Following an afternoon of high drama yesterday in the Tour de France as the peloton, headed by overall leader Fabian Cancellara, apparently took the unilateral decision to neutralise the race in a protest against unsafe conditions, two of Cervélo TestTeam’s leading riders have vented their frustration at how events panned out and questioned the Swiss rider’s motives for ensuring that the field was brought back together and the sprint not contested.
Carlos Sastre, winner of the overall title in 2008 and the team’s main contender here, missed an opportunity to put some serious time into several of his general classification rivals, while Thor Hushovd, who claimed the green jersey last year, felt that he had been denied the chance to deal what could have been a fatal blow to Mark Cavendish’s attempt to win the points competition.
However, a number of teams highlighted the dangerous conditions on the descent of the Col de Stockeu, 30km from the finish, apparently caused by an oil spill from a motorbike, that caused what is estimated to be up to half the riders to crash on their way down, as justification for the decision to slow the race down.
In the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s stage, won by nearly four minutes by Sylvain Chavanel, sole survivor of the day’s breakaway, who took the maillot jaune, an entry on Sastre’s blog quoted the Spaniard as saying that his team-mate Hushovd had told him that while the race was still in progress, Cancellara said that the stage had been neutralised.
Although race commissaries did decide later on not to award points other than to Chavanel, no such decision was taken during the race, while the pace being slowed down at the front of the peloton meant that most riders, including contenders for the overall title, who had fallen victim to chutes on the slippery descent of the Stockeu were able to get back into the main bunch.
Those benefiting included Lance Armstrong and defending champion Alberto Contador, but more significantly, Cancellara’s fellow Team Saxo Bank riders, the Schleck brothers, who both appeared to be in serious trouble after falling some 30km from the line.
A huge effort from Jens Voigt, who dropped back to aid his team-mates, helped get the pair back to the peloton, but had the race been proceeding at full pace, the siblings would have lost a significant amount of time – certainly minutes, rather than seconds.
The quotes from Sastre that appeared straight after the stage were subsequently removed from his website and replaced by some more toned-down comments, although a hint of his frustration remained in the headline quote – “It has been a strange situation that hasn’t helped us out at all” – followed by the words “According to Sastre, Cancellara told Hushovd that the race had been neutralised.”
Hushovd, who crossed the line in seventh place only to find out later that the race commissaries had decided only to award points to the stage winner, was equally forthright, with Associated Press quoting the Norwegian as saying: "I feel frustrated by what happened today. Our team was working hard and we would have had a good chance for victory.”
He continued: “I feel like they have taken something away from us today. Everyone made a gentleman's agreement not to sprint, but I lost an important opportunity to try to win the stage and gain points."
Gérard Vroomen, co-owner of Cervélo, was also clearly unhappy, taking aim on his Twitter feed at Team Saxon Bank owner, Bjarne Riis. “Kudos to Riis, having a rider protest staged when your two leaders are about to lose the Tour de France. A great coup,” he wrote.
In a reference to today’s Stage 3, which includes sections of pave used in Paris-Roubaix, Vroomen added: “Note to peloton: Cobblestones are also slippery. So Cancellara will stop the peloton when Contador crashes tomorrow?”
A statement on the Team Saxo Bank website said that, “It was a remarkable stage where fair play from the favorites played an important role for the outcome.”
However, that was followed by a hint of what may have been uppermost in Cancellara’s thoughts, with the Swiss rider saying: "The first thing on my mind after the crash was Andy and Fränk. They are our captains and of course, I want to show solidarity, respect and loyalty to them and to the race by waiting even though I lost the jersey."
According to Contador’s Astana Team, oil from a crashed motorcycle had contributed to the dangerous conditions on the Stockeu, with the Kazakh outfit saying in a statement: “Alberto was one of the many riders who suffered a fall on the Stockeu climb on a road that had turned into a skating rink due to rain and, apparently, the loss of fuel of a motorcycle which had fallen minutes before the riders passed."
Meanwhile Lance Armstrong, himself a beneficiary of the stage’s effective neutralisation, said that the peloton had been split about how to react. "There was a group up the road, we didn't know what to do," the Team RadioShack rider said. "The Schlecks were behind, some other guys were behind. It was sort of a conflict about what to do then."
But the seven-time Tour de France winner insisted that the conditions, and the possibility of crashing, were intrinsic to the sport: "These hills around here and the Ardennes are legendary, it's part of cycling. Liege-Bastogne-Liege has been around for a hundred years and they do that on the snow. That's bad luck. For whatever reason the road was slippery and it's by no means any fault of the organisers."
Another victim of the conditions yesterday was Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, who according to Team Principal Dave Brailsford received “bumps and bruises.”
Referring to the decision by the peloton not to contest the remainder of the stage, Brailsford said: "Brad bust his bike so Edvald [Boasson Hagen] gave him his and in the front group we had [Geraint] Thomas and [Juan Antonio] Flecha and the riders all started talking amongst themselves about it being such a big crash behind that they shouldn't really ride. So they decided they wouldn't, it all came back together and that was it.”
One of the big losers yesterday was Garmin-Transitions, with team leader Christian Vande Velde, Tyler Farrar and Julian Dean all taken to hospital. Vande Velde, who has had desperately bad luck with injuries in grand tours, broke two ribs as well as suffering lacerations to his left eyelid, and has abandoned the race, while the other pair will line up for the start of today’s Stage 3, despite their injuries, which include a broken wrist for Farrar.
The stage, which takes the riders on into France on a 213km route from Wanze to Arenberg-Porte de Hainault, is likely to provide little respite to bodies bruised and battered from yesterday’s exertions, including seven sections of pavé totalling 13.2km, the last coming some 10km from the finish on another day that is likely to be relished by the Classics specialists and endured by everyone else.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.