Cycling: Flying bike fails to deny Fedrigo his maiden win

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The Independent Online

If making a well-timed lunge for the line ahead of Italian Salvatore Commesso finally earned the local rider Pierrick Fedrigo the first stage win of his career, avoiding a bicycle in mid-flight was no less important a factor.

Part of a six-man break on the gruelling 180-kilometre stage through the Alpine foothills, in the final hour the move was suddenly cut in half when three riders slammed into the safety barrier on a badly cambered right-hand bend.

The Belgian Rik Verbrugghe and German Matthias Kessler somersaulted over the barrier, with Verbrugghe's bike just shaving past Fedrigo's head.

"I felt it strike my body but I could just stay upright." Fedrigo said afterwards. "The road was poorly surfaced and had ruts everywhere. There was barely time to control the bike. I realise I was very lucky."

While Kessler heaved himself back on to the road and into the race - visibly suffering from shock he finished 12 minutes down - Verbrugghe was not so lucky. Having plummeted down a bank and into a ditch, as race doctors surrounded him the last television viewers saw of the Cofidis rider was a bloodied hand and arm, moving listlessly from side to side.

Verbrugghe was taken to hospital with a suspected broken leg, whilst the third rider to go down, David Cañada, his team jersey ripped to shreds from the crash, suffered a broken collarbone. If the immediate reason for the multiple pile-up were riders skidding on melted tarmac, accumulated fatigue was probably its root cause.

After two weeks of hard racing - the last third through strength-sapping temperatures nudging the high thirties - near-exhausted riders tend to have a slower reaction time, making crashes more probable.

Yesterday's last climb before Gap, the relatively easy second category Cote de la Sentinelle, provided yet more evidence of riders losing their mental and physical sharpness.

After six kilometres of gentle uphill, just 36 riders of the Tour's current total of 156 remained in the group closest behind Fedrigo and Commesso. The remainder of the field, some affected by two uphill crashes, were all lagging behind.

Unpleasant as the pile-up was, it was not the first time or the worst accident a Tour rider has suffered close to Gap.

TV shots yesterday of the bunch swinging down towards the Alpine town at speeds of 90 km an hour on narrow roads made greasy with melted tarmac inevitably recalled the image of Joseba Beloki skidding off a very similar descent three years ago.

The Spaniard suffered a broken wrist, a broken leg and fractured his arm in four places and has never fully recovered. "I remembered his accident very well," the stage winner Fedrigo said. "That was why I didn't try to attack on the descent, even though I knew Commesso was fast. Luckily I managed to outsprint him." Three years ago Scot David Millar had attempted a late attack on the road to Gap, and yesterday the Saunier Duval-Prodir rider had planned to do the same.

However, on Saturday nearly two dozen riders were on the Tour's official list of sick or injured, and Millar, suffering from a sore throat, was among them.

While the Swede Magnus Backstedt, popular among British fans because he is married to a Welsh cyclist and lives near Swansea, abandoned with flu, for Millar today's rest day cannot come too quickly.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'