2011 Tour de France Week 1: Carnage Sees Contenders Whittled Down to Four

As the combatants in the 2011 Tour de France enjoy a day’s rest before the circus moves into the seriously lumpy terrain later this week.

Surprisingly, after a relatively flat—terrain-wise, at least—first week, the number of remaining riders who have a realistic chance of figuring in the battle for the General Classification has been whittled down to just four.

BMC’s team leader Cadel Evans is having his best Tour to date and looks fit and hungry. He’s covering moves easily and has even tried a couple of testing short attacks. His riding style always looks like he’s in a world of pain, but could well surprise everyone heading into the Pyrenees later this week.

The Leopard Trek’s Schleck brothers remain the biggest threats on this year’s Tour. The combination working as a team through the mountains is powerful enough to put away any of the contenders with the possible exception of Alberto Contador, who rides for their old team, Saxo Bank.

Contador came into the Tour as favourite, but crashes and the legacy of a hard Giro d’Italia looks to have taken the gloss off the Spaniard. The pressure of his impending appeal defence for his positive test to Clenbutarol may also be weighing heavily on him.

It has been a fascinating Tour so far, but the carnage that has been visited upon the peloton is unprecedented.

To date, we have lost 14 riders to injury as a result of some horrific accidents.

Crashes are not uncommon in road cycling, but in the early stages of the Tour, the crashes are usually confined to sprinters going down when a bunch sprint gets a bit too willing.

This year, the crashes are on the open road and the riders getting injured are general classification contenders. After just one week, there are now only three riders that have a fighting chance of winning the Tour.

Unless, of course, they crash too.

Of the team leaders to be gone from this year’s race, we have Radio Shack’s Janez Brajkovic with a broken collarbone on Stage 5, Sky’s Bradley Wiggins with the same injury on Stage 7, Omega Pharma-Lotto fractured collarbone on Stage 9 and Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana’s leader, who fractured his femur in that chilling crash on Stage 9.

There are also a number of other team leaders who have crashed but are struggling through. Most notable is three-time winner of the Tour, Alberto Contador, who has hit the deck four times this week and is carrying an injured knee.

Joining him is David Millar who was involved in the same crash as Vinokourov, but managed to rejoin the race but now languishes four minutes behind Evans and Schleck.

The riders have used the rest day to express concern over the unusually high number of accidents. Certainly, the incident with Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland and the one where Nicki Sorensen’s bike was dragged along by a camera motorcycle were both absolutely avoidable.

But Leopard-Trek’s one-day classic whizz-kid Fabian Cancellara went further, accusing the organizers of deliberately choosing the most dangerous roads.

All riders have expressed their concern that officials have not learned from the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt in the Giro.

It’s certainly a difficult balancing act for the organisers. The Tour de France is the pinnacle of profession cycling, it should be hard and it should push riders to their physical and mental limits. It should be a test of strength, skill, resilience, and courage.

It should also be a race that the riders can walk away from in one piece.

Crashes are inevitable, and when they happen in large bunches and at high speeds there are going to be injuries, some of them serious. Previous Tours have seen horrific crashes with severe injuries and two riders—Francisco Cepeda in 1935 and Fabio Casartelli in 1995—have paid the ultimate price, losing their lives in crashes.

Crashes involving support vehicles, however, are inexcusable. The demands of fans to get even closed to the action have led to greater risks being taken.

Cars that are carting around wealthy VIPs, on the other hand, have no place getting that close to the riders and that is a very easy problem for Tour director Christian Prudhomme to solve. Push them right to the back of the peloton or send them five minutes ahead.

The coverage on TV and in print (and now internet) is phenomenal and delivers unprecedented insight into life inside the peloton. There can be few other sports that are able to deliver such up-close access to the participants.

To deliver that outstanding product, risks need to be taken. The difficult decision now needs to made as to whether those risks are too great.

Week two of the Tour now sees the riders getting into the nasty mountains after two relatively flat stages to ease them into it. Thursday sees a trip up the unclassified Col du Tourmalet before the also unclassified climb to the finish at Luz-Ardiden.

We’ll have a better idea then who will win this race.

TAGS: 2011 Tour de France, BMC Racing, Cadel Evans,