By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP2003
This was not a good day at the Tour de France.
In fact, it was a downright dark day for Americans competing in the centenary Tour and one that even angered eventual stage winner Alessandro Petacchi, who said a massive pile-up in the closing meters of the 168-kilometer stage from Saint Denis to Meaux was the fault of unthinking organizers.
No matter who is at fault, the bottom line is that both Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer are probably out of the 2003 Tour de France, while four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong and teammate George Hincapie also went down in the field-splitting crash in the last 600 meters of the stage, escaping with minor injuries.
Also caught up in the mêlée was yellow jersey wearer Brad McGee, who crashed but avoided injury and will continue to lead the overall standings for a second day.
Hamilton, who finished sixth in Saturday’s prologue time trial, was not so lucky. According to team and medical officials, CSC’s Hamilton will be forced to withdraw due to a fractured collarbone and Leipheimer (Rabobank) won’t be able to start after breaking his sacrum, a bone at the very base of his spine.
The crash was triggered when Kelme’s Jose Enrique Gutierrez – sitting in about 30th position — pulled out of his pedal, just as he was re-accelerating out of an oddly placed turn some 425 meters from the line. Gutierrez later said he was knocked by a rider from behind in the frenetic charge to the line. The Spanish rider went down hard and, in such a tightly packed bunch, the consequences were predictable.
“All of a sudden I saw a body in front of me and I didn’t have time to react,” said Hamilton, who fell on his head and back. “It was a good thing I was wearing my helmet.”
Before leaving for the hospital to be x-rayed – where he learned of his fracture — Hamilton said he won’t decide until Monday morning on whether he’ll continue. If the diagnosis is correct, his decision has already been made for him.
“I am very sad,” said a visibly moved Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis. “We, and especially Tyler, have worked for more than a year to be in condition for this Tour. Tyler is very strong and had chances to be on the podium.”
Riis said the simple fact was that the finish was dangerous.
“It was crazy, stupid to have a bend like that in the last kilometer of the first stage of the Tour de France,” Riis said.
Leipheimer is expected to remain in a French hospital overnight. No one from Rabobank said they saw the crash.
“It’s a big disappointment,” said Rabobank director Theo De Rooy. “We put everything into Levi and we believed he could have finished in the top-five. Now the team will think about trying to win some stages.”
Armstrong, too, was caught up in the crash, but survived the costly spill with nothing more than damage to his bike, a scrape to his left shoulder and a bruise to his left thigh. Hincapie wasn’t injured when he was caught up in the pileup that split the peloton coming into the finish line.
Ahead, the 20 or so riders at the front of the field charged toward the line. It was a classic Tour de France contest, pitting the best sprinters of the peloton against one another. Petacchi, defending green jersey winner Robbie McEwen (Lotto) and Telekom’s Erik Zabel battled to the line, with the Fassa man showing that the form that gave him a six-win performance at the Giro d’Italia was still there for the Tour.
But Petacchi was in no mood to celebrate when he learned what had occurred in those final meters.
“I didn’t see the crash because it happened behind me and all the riders who were racing ahead to fight the sprint,” said the glum-looking Italian, whose concern for fallen teammate Nicola Loda was visibly showing.
“I’m a bit worried about Nicola, who I think got caught up in that,” Petacchi said. “He’d worked really hard for me throughout the day. I don’t think it’s right that on the first day of the race there should be a finish with so many bends before the finish. The UCI wanted us to wear helmets – then they let them put on a stage like that.”
Early escape, late capture and last-second disaster
The day did not start with any indication of trouble. Indeed, much of the early part of the day was dedicated to honoring the 100-year history of the Tour de France, first by a meandering 20-kilometer neutral ride to the Auberge au Réveil- Matin, a small inn from which the original Tour began in 1903.
After a commemorative ceremony, the peloton finally got started at 1:15 and maintained a steady and easy pace until the day’s first intermediate sprint at km19. McEwen bested yellow jersey holder McGee to the line and moments later, the Tour’s first long breakaway got started. Fdjeux.com’s Christophe Mengin, Andy Flickinger (Ag2R Prevoyance) and Walter Beneteau (Brioches La Boulangere) scampered off and quickly built up a lead that peaked at nearly 9:00 at one point.
Eventually, the trio was pulled back in, as the teams of the Tour’s best sprinters maneuvered for position for the final charge into Meaux. But that finale in Meaux was complicated and – as many now say – dangerous, with a steep downhill leading into a chicane that funneled into the finish line. Fassa Bortolo, Lotto-Domo and Quick Step worked hard to set up their fast guns. But then Gutierrez went down at almost the worst possible moment, triggering a chain reaction that rippled through the peloton.
Other riders seriously injured included Jimmy Casper (Fdjeux.com), who was taken away in a neck brace, Fabio Baldato (Alessio) with gashes and deep cuts to both knees and Marc Lotz (Rabobank) with deep gashes to his face. Other riders came across the line with cuts and scrapes, but none serious enough to need attention from Tour doctors.
While only the first 30 riders made it through, the entire peloton was awarded the same finishing time, because the spill came within the final kilometer.
Unfortunately, for some – Hamilton and Leipheimer, in particular – that matters little at this point.
Hamilton made it across the finish line, but was grimacing in pain and gingerly holding his shoulder. His CSC teammates, Andrea Peron and Nicolas Jalabert, were also caught up in the crash.
Hamilton was immediately checked by Tour doctors and then transported to a local hospital for X-rays that confirmed two cracks in his right clavicle.
The accident takes out one of the podium favorites and is a blow for Hamilton, who’s built his entire season around this year’s Tour.
“I can take a lot of pain, but you have to draw the line somewhere,” said Hamilton, who was wearing a sling and taking pain-killers after X-rays revealed two fractures in his right shoulder.
Hamilton has evolved into a legitimate team leader after leaving Armstrong’s side at Postal to join Team CSC under the guidance of 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis.
Last year, Hamilton focused on the Giro and, despite breaking his shoulder in an early mountain stage, finished second overall.
This year, with the Tour as his season’s top goal, Hamilton became the first American to win the Liége-Bastogne-Liége and then rolled to victory in the Tour of Romandie a week later.
Leipheimer also likely out
Forty-five minutes after the crash, Leipheimer sat at the Rabobank team car waiting for a trip he never expected to make. He, too, was being driven to a local hospital for X-rays for pains in his hip area and his future in this Tour de France was looking grim.
After a strong ride in Saturday’s prologue, Leipheimer had been optimistic about the 2003 Tour and was intent on topping his impressive eighth-place Tour debut last year.
“Bad, real bad,” Leipheimer told VeloNews when asked if he crashed. “I went down and it’s not looking good. It was just a huge pileup. Everyone was going too fast to stop or reaction.”
Like Hamilton, Leipheimer made the Tour the top goal of the season. He rode solidly throughout the spring and his form was on the upswing coming into the Tour.
Armstrong avoids the worst of it
For Armstrong, the news wasn’t nearly as bleak. Armstrong and U.S. Postal Service teammates George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov went sprawling to the ground as well.
“I fell over and several other riders piled on top of me, but it wasn’t that bad,” said Armstrong, who was forced to swap bikes with teammate Jose Luis Rubiera after his bottom bracket was damaged. “There were a lot of traffic circles and fans along the road, so it made it a hard day. It’s always good to get the first stage over.”
Armstrong only suffered a scrape to his left shoulder and a bruise on his left thigh and is expected to start Monday’s second stage without difficulties.
“Everything is in one piece, nothing’s broken,” said Postal’s spokesman Jogi Mueller. “This is not a big concern. We always try to stay at the front to stay out of trouble. Tomorrow is another race and that’s what we will worry about.”
The opening stages of the Tour are always nervous as the fresh-legged racers are keen to go for a win. Matters become more settled when the favorites rise to the top of the standings in the difficult mountain stages, but that’s still a week away.
Several riders were seriously injured, including Jimmy Casper (Fdjeux.com), who was taken away in a neck brace, Fabio Baldato (Alessio) with gashes and deep cuts to both knees and Marc Lotz (Rabobank) with deep gashes to his face.
Nearly all the racers were caught up behind the spill and limped across the finish line several minutes back, but the entire peloton was awarded the same time because the spill came so late.
Sunday’s crash is another sign that Armstrong’s efforts to join the Tour’s elite five-win club won’t be as easy as many expected.
The 2003 Tour de France continues with Monday’s 204km second stage from La Forte sous Jouarre to Sedan. The largely flat stage pushes northeast toward the French-Belgian border and will present another chance for the Tour’s strongest sprinters.To see how today’s stage unfolded, check our Live Update window.