Tour de France recap: Sanchez wins amid carnage

The current leader of this year’s Tour de France, the mutton-chopped Brit Bradley Wiggins, spent the early part of his career as a world-class Olympic pursuiter. In other words, he was a track rider.

On Sunday’s mountainous stage into Foix, Wiggins got a crash-course in a similar-sounding but completely different racing discipline, one foreign to virtually every single one of the Tour’s remaining 162 riders.

He became, quite suddenly, a tack rider.

As the peloton crested the ultra-narrow, ultra-steep climb of the Mur de Péguère about 38km from the finish, mayhem suddenly erupted amidst the pack. According to Dan Martin, an Irishman who was in the bunch at the top of the mountain, dozens of cyclists abruptly sustained flat tires and were forced to pull to the side of the road and wait for assistance. Because the road was narrow and the mishaps plentiful, many of the riders had to wait minutes–practically an eternity when it comes to mechanical changes on this level–before being serviced.

“I must have passed about 20 or 30 guys – I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Martin, who ultimately lost just over three minutes to the main bunch on the day.

The cause, as most spectators immediately suspected, was not natural. Tour officials found the road to be littered with an unspecified number of carpet tacks, spread across the road for reasons beyond the comprehension of race referees and cyclists past and present.

Commentator Phil Liggett summed up the incident best.

Among the riders caught out, two suffered more than their fair share of flak. The first was Croatian rider Robert Kišerlovski, who was forced to abandon after crashing and breaking his collarbone as a direct result of the tacks.

The other rider most affected, Australia’s Cadel Evans, was lucky enough not to fall off. Nevertheless, Evans, who won last year’s edition and sat fourth overall, 3’19″ behind Wiggins entering the day’s stage, was forced to dismount and change a faulty tire no less than three times during his descent. The delays cost Evans, already on the brink of being realistically eliminated from contention for first place with a week to go in the Tour, at least two minutes that he simply could not afford to lose. Evans was left with no choice but to marshal his BMC team and mount a furious chase to rejoin Wiggins.

Most fortunately for Evans, the chase was successful–in large part because Wiggins instructed his Sky team, which was leading the peloton down the mountain, not to push the pace and take unfair advantage of the situation. The rest of the pack followed suit and slowed accordingly (with the curious exception of French climbing extraordinaire Pierre Rolland, who attacked the crawling pack and gained nearly two minutes before being reeled in by a wave of icy stares and cold shoulders. Rolland later claimed he had no idea what was going on). Still, Evans had to expend valuable energy in mounting a furious chase to tack (pun intended) back on to the Wiggins group. Given that his current gap back to Wiggins requires him to attack at essentially every realistic opportunity to move back into striking distance, Evans may find himself cursing his luck as the race climbs higher into the Pyrenees.

However, the damage could have been much worse had Wiggins not been so sportsmanlike.

“I thought it was the honourable thing to do, nobody should ever profit by somebody’s misfortune like that,” Wiggins said afterward.

Wiggins did not escape trouble entirely, as he too found himself beset by a flat tire. The problem occurred at a relatively fortuitous time, however (especially since the pack had already begun to slow for Evans), and Wiggins was able to execute a quick and efficient bike change after dropping back to his team car. Overall, it was a good day for Wiggins, who after the stage found himself hailed as “Le Gentleman” by the press.

Meanwhile, as bizarre scenes played out behind them, the five happily oblivious members of the day’s breakaway were trying desperately to outwit each other and pick up a stage win. The presumptive favorite for the finishing sprint was Slovak Peter Sagan, who wears the green jersey as the Tour’s points leader and already had three stage wins to his credit by the end of the Tour’s opening week.

Sagan never got his chance, however, as crafty Spaniard Luis-Leon Sanchez launched a brilliantly timed attack with 11km to go just as Sagan had dropped back slightly to snack on an energy bar. Sanchez was never to be seen again by the overmatched chasers, who wound up conceding 47 seconds as Sanchez notched his fourth career stage win.

The Tour continues with a short, mostly flat, and hopefully tack-free stage into Pau on Monday.