spring classic cycling event.
Monday’s mayhem occurred on the descent of the category three Col du Stockeu. Rain, which had pelted the peloton for part of the stage, started getting worse, making for unavoidable, slippery conditions.
Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s longtime team director, believed oil on the road, mixing with the rain, was the culprit for the mass crashes.
“It was like ice skating,” Bruyneel said. “Nobody could stay on the road. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Cancellara, who also is a teammate of Andy Schleck, avoided falling as he rode at the front of the group of contenders. But he started slowing when he realized his team leader was on the pavement. Then he looked around and noticed that a number of big names no longer were riding near him.
Armstrong and Contador eventually caught up with the peloton. Schleck caught up within the final 12 miles.
Cyclists have been cringing over today’s stage from nearby Wanze to Porte du Hainaut in northern France since the Tour unveiled the route last fall.
The 132-mile route includes seven sections of uneven cobblestones, which will result in an intense stage. The four final sections of cobbles are part of the Paris-Roubaix route.
Bigger, stronger riders like Cancellara, who won Paris-Roubaix, are favored. Armstrong also will be a challenger. In 2004, the last time the Tour included a similar stage, Armstrong’s team took over to put time on the smaller climbers contending for yellow.
There is a chance that the slightly built Contador could falter. Earlier this summer, Contador scouted the stage with a former rider who specialized in cobblestones. Armstrong rode the stage last week before he arrived in Rotterdam. He also included the Tour of Flanders, which had some cobblestones, on his racing schedule.
Armstrong said in an interview that, using a scale of one to five as the most difficult, the cobbles from the 2004 Tour would rank as a two on the difficulty scale — not that hard.
“These will be 4.5,” Armstrong said.
The good news for the riders is neither rain nor high winds are forecast for today. Temperatures are expected to be in the 70s for near-pristine riding conditions. Still, riders recuperating from Stages 1 and 2 will be covered in netting and white bandages, nursing their bruises.
Armstrong joked: “After today, it almost made me wonder why I got off the beach” in retirement.
Lance Armstrong lost some ground in the standings during the second stage of the Tour de France. He’s now fifth overall.