By Chris Carmichael
Months of preparation all for naught. For four of cycling’s big stars Stage 7 proved to be decisive, but not in a good way. Today’s stage was another day of battling for position on narrow roads and through windy conditions, and although there were fewer crashes than we saw a few days ago on Stage 5, the repercussions of today’s crashes changed the face of the race significantly.
The important crash of the day happened as the peloton began ramping up the speed in anticipation of the intermediate sprint. In earlier stages, the intermediate sprints have been about the half-way point in the stage, meaning they were a long way from the finish. This led to a separation in roles and responsibilities; the GC teams backed off a bit to give the sprinters room to contest the intermediate sprint and afterward the balance of GC and sprinters’ teams at the front was restored. But with the intermediate sprint just 30 kilometers from the finish line today, no one wanted to budge. As we’ve seen before, only so many riders can fit across the width of the road, and when more riders try to ride at the front than can fit, someone crosses wheels or hooks handlebars and there’s a major fall.
The biggest casualty today was Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins. The man who finished fourth in the Tour de France in 2009 and who was reportedly on possibly the best form of his career was forced to leave the Tour with a suspected broken collarbone. Wiggins started the day in sixth place overall, just 10 seconds out of the yellow jersey. More significantly, he had largely avoided the crashes and delays that had plagued other overall contenders in recent days, including Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, and Ivan Basso. He was involved in a minor fall early on Stage 5, but the pace was not very high and he easily made it back to the peloton. Today, though, his luck ran out. It happens so quickly at the Tour de France; one minute you’re on top form and the race seems to be unfolding perfectly for your team, and the next you’re on the ground with intense pain in your shoulder and no ability to raise your arm.
Another big name who was forced to quit the Tour today was former World Champion Tom Boonen. He crashed on Stage 5 and fought bravely to finish just a few minutes within the elimination time cut on that day. I was somewhat surprised to see him start Stage 6, but he seemed to fare pretty well on a wet and windy ride through Normandy yesterday. However, today his injuries caught up with him, which is often the case in cycling. The second day after a bad crash is often the worst, when the bruises and abrasions are at their most painful. It’s a major blow to the Belgian QuickStep team to lose Boonen, as he was their best hope for a stage win and fellow stage hunter Sylvain Chavanel is struggling to stay upright and in position to win thus far in the 2011 Tour.
Caught in the same crash as Wiggins, Radioshack’s Levi Leipheimer hit the deck for the third time in three days. Fortunately, the physical trauma from today’s fall doesn’t seem to be as bad as yesterday, when he reportedly injured his wrist and finishes 1:05 behind the peloton. That crash put his chances of being the leader of the Radioshack team in serious doubt, and with them his chances of competing for a podium position in Paris. After today’s crash, Leipheimer was stuck in an 80-plus rider chase group that finished 3:06 behind the pack. Losing more than 4 minutes in two days is very unfortunate for Leipheimer, who won the Tour de Suisse a few weeks ago and arrived at the Tour de France with stellar fitness.
As bad as Stage 7 was for Levi Leipheimer, it was worse for his American teammate Chris Horner. The second-oldest rider in the Tour de France this year at 39 years old, Horner won the Tour of California in dominating style in May and came to the Tour de France with quite possibly the best fitness of his long career. In the last year he got his diet dialed in and stripped weight off his already-slim frame, getting down to a reported 137 pounds for the Tour de France. His confidence has also been very high this season, and he harbored dreams of challenging for the podium in what has to be one of his final few appearances at the Tour. But he came down in the big crash before the intermediate sprint, and although he remounted the bike and kept going, he was seen visiting the doctor’s car soon afterward, and he eventually lost 12:41 by the time he reached the finish line.
What do the crashes thus far in the Tour mean for Team Radioshack? Well, the team arrived at the Tour with a four-pronged strategy for putting a rider on the podium in Paris: Janez Brajkovic, Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, and Chris Horner. Brajckovic crashed out of Stage 5 with a broken collarbone and a concussion. Crashes have now put Leipheimer more than 4 minutes behind Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck and around 3 minutes behind Alberto Contador. And Horner lost the better part of a quarter of an hour today.
That leaves Andreas Kloden as the logical leader of Team Radioshack going forward. And that’s not a bad thing for the team. Kloden finished second overall in the 2004 Tour de France, and was promoted to second overall in the 2006 Tour after Floyd Landis was stripped of the title. More recently he confirmed his great preparation for the 2011 Tour de France by finishing second (by only 9 seconds) to 4-time World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara in the final 32 kilometer time trial at the Tour de Suisse. He can perform very well in the mountains and time trials, and in a crazy first week of racing he’s one of an increasingly small number of riders who has not been involved or significantly delayed by crashes. Now, through circumstances that aren’t ideal, he’s the defacto leader of the Radioshack team and he’ll have the full support of the entire team. If Horner and Leipheimer are truly on great form and only out of contention due to bad luck, Kloden will have some incredible support for the big mountains.
The most important thing that’s happening in the team hotels tonight (for Radioshack, Sky, and QuickStep for sure, and probably others as well) is a process – and each rider goes through it in his own way – of shifting individual and/or team goals. You have to give yourself a little time to be angry, sad, and frustrated; but then you have to put today behind you and move on. Holding onto regrets about what might have been is pointless and will only hamper your ability to contribute your best to the team’s efforts. It’s not enough to just realize the necessity of getting on with the job at hand; to be successful you have to fully come to grips with the situation and accept a new reality for what defines success in this year’s Tour. If you’re still in the race, you can still achieve something – either for yourself or your team. Tonight riders and teams are figuring out what that’s going to be, and tomorrow they’ll go and put all their attention to making it happen.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.