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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
Quick Step’s Tom Boonen avoided a dramatic last-minute pile-up in the peloton before going on to claim a deserved victory on the sixth stage of the Tour de France Angers on Friday.
Thomas Voeckler, of the La Boulangere team, retained the race leader’s yellow jersey after the 196km ride Bonneval and here.
Boonen, 23, claimed his first ever stage win on the race on the back of a blistering season so far which has seen him win a number of prestigious one-day victories and stages.
But it was the frightening realities of the high-speeds at the world’s biggest bicycle race that took center stage again at the Tour when a massive crash just inside the last kilometer left Austrian sprinter Rene Haselbacher in hospital with a broken nose and three fractured ribs and several other riders, including American Tyler Hamilton, bruised and battered after a week of racing.
Haselbacher was taken by ambulance to the Centre Hospitalier d’Angers, where doctors diagnosed the injuries that mean an end to his Tour this year. The Gerolsteiner rider was also later blamed for causing the spill that left a depleted group of only about 25 riders to contest the uphill sprint finish.
Boonen edged out Stage 5 winner Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis), with the German veteran Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) in third.
“I like sprints like that,” said Boonen, this year’s winner of two Belgian classics, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Schelde Prijs. “The finish was hard, and it was good for sprinters who are very strong and I am very strong.”
In Boonen’s wake though was the rest of the field, slowly rolling to the finish in ones, twos, threes, fours and fives after managing to extricate themselves from the mesh of tangled body and bikes.
Officials later ruled that the accident, which occurred right at the 1km-to-go banner, was within the final kilometer and credited the entire peloton with the same finishing time as the winner Boonen. Had the accident occurred even 20 meters back, it may have resulted in a tumultuous and unexpected reshuffle in the overall classification that could well have determined the final overall outcome.
As it was, there was no change in GC and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (La Boulangere) still leads by 3:01 over O’Grady and 4:06 on Frenchman Sandy Casar (FDjeux.com).
Nevertheless, the incident had enough of an impact to potentially damage the Tour campaigns of some riders, chief among them Hamilton.
A Phonak team spokesman said the 33-year-old Phonak has “significant bruising” to his back after he landed flat on it. Several Phonak riders were caught up in the crash, including Spanish climber Oscar Sevilla, Frenchman Nicolas Jalabert, Swiss Martin Elmiger and German Bert Grabsch, who were all injured to some degree in the pile-up.
Australian Robbie McEwen was another notable victim, losing his green points jersey to O’Grady, the day’s second-place finisher. O’Grady now leads the race for the green jersey with 115 points to the 113 of McEwen who was one of the last riders to cross the finish line.
McEwen, a clear leader in the points category before the stage began, came in about five minutes down, suffering from serious abrasions on both hips and arms; he was later checked for possible ligament and bone damage.
While taking the green jersey via McEwen’s demise was not the way O’Grady wished, he wasn’t going to hand it back — were that even possible.
“It is not the best way to take the green jersey … in a crash,” he said. “True … Robbie fell today. But I have fallen three times before and lost points as well.”
Also caught up in the crash were race leader Voeckler and defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong.
The Texan did not fall — although he did in an earlier crash — but admitted after crossing the line in 34th place and well before Voeckler it was a hectic end to the day.
“You are coming in, you’re tired, it’s really tight, you have 200 guys racing, racing through there at 40 miles per hour,” said Armstrong after finishing with five riders, including teammate George Hincapie. “I don’t know what the hell they are thinking, (but) you are going to have crashes. We are fortunate that crash was literally 10 meters inside the `one K’ area otherwise we would have been docked a couple of minutes. Anyway … for bad luck and good luck.”
Compared to the finishing crash, Armstrong’s first spill at the 13km mark was almost innocuous.
“It was a typical early race crash, a lot of wind. Two guys went down in front of me. There is nothing you can do. I just fell over them,” he said. “I’m not that bad, just a little bit (hurt) on the arm and stiff on the hip, a couple of little burns from a rolled tire.”
Some win, some lose
Inevitably, some riders had to benefit from the drama that marred the stage finish.
Although, in light of the finish and caliber of those in the top three, those places could well have been the same – perhaps changed slightly had McEwen been there.
As was the case on Thursday, an early breakaway spent most of the day off the front, although not with the leeway that finally saw Voeckler take the yellow jersey he kept today.
Friday’s break formed at 21km, when Carlos De Cruz (Fdjeux.com), Alessandro Bertolini (Alessio) and Marc Lotz (Rabobank) escaped. They were soon joined by Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), who won the stage to to Toulouse last year, Kurt-Asle Arvesen (CSC) and Jimmy Engouvlent (Cofidis).
Racing into a stiff head wind, they got a maximum lead of 4:20 at 74km before the peloton started to slowly reel them in.
First it was Quick Step (for Boonen) and La Boulangere (for Voeckler) who set the tempo, then after the third intermediate sprint at 168km Gerolsteiner (Danilo Hondo) and AG2R (Jaan Kirsipuu, Jean-Patrick Nazon) joined in.
With a lead of 2:15 with 40km to go, the break was doomed. The six became four, then Flecha went for the win with just 6km to go.
It was just a few meters after Flecha was caught that the major crash occurred.
McEwen was quick to point the finger at Haselbacher, especially as it was the Austrian who nearly took him and fellow Australian Baden Cooke out in the stage 3 finish at St. Dizier last year.
“Haselbacher ran himself into the barrier. He did the same thing last year,” said McEwen. “I’m really pissed off. That’s twice he’s taken me out now. I’m really sore.”
As McEwen and others were picking themselves off the tarmac, Boonen and about 25 others who had escaped the mêlée by being in front of it, charged to the finish on a slight uphill grade.
Boonen, 23, who is considered the heir to recently retired Belgian legend Johan Museeuw, powered his way up the incline of the home straight to easily hold off O’Grady, who trailed in a few meters behind in second place.
Six-time points jersey winner Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) finished third ahead of Danilo Hondo, in fourth, and Australian Baden Cooke in fifth.
“It’s a huge victory for us,” said Boonen, who said he wasn’t aware of the carnage going on behind him. “The team worked really well today. The last kilometer was hard, but I like sprints like that. You had to be strong today to win here, and I was strong.”
His day in yellow
Voeckler’s first day in the yellow jersey proved to be something special.
“I didn’t realize the effect of having the yellow jersey on my shoulders. Everyone was patting me on the back, and giving me support from the side of the road,” said Voeckler, who grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique. “Getting congratulated by the public really touched me, but it felt really special to be congratulated by the riders, no matter what nationality or team they came from. It was really special.”