Neal Rogers: The 2010 Tour de France’s first week

Rotterdam seems so long ago ...

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As the Tour de France settles into its first rest day in the alpine village of Morzine, for those traveling with the race — and perhaps those following remotely as well — the pomp and circumstance of the Rotterdam prologue feels like months ago.

There’s been more drama, fatigue and intrigue then a daily soap opera. Actually, given the daily successes and struggles, the joy and pain, and the natural beauty of the French countryside, the Tour is a daily soap opera. Look no further than Mark Cavendish’s waterworks after his stage 5 win, or Alberto Contador’s surprise visit to the RadioShack team bus. At least two separate incidents have been reported of riders trading blows, including a spectacular post-race brawl caught on video. Two pre-race GC contenders, Fränk Schleck and Christian Vande Velde, were knocked out of the race early, sent home with broken bones, while Lance Armstrong watched his GC chances disappear after a horrendous stage 8.

Here’s a look back at the wild ride that was the first week of the 2010 Tour de France.

Prologue: The WSJ drops a bomb


2010 Tour de France prologue, Fabian Cancellara
2010 Tour de France prologue, Fabian Cancellara

The Tour hadn’t even begun and the race had a potential doping scandal on its hands. Furthering the allegations that emerged in May during the Amgen Tour of California, the Wall Street Journal printed a pair of stories the day the Tour began containing accusations, leveled by former U.S. Postal Service rider Floyd Landis, that Armstrong and team manager Johan Bruyneel ran a systemized blood-doping program within the team, and that it was financed by the black-market sale of team equipment. The story included a detailed account of alleged clandestine blood transfusions as well as innuendos that Armstrong dabbled in strippers, cocaine and reckless driving. Hours before the prologue Armstrong issued a brief statement, comparing Landis’ credibility to sour milk. Then he went out and finished fourth in the prologue, first of the GC contenders. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Fabian Cancellara won the prologue and took the maillot jaune.

Stage 1: Farrar’s missed opportunity

(Rotterdam to Brussels)

The roads through Holland and into Belgium were lined with so many spectators — some estimates put the crowds at close to three million — that riders complained of added danger. After sprint nemesis Mark Cavendish came into a right-hand turn too hot and crashed with 2km remaining to the finish line in Brussels, there was no better time for Tyler Farrar to take that elusive first stage win. Another crash, with just 800 meters remaining, whittled the front of the pack down to just two-dozen men — and Farrar was there. With 50 meters remaining the Garmin-Transitions rider was sitting in perfect position on stage winner Alessandro Petacchi’s wheel. But as Petacchi jumped from the right side of the road to the left, HTC-Columbia’s Mark Renshaw followed, and when Farrar went in pursuit, crashing AG2R rider Lloyd Mondory’s bike caught in the American’s rear derailleur. With the AG2R rider’s bike fully engaged with Farrar’s, the Garmin rider could only kick at it, all while watching the sprint take place in front of him. Farrar was forced to walk across the line and to the team bus, and along the way, race officials tagged his bike fro an x-ray scan, checking for motors. Farrar didn’t know it at the time, but it would be his only field sprint of this Tour not plagued by injury.

Stage 2: The Stockeau massacre

(Brussels to Spa)

2010 Tour de France stage 2, Chavanel and Pineau celebrate
Chavanel and Pineau were about the only riders celebrating after stage 2

Belgian team Quick Step, and its French rider, Sylvain Chavanel, had a near perfect day, taking the stage win, the yellow jersey and the climber’s jersey — and all in the team’s home country. For just about every other team in the race, stage 2 was nothing short of miserable. A series of pileups on the slippery descent of the Col du Stockeu, a climb regularly used in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic, saw nearly every top GC rider on the deck, including Contador, Armstrong, Fränk and Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins and Vande Velde. Farrar also crashed heavily, fracturing his wrist and suffering severe contusions. It all started when Lampre rider Francesco Gavazzi crashed out of the breakaway on the Stockeau. A TV motorcycle then crashed while avoiding hitting Gavazzi, and the bike spilled oil on the road. The oil had time to run down the hill by the time the peloton came through a few minutes later, setting off a dangerous domino effect that saw more than 60 riders sliding across the road. With nearly every team missing riders, Cancellara took it upon himself to neutralize what was left of the peloton in order to give the downed men the chance to return to the bunch. The move was unpopular with some riders, namely Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd, who hadn’t gone down and lost an opportunity to earn valuable points in the green jersey competition.

Stage 3: Cobblestone carnage

(Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut)

Stage 3, 2010 Tour de France
Tyler Farrar on stage 3

With seven sectors of pavé in the final 50km, everyone knew stage 3 was going to blow the race apart; the only question was how the cards would fall. When the dust had settled, one GC favorite (Fränk Schleck) was out of the race and two others (Evans and Andy Schleck) gained significant time on their rivals, while Hushovd took one giant step towards a repeat green jersey. In the rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, the lottery that is riding the cobblestones saw a reversal of position in the final 16km, when Armstrong punctured out of a group that sat almost a minute ahead of Contador’s. Instead of gaining time on the Spaniard Armstrong lost 55 seconds to Contador, as well as 2:08 to Schleck and Evans. Other than Hushovd, who took a commanding and defiant stage win, the day’s biggest winner was Evans, who finished third on the stage and distanced himself from Contador, Armstrong and the rest of the GC hopefuls. With Chavanel suffering a pair of punctures, Cancellara reclaimed the jersey he’d sacrificed one day earlier.

Stage 4: Tempers flare

(Cambrai to Reims)

The first hot day of the Tour, and with half of the peloton dripping sweat into fresh wounds, and riders’ nerves blown by three consecutive stressful, crash-riddled stages, the collective mood of the bunch turned to one of fatigue and irritability.

Though pleased with his stage win at Arenberg, the mild-mannered Thor Hushovd was still seething from the peloton’s decision to nullify the sprint for second place in Spa. Saxo Bank’s Jens Voigt lashed out at Tour organizers ASO, demanding a public apology for a “perverted and stupid” stage that was destined to cause harm, while Voigt’s teammate Jacob Fuglsang and Garmin-Transitions rider Robbie Hunter engaged in a game of “he started it” when asked about their exchange of blows on the pavé. After Petacchi took his second field sprint, Cavendish first threw his bike, and then his helmet, at the HTC-Columbia team bus, while Armstrong cut short post-race commentary with VeloNews when a spectator, believed to be the same person that upset Armstrong prior to a stage of the Tour of Luxembourg, began heckling him.

Stage 5: Alberto’s gifts, Cav’s tears

(Épernay to Montargis)

Just what exactly was Alberto Contador’s motive for dropping off a pair of watches at the RadioShack team bus at the start in Épernay? If it is to be taken at face value, the Spaniard was simply showing gratitude, albeit a year late, for the role Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong played in Contador’s 2009 Tour win. (Yeah, right. As if Contador hadn’t had plenty of other opportunities to take care of that.) It’s no secret that Armstrong played some downright nasty mind games with Contador during their tenure as teammates last July; don’t think for a second Contador has forgotten — or forgiven. Stopping by the team bus bearing gifts was Contador’s attempt to demonstrate to Bruyneel, Armstrong and the rest of the cycling world that he’s above all the mischief. Which, of course, he isn’t; his is just a different flavor.

Alberto Contador comes calling. Photo: Alan Clarance
Alberto Contador comes calling. Photo: Alan Clarance

Meanwhile there was no hidden agenda for Cavendish, who broke into tears after taking his first stage win in what has been a troubled 2010 season. That raw emotion lasted for over a half-hour as the HTC rider thanked his teammates, staff and management, friends and family for standing by him during his lower moments, revealing a softer, quieter side to the 25-year-old Manxman that is often overshadowed by his brash and outspoken exterior. “I started this sport because I love it, it means everything in my life,” he said. “And the more you love something and the more you do it, the better you get. On one side of the coin you get the positives from that (success) and your feet lift off the ground and you kind of float on a cloud. I learned a big lesson not to get on that cloud. People pulled me and I came down very, very hard. And it hurt.”

Stage 6: Finish-line chaos

(Montargis to Gueugnon)

They say heat is a catalyst, and that was never more evident than on the hot, sweaty finish line at Gueugnon. Cavendish won a second consecutive field sprint, but his win was somewhat overshadowed by two separate incidents that both happened immediately following the stage. First Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen was knocked to the ground by a TV cameraman in the seconds after he rolled across the line, adding injury to more injury; he had already been nursing serious injuries suffered in a high-speed fall on the slippery road to Spa. Then just seconds later, Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne) threw punches at each other after Barredo released the front wheel from his bike and charged Costa after he crossed the line. Costa tried to shield himself from the enraged Barredo, pulling the wheel away only then to receive blows from Barredo. Bystanders, including Versus’ Frankie Andreu, scrambled to pull the pair apart. Barredo’s temper flared with about 20km to go in the stage when Costa elbowed him in the gut as he passed, nearly throwing him off the bike and knocking the breath out of him. Both men were fined, but neither rider was expelled from the race.

Stage 7: The stalemate

(Tournus to Station des Rousses)

When the GC favorites predicted the 18km Lamoura climb wasn’t difficult enough to create a selection, stage 7 was destined to be a day for the breakaway. And it was, with Chavanel jumping clear of the bunch to bridge across, and through, the break, take the stage win and reclaiming, if only for one more day, the maillot jaune. What the GC favorites hadn’t anticipated was the intense heat, which made the stage infinitely more difficult than expected. Although all the top favorites crossed the line together, several top lieutenants, including Andreas Kloden (RadioShack) and Jacob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank), fell off the pace. “I suffered, I think everybody did. It was just so incredibly hot and humid,” said Armstrong. “Nobody showed themselves, or tried anything. I think everybody would say it was harder than expected, primarily because of the temperature.”

Stage 8: Armstrong’s collapse

2010 Tour de France stage 8, Cadel Evans takes over the lead.
Our new leader.

(Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz)

It was the bad day Lance Armstrong avoided for seven Tours in a row. On the mountainous stage to Morzine-Avoriaz he was tangled up in crashes not once, or twice, but three times. The first incident was innocuous enough, just 10km into the stage, with Armstrong forced off the road by a spill that took down Cadel Evans. The second, however, was a game-changer. Just 50km from the finish, and more importantly, at the base of the Ramaz, the day’s hardest climb, Armstrong clipped his pedal in a roundabout going 40mph. He rolled a tubular and snapped his saddle; the injury to his hip and subsequent bike change cost the Texan significant time. After a furious chase Armstrong was able to rejoin the bunch, but the effort and the pace were too much, and the seven-time Tour champ could not maintain contact. By the time of the third incident — a Euskaltel rider got hung up on a musette bag at the top of the insignificant Les Gets climb — Armstrong had resigned himself. He crossed the line almost 12 minutes behind Schleck’s stage-winning time, and while Evans stepped into yellow, Armstrong admitted that his Tour hopes were over. “I had a bad day. I’ve had a lot of good days at the Tour,” he said. “This Tour is finished for me.”

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