Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and nearly half of the riders in this year’s Tour de France have already been involved in crashes after only two stages — and the casualty rate is about to get even worse.
Seven-time Tour champion Armstrong and his biggest rival Contador were caught up in a series of crashes Monday as scores of riders went down during a rain-soaked second stage.
Most fell towards the end of the 201-kilometer ride from Brussels to Spa, in the Stockeu pass downhill, after a motorbike crashed and spilled oil minutes before the cyclists arrived.
Sunday’s first stage was also marred by multiple crashes. But all that drama could be nothing compared to what the bunch faces in Tuesday’s 213-kilometer ride from Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut in France.
The stage features seven cobblestone sectors on tiny roads, including four in the last 30 kilometers. More crashes are expected. In total, there will be 13.2 kilometers of cobbles.
“Going.To.Be.Carnage,” Armstrong said on his Twitter feed last week after scouting out the stage.
“Someone will lose the race that day, I just don’t know who it’s going to be. It could be Lance, could be Alberto, could be (Andy) Schleck,” Garmin-Transitions team manager Jonathan Vaughters said.
Armstrong, who lies fifth in the overall standings and leads Contador by five seconds, has the upper hand on his rival on the cobblestones. Armstrong is a more experienced rider and Contador first rode on cobbles only this season.
“Lance is better on the cobblestones,” RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel said. “But to drop somebody tomorrow will be difficult.”
To avoid crashes, all teams will want to ride at the front of the peloton before entering the cobbles sections.
“That was important to see them,” Bruyneel said, referring to the scouting of the stage. “And it actually was worse than we thought. It’s gonna be a really nerve-racking finale tomorrow.”
Earlier this season, the 38-year-old Armstrong demonstrated that he could handle the cobblestones with a strong showing at the one-day classic Tour of Flanders, which he used as a training run before the Tour.
Bruyneel said Tuesday’s cobblestones sections are by far more difficult than in 2004, the last time Tour de France riders had to tackle cobbles.
That year, Armstrong’s rival Iban Mayo of Spain crashed ahead of a cobbled section and his hopes to knock Armstrong off his perch were dashed in a single blow.
Contador, who like Armstrong suffered only cuts and bruises in Monday’s crashes, is particularly wary of the cobbles.
“For me it’s the worst day,” he said.
Among the riders who crashed Monday, Christian Vande Velde pulled out from the race after breaking two ribs while his Garmin-Transitions teammate and fellow American Tyler Farrar broke his left wrist but is expected to be at the start on Tuesday.
“There was no way to stay on the bike,” said Armstrong, who grazed a hip. “There was something on the road … I was scared. Everybody was scared.”
Equally unlucky was 2009 Tour runner-up Andy Schleck. The Luxembourg rider appeared to injure his elbows in another spill. He returned to the race and rejoined the pack.
Sylvain Chavanel of France collected his second career Tour stage victory Monday and took the race leader’s yellow jersey off Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara who, like Armstrong and Contador, trailed 3:56 in the main pack. Armstrong placed 54th and Contador was 81st.
After all the crashes, the peloton refused to sprint as a protest, upsetting last year’s green jersey winner Thor Hushovd.
“I feel frustrated by what happened today,” Hushovd said. “Our team was working hard and we would have had a good chance for victory. 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.”
After Andy Schleck dropped several minutes back of the pack — threatening his Tour title ambitions — the main bunch appeared to slow down, with his Saxo Bank teammate Cancellara at the front.
Between Schleck and Chavanel’s group at the front, confusion broke out in the pack about how to respond.
“There was a group up the road, we didn’t know what to do,” Armstrong said. “The Schlecks were behind, some other guys were behind. It was sort of a conflict about what to do then.”
While some riders criticized Tour organizers for the danger of the stage, Armstrong said crashes and bad weather were part of the sport.
“These hills around here and the Ardennes are legendary, it’s part of cycling,” Armstrong said. “Liege-Bastogne-Liege (one-day classic race) 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 organizers.”