MORE SPILLS IN THE HILLS

Pelo­ton keeps land­ing on ground; cob­ble­stones to­day won’t help any

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Suzanne Hal­libur­ton

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

con­tenders.

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.

Christophe Ena AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lance Arm­strong lost some ground in the stand­ings dur­ing the sec­ond stage of the Tour de France. He’s now fifth over­all.

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