Tour de France 2020

Battling through danger, the GC favorites can’t wait to get into the mountains

LISIEUX, France (VN) — It sounds simple enough. Just stay at the front, and stay out of trouble. Problem is, there are 194 guys all simultaneously trying to be in the front five percent of the field. In this high-speed game of musical chairs, somebody is bound to lose out.

Leipheimer loses 65 seconds and 17 GC places in “silly crash”

LISIEUX, France (VN) — It sounds simple enough. Just stay at the front, and stay out of trouble.

2011 Tour de France, stage 6: Leipheimer
'It was just a silly crash.' said Leipheimer.

Problem is, there are 194 guys all simultaneously trying to be in the front five percent of the field. In this high-speed game of musical chairs, somebody is bound to lose out.

On stage 6 into Lixieux, RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer found himself riding a guardrail instead of his bike with just 4km to go on the soggy stage. Although he wasn’t hurt, it was a lousy time to crash. He was just 1km away from the 3km “safety zone” where he would be given the same time as the front group. Instead, he had to chase as the group wound it up for the bunch kick. He lost 65 seconds and dropped from 14th overall down to 31st.

“It was just a silly crash. We knew there was about a kilometer-and-a-half uphill at the end, so it was important to be right at the front,” Leipheimer said. “I was trying to shoot through some gaps, and one time it just closed up on me and I was pinned against the guard rail. I kinda surfed the guardrail for like 20 meters, and thankfully that slowed me down and I just fell into the dirt.”

Leipheimer is by no means the only GC rider down on time from silly crashes. Defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) lost more than a minute on the very first stage, as did Garmin-Cervélo’s Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal.

Vande Velde says he can’t wait until the race gets into the mountains and away from the hectic carnage of the flat and rolling stages.

Another GC favorite licking his wounds is Robert Gesink. Although he hasn’t lost time because of crashes, he has lost skin. The skinny Dutch climber hit the deck hard Wednesday and suffered through the Tour’s longest stage wondering how much longer he could hang on.

“It’s really bad. The pain in my back is the worst, and that’s where you get most of the power,” said Gesink, who started with six stitches in his right elbow. “I knew today would be hard and I made it through, but if it doesn’t improve, I don’t know how much more I can do in this Tour.”

Contador didn’t lose time on stage 6, but he did lose some energy switching bikes with a teammate after a mechanical and chasing back on. Starting the day with bandages on his right arm and leg after crashing twice in stage 5, the three-time Tour winner has not had the luxury of an easy ride in this year’s event.

On Thursday, he swapped bikes with teammate Dani Navarro before getting on his second bike. In the finale, Contador surged to the nose of the pack on the steepest part of the rising finish with about 3km to go before settling in to cross the line with the front pack.

“I am glad to have saved the day,” Contador said after the stage. “I had pain all over, especially in the legs. It was pretty dangerous and at one point, it was really raining hard. Some sort of rock got stuck in my wheel and I opted to switch bikes. First, I grabbed Dani’s bike before getting on my second bike.”

Although Contador is now 1:42 out of the yellow, RadioShack’s Chris Horner said it is still too early to rule the Spaniard out.

“I think he looks the strongest still,” Horner said. “The problem is, he’s by himself a whole lot. He looks really strong at the finishes. He’s doing a lot of work by himself. So maybe that could take some energy away from him. But he still looks like he has the best form of all the favorites.”

With Jani Brajkovic out of the Tour, RadioShack now has three guys for the GC. Andreas Klöden is fifth overall, Horner is 13th and Leipheimer is 31st. Horner is looking forward to Saturday, when the race hits the mountains and gravity clears many of the riders out of his way.

“We hate this part,” Horner said of the climbers’ feeling on the Tour’s first week. “This is the hardest part. Once we get into the mountains, all of a sudden there is some separation.”

For now, with one more flat stage on tap Friday, Horner and the rest of the GC riders are just trying to keep it upright and safe in the front group. Without hills to string out the peloton, Horner says he has no choice but to swim through the middle of the group.

“I’m like a salmon, just finding my way up the river, flowing through any open holes I can find,” Horner said. “That’s all I’m doing all day, and then hoping nobody crashes in front of me.”

The 194 men left in the 2011 Tour de France are all hoping the same thing.

VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.