Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Crashes begin to take a toll on racers

TOUR DE FRANCE Tom Boonen, riding in his first Tour, won the sixth stage in a sprint, while a crash behind him took out or held up dozens of riders

AP , ANGERS, FRANCE

Cyclist ride past a field of sunflowers during the sixth stage of the 91st Tour de France cycling race between Bonneval and Angers, France, Friday. Tom Boonen of Belgium won the stage.

PHOTO: AFP

To Lance Armstrong's dismay, the Tour de France is turning in a demolition derby, with crashes galore -- including one that took down the five-time champion himself.

After largely avoiding the bumps, bruises and scrapes of other riders, the 32-year-old Texan tumbled off his bike early in Friday's stage -- though he quickly recovered and rejoined the race.

"It was a typical early race crash," he said. "There's nothing you can do. You hit the brakes, but bikes don't stop that fast, so I just went over."

While he wasn't hurt, the spill was Armstrong's biggest scare yet to his bid for a record sixth Tour de France crown.

"It wasn't bad, a little bit on the arm, a little bit on the hip," he said, listing his hurts after the 196km stage from Bonneval to Angers in western France.

Tom Boonen, 23, a former Armstrong teammate riding in his first Tour, won the stage in a sprint, while another crash behind him took out or held up dozens of riders. Armstrong was among those delayed and finished 34th. His major rival, German Jan Ullrich, was 26th but didn't make up time on the Texan.

Thomas Voeckler of French team Brioches La Boulangere held onto the overall lead. But Armstrong hopes to wrest it from him later in the race.

Voeckler, the French champion, was tied up in Armstrong's crash and accidentally rolled over the five-time champion's feet.

"I hope I didn't twist his ankle," the 25-year-old said.

An exasperated Armstrong suggested organizers could do a better job to avoid such troubles.

"You saw the big crash at the finish, this is stressful," Armstrong said. "Coming in, they've got the barriers really tight, and you've got 200 guys racing through there at 40 miles [65km] an hour."

"I don't know what the hell they're thinking, but you're going to have crashes," he said.

Crashes are nothing new. Riders accustomed to the agonies of grueling mountain climbs and punishing weather often take tumbles in their stride. Some at the Tour are competing with bandaged chins, black eyes and stiched-up wounds.

This year, a mix of nervous, aggressive riding and narrow roads made slick by rain have riddled the first six stages with collisions and spills.

Aerial TV footage of one crash showed the pack folding in the middle, like a field of wheat blown over by wind.

The daily medical statement issued by Tour organizers on Friday listed broken ribs, knee and head pains, wrist gashes and neck wounds of a dozen riders who fell in three separate spills.

Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate turned rival, hurt his shoulder. But it was of little worry for the thick-skinned American: He wowed crowds a year ago by riding most of the Tour with a double-fractured collarbone.

He still has some psychological scars.

"His morale is not so good because he's thinking about last year," said his Phonak team manager Urs Freuler.

Several Armstrong teammates have also been entangled in crashes. Spaniards Jose Luis Rubeira and Manuel Beltran have gotten stitches after falling.

Another Armstrong teammate, Viatceslav Ekimov of Russia, arrived back at the team bus Friday with a trickle of blood down his right knee.

Tour-ending casualties have hit some top riders.

Italian sprinting specialists Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini withdrew from the race before Friday's stage. Petacchi, the sprint sensation of last year's Tour, injured a shoulder in a crash on a rain-soaked road Thursday.

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