By Andrew Hood
If this year’s Tour de France hasn’t been exciting enough already, Monday’s 184.5km stage 9 through the scorched French Alps proved yet again that there’s never a dull day at the Tour.
Tragically, last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki crashed out of the race in a high-speed spill with just 4km to go, while four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong had to test his cyclo-cross skills when he bounced through a hay field to avoid the fallen Beloki.
When he crashed, Beloki was leading Armstrong in hot pursuit of Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokourov, who was heading toward a famous stage win in Gap. The blond Kazakh star rode an impassioned race to take the stage, which he dedicated to his fallen compatriot Andreï Kivilev, who died after crashing in Paris-Nice back in March.
Vinokourov’s victory (and move up to second place on the overall standings) and Beloki’s exit are only the latest in a series of gripping stories — and this centennial Tour isn’t even to the halfway mark yet.
Leaving the Alps
Following the fireworks in Sunday’s stage up to L’Alpe d’Huez, some thought the peloton might take a slow start to Monday’s difficult four-climb stage that hit the beyond-category Col d’Izoard at 86.5km. But that wasn’t the case.
Temperatures were scorching once again into the 90s, 179 riders took the start, but by the end of the day only 172 would remain. Joining Beloki on an early exit were Telekom’s Andreas Klöden, Alessio sprinter Angelo Furlan, Saeco’s Stefano Zanini, Fdjeux.com’s Jimmy Casper, who rode two stages early in the Tour with a neck brace, Lilian Jegou (Credit Agricole) and Caldirola’s Eddy Mazzoleni.
There were attacks right off the bat on the lower flanks of the Cat. 1 Col du Lautaret at 38.5km. The main peloton split into two groups as several riders went on the attack on the grinding climb. Saeco’s Danilo Di Luca, Bianchi riders Aitor Garmendia and Angel Casero, ONCE’s José Azevedo, Vladimir Karpets (iBanesto.com) and Alessio’s Franco Pellizotti were the first to pull away, and by the top 10 riders were clear. Di Luca led the breakaway over the Lautaret followed 3:10 back by the yellow jersey group.
More riders attacked on the long descent off the Lautaret and a group of 14 were leading at the base of the Col d’Izoard, one of the Tour’s legendary climbs. This year’s Tour hit the climb from the “easier” northern approach, with an average grade of 5.9 percent over 19km. Garmendia attacked near the summit to be the first man over, followed by ONCE’s Jörg Jaksche and Kelme’s Ivan Parra, while the peloton came over 5:30 back.
Short but steep into Gap
The day’s third climb, the Cat. 2 Côte de St. Apollinaire at 156km was the day’s hardest challenge. Jaksche led Parra went over the summit at the front, and in their wake the peloton was completely split up. The steep twisting climb had a 7.4 percent grade over 6.7km, but there were pitches near the top at 15 percent that took most by surprise. The climb took its toll on the bunch, particularly coming at the end of three hard days in the Alps.
The Tour favorites came to the fore and led the chase over the summit. Armstrong and Roberto Heras, Beloki, Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia, Bianchi’s Jan Ullrich, CSC’s Tyler Hamilton, Vinokourov, iBanesto.com’s Francisco Mancebo and Fassa Bortolo’s Ivan Basso were the first over the top.
Hamilton endured another hard day in the saddle and finished safely with the lead group to move into fifth overall, 1:52 back of race leader Armstrong. Hamilton said the day’s brutal accelerations caused pain in his fractured right collarbone, but CSC team manager Bjarne Riis said Hamilton’s arrival through the Alps is good news for the New Englander.
“Making it through the Alps changes everything,” said Riis. “Tyler managed very well today. Tyler is one of the favorites in this Tour. He’s doing better and he’s looking good on the bike. Everyone can see that. His pedaling is smooth and the pain is decreasing.”
The day’s final climb, the Cat. 3 Côte de la Rochette with less than 10km to go, was Vinokourov’s launching pad. The Kazakh reeled in the last of the stragglers and blasted over the climb 15 seconds ahead of the pursuers, which included all the favorites as well as Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini.
Vinokourov’s dangerous move forced Beloki, Armstrong and the others to chase hard. The Telekom rider wasn’t aware of Beloki’s horrible crash until after he won the stage, 36 seconds ahead of Bettini and Mayo, who shot ahead to take the second and third places, and the time bonus that goes with them.
“This is like a dream come true for me,” said Vinokourov, who slipped into second place behind Armstrong, only 21 seconds back. “This has been a good season for me even though it’s bad because of the death of my good friend Andreï Kivilev. I am sure he’s with me now in spirit, pushing me along.”
Vinokourov opened the Tour saying he’d be satisfied with nothing less than third place. He’s now in second and dares to dream more.
“I’m very motivated for this Tour. I took a rest after [winning] the Tour of Switzerland and I wasn’t worried about my [poor] prologue result. That’s not my specialty and now I want to do well in the individual time trials,” he said. “It’s easier to say than to do. I hope to be at least third, but we’ll see if more is possible.”
Beloki KO’d, Armstrong into the weeds
Beloki didn’t want to finish second or third in this year’s Tour. The Spanish rider has been on the past three Tour podiums, but he was tired of being called a “wheel sucker” and was intent on winning this year’s Tour. He delivered on his promise to attack and unleashed some moves up Sunday’s climb to Alpe d’Huez. And when Vinokourov was off the front Monday, Beloki was leading the chase with Armstrong.
With just 4km to go, Beloki came roaring into a sweeping right-hand turn that led into a long left-hand switchback. Beloki was riding flat out when his rear wheel skidded and the tire to apparently punctured. Beloki high-sided over the bike and crashed hard on his right side, fracturing his right elbow and wrist and breaking his upper right femur.
“We were all chasing hard because Vinokourov was a dangerous rider. We came into that corner way too fast and Beloki locked up his brakes and his rear wheel started sliding everywhere and his tire blew,” Armstrong recounted. “It was so hot the asphalt on the road was melting, but it wasn’t slippery until we got to that section.”
Beloki rolled on to his back reeling in pain while Armstrong had to swerve left to avoid crashing into the Spanish rider’s bike. Armstrong said his instincts took over and eased his bike off the left side of the road.
“I saw Beloki go down in front of me and my only option was to go left. I couldn’t go right and if I went straight I would have hit Beloki,” Armstrong said.
It was a bizarre sight to see the Tour’s yellow jersey bouncing through a hayfield, but Armstrong said it was all happening too fast to do anything else.
“I thought, ‘Where am I going?’ when I went left and I saw a little path in the field. I just continued on,” he said. “I was lucky that field was there. It could have been full of crops or even a drop-off. I took this road and made it halfway so I kept going. My first thought was that I cannot lose time and just stay with the group. So I decided to go through the field and not go back around.”
Armstrong continued to pick his way down the hayfield, riding about 70 meters down the slope. The course looped back around and Armstrong coasted toward the road but came upon a ditch. Using his best cyclo-cross skills, he hopped off his bike, jumped over the ditch and scrambled back on his bike.
“I expected to get a flat tire or have to change a wheel, but got through there okay,” Armstrong said. “I was lucky. It was my scariest moment on a bike. It was the only chance I had. I am used to improvising. You can’t train for something like that. It’s a reaction.”
The other riders in the chase group swept around the turn and saw Armstrong scrambling back on his bike. Hamilton swooped by and tapped his former teammate on the shoulder in a gesture of solidarity.
“It was a very tough day with a lot of accelerations which are bad for me,” Hamilton said. “It didn’t feel comfortable on the bike but I was able to stay with the front group. It was a horrible crash. I feel awful for Beloki but I’m glad that Lance is okay.”
U.S. Postal’s sport director Johan Bruyneel admitted that Armstrong dodged a bullet. “Today we had proof that we are in the greatest race in the world, and that’s why we prepare for it exclusively because in one second it can all be finished,” Bruyneel said. “Vinokourov was dangerous in the overall, so that’s why Lance and Beloki went all out on the descent. Beloki had some bad luck and that’s a shame. We can never wish that on a rival.”
Beloki’s departure leaves a big hole in the fight for the overall title and Bruyneel called the Spaniard the team’s most dangerous rival. Vinokourov slipped into second place while Mayo remained in third and used the eight-second time bonus to shave his deficit on Armstrong to 1:02.
“You hate to see him go down like that. I send my condolences to him and the team,” Armstrong said of Beloki. “Days like today are not normal. We have a few days to take it easy. I think we’ll make it.”
The Tour continues Tuesday with the 136-mile 10th stage from Gap to Marseille, one of the Tour’s original host cities from 1903. The rolling stage should be a relatively quiet one, but as Monday’s fireworks revealed there’s never a dull day in the Tour de France.
To see how the stage unfolded, just Click Here to pull up our Live Update window. Then check back soon for complete results, a full stage report, photos and more.