Cycling: Pile-up means Mayo's had his chips

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The Independent Online

After only four days of racing, one of Lance Armstrong's key rivals, Iban Mayo, saw his Tour campaign collapse in a lethal combination of a crash, cobblestones and a fruitless chase across north-east France.

After only four days of racing, one of Lance Armstrong's key rivals, Iban Mayo, saw his Tour campaign collapse in a lethal combination of a crash, cobblestones and a fruitless chase across north-east France.

"The Tour is lost, of course it is. I'm sorry for the team," was all Mayo would say moments after crossing the line here, nearly four minutes behind Armstrong and stage-winner Jean-Patrick Nazon. Then with a sizeable gash in his left thigh leering through an even larger hole in his shorts, he disappeared into the Euskaltel-Euskadi team bus.

Mayo's débâcle started when he crashed in an eight-man pile-up shortly before the first of two sections of pavé - rough farm-track cobbles included this year as a homage to the Paris-Roubaix one-day race, held each spring in the region.

The April Classic is nicknamed the Hell of the North because of the inclusion of some 50 kilometres of pavé split into two dozen sectors in the final, decisive, part of the route, but all it took yesterday was one section a fraction of that distance for Mayo's descent into purgatory to become a journey of no return.

Aware that the Basque climber who had rendered Armstrong's life so difficult in the Dauphiné Libéré had already been distanced by the crash, the Texan's blue-clad US Postal troops romped past a large white water tower and a gaggle of Stella-Artois-swilling Belgian fans at the start of the 2.8 kilometre section outside Erre at bone-shaking speeds of 60kmh.

Their mass acceleration further shattered the peloton, and caused the more lightly built race contenders, as new Tour leader Robbie McEwen said afterwards, to "bounce on and off the cobbles and all over the place." The consequence for Mayo, who weighs 60 kilogrammes and who has never ridden over Roubaix cobbles in his life, was that his disadvantage of 30 seconds suddenly tripled.

His Euskaltel team tried desperately to return to the fray with nominal co-leader Haimar Zubeldia, fifth in last year's Tour, sacrificing his chances alongside three other team-mates to try and keep Mayo within distance of the American.

But their lack of powerful allies in the chase rendered it a hopeless task, and they managed to catch up with a chasing group led by the yellow jersey of Thor Hushovd - also soon to lose any chance he had of holding onto his lead - Armstrong had found far stronger friends ahead.

Assistance from Jan Ullrich's T-Mobile squad and Tyler Hamilton's Phonak team, both in the front group and as quick to realise as Armstrong that this was a golden opportunity to eliminate the gifted climber from the running - further tightened the screws on Mayo.

Nearly two minutes behind when they hit the second section of pavé 25km from the finish, Mayo was already trailing at the back of the 100-strong chase group, his self-confidence by now as shredded as his shorts.

As the sprinters scented the finish in Wasquehal, the pace ahead lifted still further, so much so that in the final kilometre the front pack split, with Armstrong losing five seconds to Nazon - but gaining four on Mayo.

Following his superb prologue and Mayo's exit, in the team time trial today the chances are that Armstrong, whose team won this stage last year, will take his first yellow jersey of the race.

As for Mayo, nursing his injuries and battered pride, 25 years may have passed since the Tour route last included a sector of pavé, but yesterday still would have felt like too soon.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

Third stage (210km, Waterloo, Bel, to Wasquehal, Fr): 1 J-P Nazon (Fr) AG2R 4hr 36min 45sec; 2 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 3 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo; 4 T Boonen (Bel) Quick Step-Davitamon; 5 K Kirchen (Lux) Fassa Bortolo; 6 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 7 J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2R; 8 A Bertolini (It) Alessio-Bianchi; 9 F Baldato (It) Alessio-Bianchi; 10 J E Gutierrez (Sp) Phonak; 11 M Scarponi (It) Domina Vacanze; 12 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank; 13 L Brochard (Fr) AG2R; 14 F Cancellara (Swit) Fassa Bortolo all same time; 15 P Valoti (It) Domina Vacanze +5sec. Leading overall standings (yellow jersey): 1 McEwen 13hr 42min 34sec; 2 Cancellara +1sec; 3 Voigt +9; 4 Nazon +12; 5 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +16; 6 Hondo +22; 7 Zabel +23; 8 Gutierrez s/t; 9 Leipheimer +24; 10 O Pereiro (Sp) Phonak +25. King of the Mountains standings (polka-dot jersey): 1 P Bettini (It) Quick Step 19pts; 2 J Tombak (Est) Confidis 14; 3 Voigt 9; 4 B de Groot (Neth) Rabobank 7; 5 J Pineau (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère 3. Leading overall points standings (green jersey): 1 McEwen 93; 2 Nazon 85; 3 Kirsipuu 74; 4 Hondo 74; 5 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 70. Leading overall team standings: 1 US Postal 41hr 08min 56sec; 2 Fassa Bortolo +4sec; 3 CSC +6; 4 Phonak s/t; 5 Rabobank +21; 6 T-Mobile +25; 7 Liberty Seguros +29; 8 Fdjeux +31; 9 Gerolsteiner +32; 10 AG2R +35. Young riders: 1 Cancellara 13hr 42min 35sec; 2 Boonen +27; 3 Scarponi +32; 4 Pineau +34; 5 M Scanlon (Irl) AG2R +35.