At the finish of stage 3, Saxo Bank’s Jens Voigt was livid.
“I think the ASO owes the entire Tour peloton a public apology,” an emotional Voigt screamed from his bike. “I lost one of the best friends I have in cycling, Fränk Schleck. And it was written all over the road before the stage even started.
“It was a stupid race, and a stupid mistake from the race organization. All I want is a public apology. They should say ‘Dear riders, it was a mistake, putting on a stage like that.’ It was stupid, it’s as simple as that.”
Not everyone entirely agreed with Voigt, but Tuesday was the day the entire pro peloton had been anxious about since the route was announced, and the day’s seven cobblestone sections delivered the drama the riders, race organization and public all knew was coming.
When the dust had settled, one GC favorite — Voigt teammate Fränk Schleck — was out of the race and two others gained significant time on their rivals, while the winner of last year’s points jersey took one giant step towards a repeat performance.
Whichever riders prove to be the biggest winners of this Tour, the impact stage 3 will have on the remainder of the race can’t be overestimated.
Saxo Bank both benefited and paid a price for the dangers of the day. Andy Schleck gained time on Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, and Fabian Cancellara regained his maillot jaune, but the team lost Fränk Schleck, a key weapon in the mountains and a mentor and confidant to his younger brother.
With two punctures on the pavé, race leader Sylvain Chavanel’s stretch in the yellow jersey was cut down to just one day, meaning Saxo Bank, not Quick Step, will ride to defend the jersey.
Now down a rider, and with Schleck and Cancellara protected, Saxo Bank has just six riders to control the peloton, which may prove significant come the difficult third week in the Pyrenees.
Perhaps the day’s biggest winner was BMC’s Cadel Evans, who finished third on the stage and distanced himself from Contador, Armstrong and the rest of the GC hopefuls. Evans is now the highest-placed GC rider, 30 seconds ahead of Schleck.
“Just to get through it as a GC rider, and get through it without losing any time, was all that I wanted,” Evans said.
In the rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, the lottery that is riding the cobblestones saw a reversal of position in the final 16km, when Armstrong punctured out of a group that sat almost a minute ahead of Contador’s. Instead of gaining time on the Spaniard, Armstrong lost 55 seconds to Contador, and 2:08 to Schleck and Evans.
And in the battle for the green jersey, Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd took a commanding lead over the rest of the peloton’s top sprinters.
Several riders from an already-battered peloton hit the deck, including Sky’s Simon Gerrans, who took stitches to his cheek, but Fränk Schleck’s broken shoulder, which will require surgery, was the most significant of the day’s injuries.
Like Voigt, Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis didn’t agree with ASO’s decision to hold a mini-Paris-Roubaix during the Tour de France.
“I’m not a big fan of the stones in the Tour,” Riis said. “At the end of the day it’s their decision. They are the race organization; they take the responsibility. If we have cobblestones in the Tour de France, we have to deal with it, and get the best out of it. We have to be well prepared, and we were, and be aware of the risks.
“We are going to miss Fränk, especially in the mountains. The most we can do now is focus on what’s in front of us.”
Another German rider, Cervélo’s classics specialist Andreas Klier, said he could see both sides of the argument as to whether the stage belonged in the Tour.
“I think it’s a nice race, but it shouldn’t be in a stage race,” Klier said. “It’s a nice race, but with the wrong riders. Why should you punish the Schleck brothers to ride here? It’s the same as if you send me, or Brett Lancaster, to the Tour of the Basque Country. We have nothing to win there. The only thing that can happen is if Fränk or Andy crash and their Tour de France is over.
“But ASO chose the stage, and I chose to come to the race. No one forced me to race the Tour. I chose to race the Tour, knowing this stage was part of the route. So I have no problem with it.”
Armstrong, who looked strong and relaxed on the cobblestones, was pragmatic about the card Lady Luck had dealt him.
“Something happened in front, Fränk Schleck came down, and that just kind of gapped open the group,” Armstrong said. “We hung in there, we were right behind them, and just as we were catching them, on section six, I got that front flat. But the 45-second wheel change, they’re gone. Popo’ came back, gave me a hand and then on the final section I went at it alone, stuck in the cars, dirt, and dodging people.
“But no complaints,” he continued. “Bad luck was with me today. But look at the results. Everyone thought the climbers were going to lose minutes today, and they were the ones in the front, and the guy who was supposed to take advantage of it was in the back. That’s the nature of racing, so I have to accept that, and go on, and do my best in the next two and a half weeks.”
After a broken spoke caused his rear wheel to rub the brake, Contador faded at the end of the stage, losing 20 seconds from the first chase group containing his teammate Alexander Vinokourov. Contador said that despite knowing that the wheel was not right, he chose to continue rather than stop to change it.
“I knew that if I changed the bike (the time gap) would be much worse, and I preferred to continue with the wheel rubbing,” Contador said. “I couldn’t stand up out of the saddle, but hey, we saved the day.”
Another rider to suffer was HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, who finished more than two minutes behind Hushovd. The Norwegian national champion, who finished second at this year’s Paris-Roubaix, pulled on the sprinter’s green jersey for the first time and now leads the competition with 63 points, while Cavendish is last in the competition with just one point.
As expected, Hushovd was the rider most pleased with the dramatic, race-altering stage.
“I am really proud to win today. It was a special stage, and a nice win,” he said. “I have had my eye on this stage for a while, and it’s great that it worked out. I’ll fight to keep my green jersey and win more stages.”
One thing is for certain — none of those stages will be raced over the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.