On the day that one of Lance Armstrong's key rivals, Joseba Beloki, crashed out injured and all but took the American with him, another, yesterday's stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov, emerged as a new contender in the fight for the overall classification.
Beloki span out of control when his back wheel punctured on a 60kmph (37.5mph) descent four kilometres from the finish of the race's final Alpine stage, into Gap. Tarmac melted in the 30C-plus temperatures and a badly cambered surface made it impossible for the Basque to have even a remote chance of manoeuvring his bike, and he skidded a good dozen metres off the right-hand side of the road, opening a huge hole in his right elbow in the process.
Bleeding profusely from his arm wound and with a deep cut in his right hip, Beloki howled with pain as his team-mates, Jorg Jaksche and Jose Azevedo, clustered around him on the roadside and the other contenders whizzed past. It later emerged that he had broken his right thigh and bones in his right wrist and elbow. He was in intensive care last night while his team tried to arrange transport back to Spain.
Armstrong, just behind him and in hot pursuit of Vinokourov, who had launched a lone breakaway, came within a whisker of going flying himself. "I had to either go left or right, it was survival instinct," the Texan said. He chose to go left, which took the American, bike and all, off the road in a space mercifully free of spectators, over a nearby ditch, up a small "cliff", as the American called it, and into a field.
Somehow still in the saddle, the Texan regained control of his bike and bounced to a halt some 30 metres from the road. Turning around quickly, he pedalled back to the race with no time lost, but his nerves clearly severely rattled. "I was very, very frightened," said Armstrong, who nearly came a cropper yesterday on the descent from the Galibier when a bidon held by team-mate Roberto Heras went flying. "I had never been that scared. Real panic. In a moment like that, it's only a reflex of survival. These sorts of roads are not safe. I had to do cyclo-cross to get back into the event."
But if Armstrong is still in the race, Beloki, third in 2000 despite cracking a rib on the Ventoux, a placing he repeated in 2001 before finishing runner-up last year, was not so fortunate. He was sobbing as he waited for the ambulance to take him out of the field, and the Basque's absence will be noted. He is Armstrong's most experienced rival, although he has often been criticisedfor his failure to attack. But on this occasion the ONCE-Eroski rider had attempted to drop the American seven times on Alpe D'Huez on Sunday, declaring afterwards that he was "a new Beloki".
There is no knowing whether Vinokourov, the blond-haired Kazakh winner of the stage who is now lying just 21 seconds behind Armstrong overall, will be able to take his place. The Telekom leader took off on the final third-category climb of the day, the Rochette, just outside Gap, tearing past the last breakaway of the day, Beloki's team-mate Jaksche, and opening up a margin of 15 seconds by the summit.
After a high-speed descent, Vinokourov pounded through the succession of roundabouts leading to the finish to take the stage by 36 seconds, his advantage widening after the rest of the overall contenders decided to wait for Armstrong.
Vinokourov, who had no idea that the Texan had come so close to disaster or that Beloki had crashed, made two key gestures as he crossed the line - one as if he was rocking a cradle, as a dedication to his recently born twins, and the other to the sky, in memory of his close friend, Andrei Kivilev, who was killed in a crash during this year's Paris-Nice race.
"I felt Andrei's strength all the way through the stage, and he was there with me when I attacked," said Vinokourov, who has promised to make the podium in Paris, "because that was what Kivi wanted to do himself." However, as a less experienced three-week rider than Beloki, the Kazakh may be unable to judge his strength for a race of this duration. His best placing in the Tour was 15th in 2000 and he could pay a high price in the Pyrenees for his exceptionally aggressive ride in the Alps, attacking on all three stages.
Sunday's Alpe D'Huez winner Iban Mayo, who remained third overall thanks to Vinokourov's last-minute charge, is equally unused to racing for high placings overall in the Tour, finishing 88th last year.
Britain's David Millar was another rider determined to prove that he had come out of the Alps in solid condition, attacking on the first of the two minor climbs that ended the 184-kilometre (115-mile) stage. A minute behind a day-long break of seven at the summit, the Scot was reeled in on the long section of flat that followed, just before Vinokourov made his move. "I hadn't bargained on there being a 10-kilometre section into the headwind," Millar said, "but I'll be back again."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
STAGE 9 (Bourg d'Oisans to Gap, 184.5km, 115.3 miles): 1 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Telekom 5hr 2min 0sec; 2 P Bettini (It) Quick Step +36sec; 3 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel; 4 L Armstrong (US) US Postal; 5 J Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi; 6 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo; 7 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 8 F Mancebo (Sp) iBanesto.com; 9 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel; 10 T Hamilton (US) CSC; 11 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel all same time; 12 D Rous (Fr) Brioches +52sec; 13 D Menchov (Rus) iBanesto com s/t; 14 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole +1min 6sec; 15 R Heras (Sp) US Postal; 16 D Plaza (Sp) Bianchi; 17 C Sastre (Sp) CSC; 18 I Parra (Col) Kelme all s/t; 19 L Paolini (It) Quick Step +1:47; 20 M Lelli (It) Cofidis s/t. Selected: 28 D Millar (GB) Cofidis s/t.
Overall (yellow jersey): 1 Armstrong 40:15.26; 2 Vinokourov +21sec; 3 Mayo +1min 2sec; 4 Mancebo +1:37; 5 Hamilton +1:52; 6 Ullrich +2:10; 7 Basso +2:25; 8 Heras +2:28; 9 Zubeldia +3:25; 10 Menchov +3:45; 11 Laiseka +4:03; 12 Moreau +4:04; 13 M Beltran (Sp) US Postal +4:31; 14 Totschnig +4:58; 15 P Caucchioli (It) Alessio +5:17; 16 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step +5:59; 17 Sastre +5:59; 18 J Jaksche (Ger) ONCE +7:05; 19 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +7:15; 20 P Luettenberger (Aut) CSC +8:20.
Points (green jersey): 1 B Cooke (Aus) FDJeux.com 120pts; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto 110; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 104; 4 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 98; 5 J-P Nazon (Fr) Jean Delatour 88; 6 L Paolini (It) Quick Step 87; 7 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole 86; 8 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 83; 9 R Vainstains (Lat) Caldirola 81; 10 Bettini 72.
King of the Mountain (polka-dot jersey): 1 Virenque 135pts; 2 Jaksche 75; 3 Armstrong 74; 4 I Parra (Col) Kelme 71; 5 A Garmendia (Sp) Bianchi 62; 6 Mancebo 61; 7 R Aldag (Ger) Telekom 61; 8 D Di Luca (It) Saeco 56; 9 Moreau 54; 10 Mayo 53.
Teams: 1 Euskaltel 118hr 11min 19sec; 2 US Postal +4min 11sec; 3 iBanesto.com +8:34; 4 CSC +10:14; 5 Bianchi +16:26.
Under-25s (white jersey): 1 Menchov 40hr 19min 11sec; 2 S Chavanel (Fr) Brioches +5min 59sec; 3 E Petrov (Rus) iBanesto.com +9:41; 4 J M Mercado (Sp) iBanesto.com +11:46; 5 M Astarloza (Sp) AG2R +12:29.Reuse content