The records will show Chris Froome claiming the yellow jersey at the end of stage three of the Tour de France here, but the enduring images will be those showing the carnage and chaos that followed one of the worst crashes in the race’s history.
FDJ rider William Bonnet, of France, was put in a neck brace after being thrown off his bike when it touched the wheel of Warren Barguil in front. Bonnet hit the ground, and as many as 19 other riders also came down in the horrifying pile-up causing six to pull out of the race.
Overall leader Fabian Cancellara, who was one of the riders to abandon the race, was one of several top names to be unseated and hurt, as was Australian Simon Gerrans and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin.
Organisers then decided, in an unprecedented step, to stop the race and the peloton came to a halt 55 km from the finish before resuming the stage.
Bonnet was conscious when he was taken away by medical staff on a stretcher. “He’s lucid, he’s wearing a neck brace out of precaution,” said FDJ sports director Thierry Bricaud.
At one point Team Sky riders accelerated before Cancellara made his way back to a bunch that was riding at the minimum pace required when a race is suspended. “Due to the extraordinary circumstances of the crash at a very high speed, the race was neutralised to allow the injured riders to get back in the peloton,” organisers said in a statement.
“Twenty-five minutes after the crash a new start was given at the top of the Cote de Bohisseau with 50-km to go.”
Stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez added: “We were going at 90 kilometres an hour when the crash happened, but we had no idea why we stopped. But all we knew was that it had to be something very serious. The Tour doesn’t get suspended just like that.” Sky manager Dave Brailsford added: “It was a good decision. I think [race director] Christian [Prudhomme] did the right thing.”
Brailsford at least saw Froome enjoy a blistering late acceleration on the slopes of the Mur de Huy, to move into the overall lead with a second place behind Spain’s Rodriguez.
Froome’s punching attack some 500 metres from the summit saw the Sky rider and 2013 Tour de France winner ease away from all the other contenders, taking an 11 second margin on two of his most important challengers, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana – and an 18 second gap on arch-rival Alberto Contador.
The gaps at the top of the overall classification remain minimal, with Froome just one second ahead of Germany’s Tony Martin. But for the Briton to take the lead so early – and on one of several stages which were thought not to favour him – represents a huge morale boost.
Froome’s return to his first lead in a three-week stage race since the 2013 Tour de France comes hard on the heels of Sunday’s spectacular breakaway alongside Contador, which allowed Froome to move into the top 10 overall.
But, when the Briton shot out of the pack on the right-hand side of the field, Froome was in a class of his own. Contador, for one, admitted simply: “I couldn’t follow him, and I don’t know why.”
“I’m really happy to put time into all my rivals,” Froome, now 36 seconds ahead of the Spaniard, said, “particularly as I thought this climb suited punchier climbers like Joaquim. It’s very early days, we’ve seen so many changes these days that you can’t read too much into it at this point. It’s only a one kilometre climb, but I’d much rather be in this position than chasing to make up ground.”
In 2013, of course, Froome’s surging attack in Corsica on stage two preceded his success that year. He will be particularly satisfied, too, that he is in such a strong position going into one of the most difficult challenges of the race, Tuesday’s stage over the dreaded pavé cobbles of northern France.
Froome’s multiple crashes and injuries meant he did not even reach the pavé that featured on last year’s route but he – like all of the Tour contenders – well knows his reputation from the Paris-Roubaix Classic, where pavé features strongly.
On these cobbled farm lanes punctures, crashes and mechanical incidents are two-a-penny, and Tour ambitions can be wrecked. Last year, Contador lost nearly three minutes to Nibali on the Tour’s pavé stage, and as Froome said: “It’s a stage where anything can happen.”
This year the peloton faces 13.3 km pavé, slightly more than in 2014. As the Madison-Genesis team sports director Roger Hammond – Britain’s best ever Paris-Roubaix racer, with a third place in 2004 – said: “It’s going to be more dangerous tomorrow because in Paris-Roubaix, half the peloton is almost always dropped by halfway through the race and that’s it for them.
“Here the peloton will try harder to stay in contention because they’ve got their overall classification to think about.”Reuse content