SHOOT: It's been an extraordinary Tour so far, with the heads of state being whittled down by crashes, starting with Brad Wiggins, and now Vino and Horner. Let's hope it settles after the rest day into racing, rather than carnage, deciding who wins.
By ERIC PFANNER
For the first time in a week, the yellow jersey changed owners on Sunday as Thomas Voeckler, a Frenchman with the Europcar team, grabbed the overall lead in the Tour de France after a race stage marred by serious tumbles, including one caused by a television crew.
Voeckler, part of a breakaway group, finished second in the stage, behind Luis León Sánchez, a Spaniard with Rabobank. That was enough to allow Voeckler to take over the lead from Thor Hushovd, a Norwegian with Garmin-Cervelo, who had held the yellow jersey since Stage Two on July 3.
On Sunday, riders traveled 208 kilometers, or about 130 miles, across the Massif Central, from Issoire to Saint-Flour, in the second consecutive hilly stage, after an opening week of mostly flat riding. The ups and downs made for more exciting racing — but also proved costly for riders involved in several serious crashes.
In the most outrageous incident of the day, two riders in Voeckler’s group, which had built up a lead of about five minutes over the main pack, were thrown off their bicycles when they were hit by a car bearing the logos of France 2 and France 3, the French public television stations.
The driver, trying to pass the cyclists on a speedy descent about 35 kilometers from the finish, appeared to swerve to avoid a wide tree along the narrow country road. Instead, the car careened right into one of the riders, Juan Antonio Flecha of the Sky team. As Flecha fell he sent another rider, Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil, head over heels onto a barbed wire fence.
It was the second crash in this Tour that appeared to have been caused by an official vehicle, after a motorcycle carrying a Tour photographer separated a rider from his bicycle during one of the early stages last week.
On Sunday, both riders got back onto their bicycles and continued, Hoogerland bleeding profusely from his leg and grimacing in pain. Though both riders went from a leading position to a finish more than 16 minutes back, Hoogerland at least had the consolation of taking over the polka-dotted jersey of the leading climber in the Tour.
“We can still be happy that we’re alive,” Hoogerland told Eurosport television. “It’s horrible. I can blame everyone but I don’t think anyone does this sort of thing on purpose.”
Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank-Sungard, the defending Tour champion, who has been involved in several mishaps this year, fell in a separate incident early in the stage on Sunday. It appeared that Contador might have been pushed by another rider, but he recovered quickly.
At least seven riders abandoned the race on Sunday, most of them because of crashes. They included Alexandre Vinokourov, the veteran Kazakh rider with the Astana team, who was carried off in an ambulance, ending a Tour that the 37-year-old rider had said would be his last. The same crash also brought the Tour to a close for Jurgen van den Broek, a Belgian with Omega-Lotto, the fifth-place finisher last year.
On the previous day, Vinokorouv briefly appeared poised to achieve a long-held ambition: to hold the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in any Tour after a career in which he has often been in the thick of the action, without actually claiming the lead.
The riders faced their first stiff climb of the Tour on Saturday, an ascent of the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert in the Massif Central. It was the perfect stage for Vinokourov, a strong climber, to mount an attack, and that is what he did, breaking out of the main pack and chasing down a small group of leaders.
But Vinokourov faded just before the finish, and the last holdout in the breakaway group, Alberto Rui Costa of Portugal, a member of the Movistar team, managed to hang on to win by 12 seconds, punching the air with his fist as he claimed his first-ever stage win, at Super-Besse Sancy.
The biggest surprise on Saturday, however, was that Hushovd managed to hold the yellow jersey for another day. Reputed as more of a sprinter than a climber, he was expected to struggle in the Massif Central, the first hilly terrain after a first week of mostly flat stages in the north and west of France. But Hushovd applied a burst of speed in the final meters to stay just ahead of overall favorites like Contador, Cadel Evans of BMC and Frank and Andy Schleck, with Leopard Trek.
“I’m tired after this week,” Hushovd told reporters after the Saturday stage. “It takes a lot of energy out of you to always be up there and defending the jersey so I really did not believe I could manage this today.”
After his stage victory Sunday, Voeckler now holds a sizable lead of 1 minute, 49 seconds over Sánchez. Among the Tour favorites, Evans is in third place, 2 minutes, 26 seconds off the pace, just ahead of the Schleck brothers.
Contador continues his slow climb up the standings, after a bad start to the race. He is now in 16th place overall, though 4 minutes, 7 seconds behind Voeckler.
Monday is a rest day on the Tour, which continues Tuesday with a 158-kilometer stage from Aurillac to Carmaux.