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Tour organizers under fire for dangerous finishes

Sunday’s “avoidable” crash at the end of stage 1 that eliminated Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer from the Tour de France has once again called into question the competence of race organizers who frequently include highly dangerous finishes at big races. And looking ahead to the stage finales for the rest of this week, it seems certain that there is more trouble in store. One of the most vociferous critics of Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc after the high-speed pileup at Meaux was American sprinter Fred Rodriguez of Caldirola-So.Di, who was leading the peloton as it headed into the

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By John Wilcockson

Sunday’s “avoidable” crash at the end of stage 1 that eliminated Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer from the Tour de France has once again called into question the competence of race organizers who frequently include highly dangerous finishes at big races. And looking ahead to the stage finales for the rest of this week, it seems certain that there is more trouble in store.

One of the most vociferous critics of Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc after the high-speed pileup at Meaux was American sprinter Fred Rodriguez of Caldirola-So.Di, who was leading the peloton as it headed into the final kilometer. While Leblanc was hoping for a weekend of uninterrupted celebrations for this centennial Tour, he received a mouthful from the two-time U.S. pro champion.

“This is the Tour de France, you know. We’re asked to wear helmets — Leblanc preaches that we’re trying to have a safer Tour — and then they put in a finish like that. It’s completely unprofessional. That’s ridiculous,” Rodriguez said.

“I mean, I was doing 60K an hour, and it wasn’t the lead out yet. So they were gonna do like 65K an hour going around that corner. The crash was unavoidable.

“You can’t realize it until you go into it. You know it’s a chicane but we’re thinking we’re coming into a big city, maybe four lanes wide, and they put in about a lane-and-a-half? That was an unavoidable crash. And that’s completely on Leblanc’s shoulders.”

Rodriguez’s complaints were echoed by many others, including stage winner Alessandro Petacchi of Fassa Bortolo, along with crash victim Hamilton and his CSC team director Bjarne Riis.

“I was frightened on every stage at the Giro, and it’s the same here,” said Petacchi. “I didn’t see the crash because it happened behind me … but when you arrive at 70 kilometers an hour in the last bend — and since the Giro d’Italia they haven’t improved things…. They ask us to wear helmets, but to have to take such a dangerous bend so close to the finish in a race as important as the Tour de France, on the first stage, it shouldn’t have been on the course.”

Even Hamilton, the most polite of professionals, was critical. “I don’t think the finish today was a very good finish for the start of a Tour de France. A hundred and ninety-eight riders, everybody’s fresh, everybody’s ready to give it a go, and for a lot of these guys, you know, their only opportunity is the first week to really do something.And you throw in an S-turn with 500 meters to go, and with the road becoming more narrow…. It’s just….

“I feel like we [the sport of cycling] have learned our lesson over the years [with] the many big crashes in the finale because of crazy finishes. And here we go again!

“I think we need those wide boulevard straights for at least one of two K, for the first few stages. Okay, when the peloton gets a little smaller, you can have something like today.”

When Riis was asked to comment on what the organizers presented to the riders at the Meaux finish, he replied, “I don’t know. This is the race, this is the game, but … I mean, we always felt a lot of rules, and all rules are coming to us; but there should be a rule, at least in big races like this, that — like Tyler said — every [one of the] 200 riders is fresh, they’re sprinting like hell, and there’s just one S-curve 500 meters from the finish line. It’s crazy, it’s stupid.

“When [they] build in 10 curves, then you have the peloton spread out, then it’s less dangerous. Just one curve, and then when the peloton — everybody knows the peloton is big — and then 500 meters from the finish line the road’s gonna be small and more narrow, then of course they’re gonna crash.”

Asked if he thought that he and the others team managers should do something about the dangerous finishes to prevent a repetition of the Meaux pileup, Riis replied, “Let’s sleep on it…. Let’s talk about that another day. We can’t do anything about that now.”

But perhaps he and the others should protest the poorly thought-out run-in to the Meaux finish, especially when one considers the potential for danger at the upcoming finishes in Sedan, St. Dizier and Nevers.

Monday’s stage 2 finish into Sedan, like Sunday’s, is preceded by a fast downhill into the last 2km. Then comes a right-angle right turn about 1.5km from the line, followed by a curving left-hander into the final kilometer. At least, the last straightaway is 1000 meters long, though only 3 feet wider than the one at Meaux.

On Tuesday, again, a long downhill takes the race into the last 2km. After a right-angle left turn at 1.4km to go, the course curves left into the final kilometer. This is followed by a sharp left and right swing into a curving final 400 meters on a street 5 feet narrower than the road into Meaux.

Then, on Friday, the long downhill into town is repeated at Nevers, where the last kilometer includes a sharp left with 700 meters to go, followed by a right curve just 200 meters from the line, on a street less than 23 feet wide.

As Hamilton said after breaking his collarbone on Sunday, “Here we go again.”