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The cobble effect: Pavé’s inclusion in Tour sparks debate

The Tour de France's first foray into its home country, following three days in Belgium, lived up to its billing as a potential make or break stage for the yellow jersey contenders. Iban Mayo of the Euskaltel team was the most prominent casualty on Tuesday's 210 km stage from Waterloo in Belgium - the scene of Emperor Napoleon's 1815 defeat to the English - to a small town on the French border. The 26-year-old Basque climber, who relegated five-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong to a two-minute deficit on a recent time trial up the Mont Ventoux, lost almost four minutes to the American

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By Justin Davis, Copyright Agence France Presse 2004

The Tour de France’s first foray into its home country, following three days in Belgium, lived up to its billing as a potential make or break stage for the yellow jersey contenders.

Iban Mayo of the Euskaltel team was the most prominent casualty on Tuesday’s 210 km stage from Waterloo in Belgium – the scene of Emperor Napoleon’s 1815 defeat to the English – to a small town on the French border.

The 26-year-old Basque climber, who relegated five-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong to a two-minute deficit on a recent time trial up the Mont Ventoux, lost almost four minutes to the American following a crash just before the first of two dangerous cobblestone sections.

Mayo came down just before the 2.8km long section at Erre alongside Australian Michael Rogers of the Quick Step team and Italian duo Paolo Bettini and Marco Velo.

Velo was the worst off by a long way, the 30-year-old Alessio rider ending up in a ditch with a bloodied shoulder and a fractured collarbone, which ended his Tour prematurely.

Bike riders, not gladiators
The expectations of big name casualties on or near the Tour’s cobblestone sections has been alive all year. And German Jens Voigt, of the CSC team, warned even before the stage that it could do untold damage to a big name rider.

“The cobblestone sections shouldn’t be on the Tour because we’re bike riders, we should ride on the road and not be gladiators,” he told AFP. “It’s pure luck, you can’t even predict it. If someone loses it in front of you, you run over him and you crash. “What if one of the big Tour contenders crashes and he’s lying on the ground bleeding and crying. The Tour’s over for him, but that’s not the image we want to see from the Tour.”

Tour debutant Bernard Eisel of Fdjeux.com agreed.

“For the Tour it’s not necessary. It’s hard enough. All the big hitters want to do the best they can and they end up losing two or three minutes. It’s not stupid, but it’s not really necessary. The race is dangerous enough, and there are enough crashes already.”

Voigt’s pre-race predictions came true, with Mayo losing precious time to his rival Armstrong and Germany’s 1997 winner Jan Ullrich even before the crucial mountains stages where the most damage is usually done.

Perhaps that was why Voigt went on a long breakaway alongside Dutchman Bramd De Groot, of the Rabobank team, in a bid to do a solo ride over the cobblestones where the inexperienced riders, and those more used to climbing in the mountains, like Mayo, can get nervous.

Mayo, who said he was an innocent victim in the crash, has now seen his yellow jersey hopes fade dramatically.

“When the crash happened I was in a good position but it got hit by someone’s handlebar. I couldn’t avoid it,” he said after the race. “It’s such a small mistake but it has ended my chances of challenging for the race. Even a place on the podium is practically out of the question. I’ve lost too much time to my main rivals.”

The question on whether to include the cobblestones will likely be a heated debate in the Basque country. Tour officials, however, defended their choice, telling AFP: “We wanted to pay some tribute to some of the great one day classics, such as the Paris-Roubaix. We believe it was a good decision, and we made sure to include only two sections today. They certainly weren’t the hardest sections, and cars and bikes employ these roads every day.”