Tour de France - 'Disaster day' at the Tour de France
Blazin' Saddles picks apart the sixth stage of this year's Tour de France after a day of absolute carnage in the peloton.
Peter Sagan show-pieced his latest celebration, team buses became hospitals on wheels and Brad Wiggins threw an almighty tantrum; stage six of the Tour de France went from routine pre-mountain jaunt to a GC bloodbath – all because of a pair of shoe covers.
When Jurgen van den Broeck and Richie Porte crashed in the neutral zone in Epernay, champagne capital of the world, it set the tone for things to come. A breakaway quickly formed and – unsurprisingly for a quartet featuring David Zabriskie, winner of the Tour's fastest ever time trial back in 2005 – the peloton was under instant early pressure.
The first crash came after 35km with a whole cluster of big names – including Andre Greipel and Robert Gesink – going down hard. Both Gs would kiss the tarmac again near the summit of the day's only Cat.1 climb – enough to see Greipel (who by now had dislocated his shoulder, cut his knee and elbow, and split his thumb) tell his Lotto team-mates he wasn't going to go for a hat-trick in Metz.
Something changed the German's mind – and that same something changed the race for two-thirds of the peloton; and for around a dozen, irreparably so.
There were no TV pictures at the moment the vast majority of the pack either hit the deck or was caught up in the ensuing carnage, but here are the basics: just inside the final 25km of the long 208km stage, the peloton was rampaging along a straight and slightly downhill road towards Metz at a speed of around 60 km/h in pursuit of the four leaders.
With only a minute's advantage over the pack, the breakaway stood next to no chance of staying clear; the fast pace in the peloton was more to do with every team's desire to ride near the front – ironically, to stay out of trouble.
Reports later suggested that the crash was caused by Italian Davide Vigano, who was supposedly tucking team-mate Alessandro Petacchi's shoe covers (it had been raining on and off all day) into his pocket when, with just one hand on the bars, he was unable to brake when something or other happened in front.
Those last moments are something the Lampre rider will no doubt dwell over for the next day or so from his hospital bed. Vigano was one of a handful of riders who didn't make it to the finish in Metz and instead travelled there by ambulance. Others included Euskaltel's Igor Astarloza and Garmin's Tom Danielson.
Many more riders ended the day in hospital – they just courageously rode the rest of the stage before checking in to separate wards in Metz and neighbouring Nancy (one was not enough).
Garmin-Sharp DS Allan Peiper described it as a "disaster day" for his team, who have "lost most of our chances for everything in this Tour". Besides battered Danielson, who withdrew on the spot, Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal finished 13 minutes down and was torn to shreds while Johan Vansummeren's jersey and shorts hardly covered his bloodied body as he arrived home, grimacing in pain.
The Garmin team bus was turned into a makeshift hospital – as was those of Vacansoleil-DCM and Rabobank. Dutchmen Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk were luckier than many, losing only three minutes (as well as a cruel 20 second penalty for drafting). Gesink crashed three times in the same day while Kruijswijk is said to have badly damaged his hip, jeopardising his Tour before the mountains he so loves.
Katusha veteran Oscar Freire finished the stage with a punctured a lung and broken rib; another Rabobank rider, Maarten Wynants, went one better with two broken ribs and a percolated lung (currently undergoing a thorax drain, he'll be in hospital for five days); yet another Dutchman, Wout Poels, outdid them all: three broken ribs, a torn kidney and spleen and bruised lungs.
Tipped for the white jersey in Paris, young climber Poels will instead be covered in white bandages in two week's time when (if) the peloton reaches the Champs Elysees.
Spaniards Imanol Erviti (knee) and Amets Txurruka (collarbone) joined the casualty list, as did Gorka Verdugo, who posted a graphic picture of the deep hole in his lower leg on Twitter – and vowed to continue racing. Doctors, however, feel his injury may not just keep him out of the race – it could be career-threatening.
Both the site of the crash and the finish in Metz were complete war zones – it was as if we were witnessing some frightful act of terrorism as opposed to an annual sporting event. Once again, it underlined just how dedicated and brave professional cyclists are – making the play-acting antics of over-paid footballers all the more ridiculous.
It was sad, then, to see one rider behaving much like a spoilt footballer at the finish. Having managed to avoid the crash and finish alongside his main rival for the GC, Britain's Bradley Wiggins was caught on camera having a completely unnecessary meltdown in Metz.
Coasting along in the finish zone, Wiggins's path was temporarily blocked by a French cameraman trying to run after the stage winner, Peter Sagan. Instead of moving slightly, Wiggins held his ground and then – in an act of outrageous petulance – seemed to deliberately knock the camera out of the man's grip.
In the ensuing war of words, an irate Wiggins was hear shouting: "F***ing a***wipe. You f***ing wiped me out with a camera, you stupid c***." (And to think, if he wins the Tour he'll be up against Andy Murray for the BBC's Sporting Personality Of The Year award...)
Granted, stress levels are high – and the cameraman was not looking where he was going. But there would have been no contact had Wiggins not reached out and pulled down on the (no doubt) expensive equipment.
Wiggins's actions must be a reflection of how nervous and stressful this year's Tour is. But like Tyler Farrar and his own video nasty a day earlier, Wiggins may well feel a little sheepish about his actions once the dust settles. After all, he has emerged unscathed, while many of his rivals had been dealt a blow.
Alejandro Valverde, for example, who later Tweeted in a veiled aside at the recklessness of most riders: "It looks like everybody wants to win the Tour because nobody brakes".
Astana's Janez Brajkovic was less cryptic. The Slovenian, who also lost just over two minutes, slammed the yellow jersey group for not slowing down following the crash – and instead taking full advantage of most people's disadvantage.
Tellingly, forcing the peloton to slow down was something Fabian Cancellara did a few years back when both Schleck brothers were involved in a crash in the Ardennes; it shows just how little Spartacus must rate team-mate Frank Schleck's chances this year, because there was no Swiss-enforced go-slow, and Frank's GC chances are all but over.
So back to that man Greipel and his change of mind. Already riding with an injury that would put most people in hospital, the Gorilla from Rostock – along with the majority of his Lotto team-mates – found themselves on the right side of the pile-up 25km from the finish.
With world champion Mark Cavendish caught up in the spill, Greipel's chances of securing a third successive win looked rather good – injury or no injury. He really only had GreenEdge's Matt Goss to beat – not to mention Sagan, strong on uphill finishes but less so on the flat (or so it seemed).
The German was ordered by his team to have a pop. But instead of a Greipel hat-trick, the world was left to talk about another astonishing treble, and savour a third zany celebration from cycling's hottest property – that man Sagan.
The indefatigable green jersey showed miraculous high-speed bike-handling skills to swerve past Kris Boeckmans after the Dutchman's chain snapped in the closing 100m, and surging past both Goss and Greipel, Sagan powered to the line to complete a sumptuous hat-trick of wins in the first week of his debut Tour de France.
In emulating the great Bernard Hinault (the last rider to achieve such a feat) Sagan treated the crowd to a celebration that he later described, quite modestly, as "The Hulk" – leaving reporters to add the "Incredible" pre-fix.