Friday, July 13, 2007

Astana in Trouble

Crashes in the Tour de France are not uncommon.  Often times, crashes alter the landscape of the Tour de France contenders (see Alejandro Valverde from '05, Iban Mayo from '04, Joseba Beloki from '03, and any major contender from the '99 Tour de France over the Passage du Gois). 

Yet Astana must be considering themselves extremely unlucky after yesterday's stage.  In two separate incidents, their two main riders and two of the biggest favorites for the Tour de France, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden, both crashed.  Kloden was the first to go down with around 70km to go.  Fortunately, he was able to get back into the peloton without too much difficulty.  Vinokourov, on the other hand, was not so lucky.  At 25km to go, Vinokourov crashed after his chain had jumped off.  Although the crash was not caught on TV, later images showed Vino standing on the side of the road, bloody, bib-shorts ripped and grimacing in pain. 

Vino was soon back on his bike, while just up the road 6 Astana teammates were waiting to guide him back to the peloton.  Only Kloden and Andrey Kashechkin, Astana's two other best riders, remained in the main bunch.  Astana then went into a team time trial formation in a desperate attempt to pull back the peloton.  Unfortunately for them, the peloton itself was putting the hammer down up the final category 3 climb as it raced towards the finish line.  Thus, despite an all out effort, the Astana riders were unable to make up any of the one minute gap and soon began to drop one by one.  At the end of the climb, having blown apart the rest of his teammates, Vinokourov was forced to chase on his own as he passed a slew of other dropped riders.  Amazingly, given the circumstances, by the end of the stage he only lost 1'20 to the other main GC contenders.  His chances for the overall, though dampered, are not completely over.  By comparison, at one point in last year's Vuelta a Espana, he was more than 2'30 down on the leader before rallying to win the overall.  It would be a mistake to write him off just yet...

The bigger concern for Astana, though, is the health of their riders.  Immediately after the stage, both Vinokourov and Kloden were taken to the local hospital.  Initial reports indicate that Kloden has broken his tailbone, while Vinokourov suffered only cuts and bruises.  (Fortunately both riders, though banged up, were able to start today.)  They weren't the only riders to suffer bad luck.  Benjamin Noval (Discovery) crashed into the back of a Bouygues Telecom car on the final descent to the finish line.  Another incident, perhaps the saddest story, was Geoffroy Lequatre (Cofidis) crashing in the feed zone and finishing the stage a bloodied mess over 44 minutes behind the peloton. 

Overshadowed by all of the crashes and Astana drama was the stage victory itself.  Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) took the victory in a field sprint of around 80 riders ahead of Oscar Freire and Daniele Bennati.  While the final climb dropped other sprinters like Tom Boonen, Robbie McEwen, and Thor Hushovd, Pozzato managed to stay with the peloton and record his second ever Tour de France stage victory.  Fabian Cancellara, meanwhile, had no problems getting over the climbs and retained his maillot jaune yet again.


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