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Few top contenders have crashed out like Beloki

A gasp of horror reverberated through the Tour de France entourage Monday when second-placed Joseba Beloki crashed at top speed on the descent to the finish of stage 9. It was immediately obvious that it was a serious fall, one from which the 29-year-old Spaniard would not get up. Beloki was transported Tuesday by air ambulance to his hometown of Vittoria for surgery at a private hospital, but long months will pass before he is rehabilitated from the broken femur in his right thigh, the complex fracture of his right elbow and his snapped right wrist. For Beloki though, the bitterest pill to

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There have been only three similar incidents in the past 70 years

By John Wilcockson

Beloki: Painfully reminiscent...

Beloki: Painfully reminiscent…

Photo: Graham Watson

A gasp of horror reverberated through the Tour de France entourage Monday when second-placed Joseba Beloki crashed at top speed on the descent to the finish of stage 9. It was immediately obvious that it was a serious fall, one from which the 29-year-old Spaniard would not get up.

Beloki was transported Tuesday by air ambulance to his hometown of Vittoria for surgery at a private hospital, but long months will pass before he is rehabilitated from the broken femur in his right thigh, the complex fracture of his right elbow and his snapped right wrist. For Beloki though, the bitterest pill to swallow is the fact that he won’t be battling Lance Armstrong for the yellow jersey when the Tour reaches the Pyrenees on Saturday.

There are crashes practically every day at the Tour, but rarely does a top challenger crash out in such tragic fashion as Beloki did Monday. In fact, when it comes to serious contenders for the overall title, there have been only three men in the past 70 years who have crashed out of the race in similar circumstances: Italian Gino Bartali in 1937, Frenchman Roger Rivière in 1960, and Spaniard Luis Ocaña in 1971.

Bartali, the winner of the Giro d’Italia in 1936 and 1937, was the hot favorite to win his debut Tour, especially after he took that year’s first mountain stage over the Col du Galibier into Grenoble. He was wearing the yellow jersey the next day for another tough alpine stage that crossed the Col d’Izoard to Briançon.

Before reaching the Izoard, however, on the road between Embrun and Guillestre that the 2003 Tour field raced on Monday, Bartali fell off a bridge and crashed into a creek. He was badly shaken, covered in cuts and bruises, though nothing was broken. He managed to finish the stage, but the pain was too much too bear the following day in the Alps and the Italian returned home to Tuscany.

Rivière, too, was a race favorite, especially after he gained 15 minutes in a four-man break with Italian Gastone Nencini, Belgian Jan Adriaenssens and German Hans Junkermann on stage 6 of the 1960 Tour. Nine days later, Nencini was in the yellow jersey, with Rivière preparing to make his challenge in the Alps in the Tour’s final week.

Early on stage 14 through the hills of the Cévennes, the peloton climbed the Col de Perjuret in a group before Nencini, a great descender, led the long line of riders into the downhill. Rivière, several riders back, was chasing hard when he lost control of his bike on a curving bend, crashed over a low retaining wall, fell into a ravine, and landed in a tree. The young Frenchman, only 24, broke his back. He was confined to wheelchair for the rest of his life, and died of cancer at age 41.

… of Ocaña in 1971

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The last time a leading contender crashed out of the Tour was in 1971, when the two protagonists were two-time defending champion Eddy Merckx and Ocaña. Merckx wore the yellow jersey for the first 10 stages, before losing it in spectacular fashion to the Spaniard on the last day in the Alps. Ocaña made a brilliant solo break on the mountain stage from Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette, beating third-placed Merckx by almost nine minutes.

Merckx fought back with a marathon breakaway to Marseille and then won the time trial at Revel, but he still had a six-minute deficit on Ocaña starting the first Pyrenean stage on July 12. Over the day’s second-to-last climb, the Col de Menté (which the 2003 Tour will cross this coming Sunday), the riders headed into the steep, switchback downhill just as a thunderstorm crashed overhead.

Merckx, a formidable descender, attacked through the torrential rain. Ocaña, less dexterous on the bike, tried to follow. Then, on a sharp left turn about a kilometer from the end of the descent, Ocaña slid out on the rain-slick pavement and fell heavily. Before he could get up one rider, then another crashed into him. The stunned race leader couldn’t continue, even though X-rays later revealed that no bones were broken.

The images this week of the fallen Beloki’s head being cradled by his ONCE-Eroski team director Manolo Saiz uncannily reflected those of 1971 Tour leader Ocaña lying on the gravel shoulder, attended by his Bic team manager Maurice De Muer until an ambulance arrived. Although separated by 32 years, the pain and distress of the two fallen Spaniards was no different.

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