ST FLOUR, France, (Reuters) – France’s Thomas Voeckler seized the Tour de France reins in a crash-ridden ninth stage yesterday with more favourites caught up in the carnage.
Alberto Contador suffered an early spill before getting back on the saddle amid suggestions he was pushed while Alexandre Vinokourov was among injured several riders to pull out of the race. A television car later hit the leading group.
Voeckler belonged to a breakaway launched with compatriot Sandy Casar and Spain’s Luis-Leon Sanchez, who outsprinted the two Frenchmen for the stage victory.
The trio’s move on the 218-kms ride from Issoire followed a series of crashes and accidents which led the peloton to deliberately slow and eventually cross the line 3:59 minutes behind Sanchez.
Overall, Voeckler leads Sanchez by 1:49 and Australia’s Cadel Evans by 2:26.
The stage was marred by the most serious of several massive pile-ups since the Tour started.
Ninety kilometres from the line, on the Pas de Peyrol descent, a dozen riders fell onto the tarmac or tumbled into a roadside ditch and four were taken to hospital.
Kazakh Vinokourov, third in the Tour in 2003, called it quits with a broken thigh and had to be carried into an ambulance by his team mates.
Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, fifth last year, tried to make it back on his bike but pulled out a few hundred metres further down the road with a broken shoulder blade.
His team mate Frederik Willems fractured his collarbone in the same crash while American David Zabriskie broke a wrist and also called it a day.
The four added their names to a casualty list already comprising Briton Bradley Wiggins, Belgian Tom Boonen and Janez Brajkovic, all forced out of a crash-strewn first week of the Tour.
Such was the chaos that Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, the green jersey holder, Swiss Fabian Cancellara and then yellow jersey holder Thor Hushovd came to the front of the pack and called for a temporary truce to allow teams to enquire about their injured.
Later in the stage, 35 kms from the finish line, a television car hit two members of the then five-man breakaway at the front of the race, Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland.
While Flecha hit the tarmac and hurt his elbow, Hoogerland was sent flying into a barbed-wire barrier. But both were able to make it back on their bikes with severe bruises.
The incident left Voeckler, Casar and Sanchez to battle it out for stage victory.
Monday is a rest day on the Tour with the battered and briused glad of a break.