Millar emerges unscathed amid chaos

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David Millar survived a day of crashes and high tension in the Tour of Spain yesterday to remain in the lead for a third consecutive day.

The final crash, with two kilometres to go to the finish in Leon, was the biggest and most serious of the day with the peloton breaking up into half a dozen pieces but Millar remained close to the front and finished 19th behind the German Erik Zabel, who took his second bunch sprint in two days.

Others, like last year's overall winner Roberto Heras, were not so fortunate – or so astute – as the 24-year-old Scot: the US Postal leader lost seven seconds, while his arch-rival, Joseba Beloki, third in this year's Tour de France, was 22 seconds adrift after forcing his way through the lines of spectators to get round the crash.

"I don't know why everybody got so nervous," Millar said afterwards of the five crashes that, far more than any attacks on a flat, exposed course, dominated the day's proceedings. "After the second crash I actually stopped for a pee to try to show the riders that they should calm down."

Zabel himself, who nearly came down in a crash early on involving the 1999 world champion and rival sprinter Oscar Freire, blamed the accidents on the cross-winds "and riders losing their focus for a moment."

Millar's action had some effect on the frayed nerves in the peloton which briefly returned to an easy pace. But by then the Italian Elio Aggiano was riding with one fingernail ripped out as a result of the first crash, this year's Giro winner, Gilberto Simoni, had twice hit the deck, and the Rabobank rider, Marcus Zberg, had quit the Tour in an ambulance with a dislocated collarbone and suspected fractured wrist after falling badly in the second multiple pile-up.

However, the battle for an intermediate sprint saw the pace rise once more as the peloton sped out of Valladolid and past fields of sunflowers frazzled by the sunshine of the Spanish interior. Then, after two small crashes on the descent to the finish briefly upset proceedings at the back of the bunch, two riders touched wheels in the build-up for the final sprint, and nearly two-thirds of the field were forced to grind to a halt.

The Dane, Frank Hoj, possibly came off the worst, hitting the ground face-first and crossing the line in 179th place with severe cuts and bruises around his mouth, 3min 55sec adrift.

Last year in stage two of the Tour de France, while leading the race, Millar took a late tumble into some hay bales but quickly recovered to continue in the lead, but on this occasion he came through unscathed without crashing once.

"I was OK throughout, but it was a very nervous day," he said.