At 10:54 Thursday morning, the peloton was rolling full tilt through orange groves on the way out of Visalia for the fifth stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Two minutes later, two dozen riders were on the ground, race leader Dave Zabriskie was caught behind the resulting split in the field. And Lance Armstrong’s left cheek was covered in blood.
Armstrong would abandon the race eight miles later. At the pre-race press conference one week ago, the seven-time Tour de France winner admitted that he has experienced hiccups in his second season back from a three-year retirement. “There have been moments where I thought it was getting better, but then I’ve had physical or health issues that came along and complicated things,” he said. “I’d like to think that we’re headed in the right direction now, and this race is an opportunity to test yourself.”
He pointed out, then, that there were only 50 days until the Tour starts in Rotterdam July 3, and that every day of training was critical.
How the crash happened
Action on the front of the race began early Thursday with attacks firing from the end of the neutral rollout. Not wanting to be caught out, BMC’s Simon Zahner was moving up the left-hand side of the peloton following a narrow bridge five miles into the stage. The three-lane, slightly downhill stretch of Walnut Avenue that led the peloton east through Farmersville funneled abruptly into the barely two-lane bridge.
Zahner saw the ignition point for the accident. “Two guys went down together,” he said. “The second rider’s front wheel went into the quick release of the other rider.”
A quick release in the front wheel is the perfect spoke shredder and unfortunately for him, Zahner was a little too close to the shredding. When his front wheel met the rider in front of him, that rider went down, and Zahner was sent back-end over tea kettle.
Zahner’s overturned bike shot from his feet, skittering across the road and then the crash propagated along the classic pyramid shape. Before long, riders in the GC teams at the front of the peloton were covered in road grime and waiting for bike changes from team mechanics.
Stuart O’Grady (Saxo Bank) went down. So too did Steven Cozza (Garmin-Transitions), Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) and Luis Chechu Ruberia (RadioShack).
Paul Mach (Bissell), who later ended up in the day’s long breakaway, watched as the crash grew and riders clogged the road. “I was right behind it,” he said. “I was in the back — I looked up and the race is happening a k in front of me.”
Mach thought he was caught out, as the racing had been punchy from the start. A slight crosswind from the left and a cadre of eager opportunists kept the pace near 40 mph.
Luckily for Mach, who before the stage sat 1:48 down on GC, he was not the highest-placed rider to be caught up. “Next thing I know, Levi (Leipheimer) comes by me,” said Mach. “I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing back here?’ Then there’s five RadioShack guys forming to get to the front.”
Leipheimer was coming up through the team cars with teammates including Armstrong, Rubiera and Jason McCartney. Armstrong stopped at the race doctor’s vehicle for a bit and for five miles hung between the rear of the bunch and his team car, which sat in position 5 in the caravan.
In video footage shot by Bicycling.com, Armstrong is seen questioning Johan Bruyneel in the team car on how to proceed with abandoning the race. After consulting with team director Viatcheslav Ekimov, Armstrong retired from the race, ducked into a secondary team vehicle, and went to the hospital, where X-rays found no broken bones; he received stitches in his elbow and on his cheek.
Cozza made it back to the peloton, along with Zabriskie. Rubiera also remounted and though he sat wheel-shy at the back of the bunch for more than 20 kilometers, he stuck with the pace until the feed zone when he ate, cleaned his wounds and began looking much better.
O’Grady broke his clavicle and was not able to stick it out.
While Armstrong came away from the crash in stage 5 without any fractures, his Tour preparation has met another hiccup.