Cycling: Cavendish left to lick his wounds after tumble on Tour's day of crashes

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The Independent Online

Mark Cavendish's chances of repeating his 2009 victory in the first mass-start stage of the Tour de France went up in smoke yesterday when he crashed and went spinning across the tarmac close to the finish in Brussels. The HTC-Columbia rider went down on a sharp right-hand bend in the first of three spectacular crashes that shredded the bunch in the stage's last two kilometres.

Cavendish was uninjured by the fall and, waving ruefully at the cameras, he got up and pedalled slowly towards the finish – where a second, far bigger, pile-up was in the process of felling yet more of the peloton.

Five hundred metres from the finish, two riders' wheels touched, bringing down a further two dozen in a crash that almost completely blocked the race's front-end. By this point victory was more a question of which sprinter was still left upright, and veteran Alessandro Petacchi was lucky enough to find himself in a group of 20 riders that somehow escaped the carnage.

But Petacchi's victory salute at his first Tour win since 2003 was not before crash number three had brought down yet another rider, from the AgR squad, who waved his arms in protest as his rivals sped towards the line.

Initial reports said none of the major favourites barring Italy's Ivan Basso were injured, although nearly all had had narrow escapes. "It was completely crazy," said Tour leader Fabian Cancellara. "It had already been a nervous day, but then we hit the outskirts of Brussels and the roads got really narrow. I myself crashed, but I'm OK."

"The problem is that this is the Tour and everybody takes bigger risks than they would in usual bike races," said Britain's David Millar, himself brought down in a crash in the stage's first hour when a dog decided to take an overly close look at the passing peloton. "When I heard that Mark [Cavendish] had fallen, I thought 'that's good for Tyler [Farrar, Millar's team-mate]'. But then in the next crash, Tyler went down, too." Cavendish's HTC-Columbia were one of the worst affected by the crashes, with four of their nine riders involved.

"Cav is OK, but both Mick [Rogers] and Tony [Martin]went down," HTC-Columbia team manager Rolf Aldag told The Independent. "They seem to be all right, but we won't know for sure until they start riding again tomorrow."

Worst off, though, was Cavendish's Australian team-mate Adam Hansen, who suffered a suspected broken collarbone in yet another crash early on. "He rode through the entire stage and somehow managed to finish, but he's on his way to hospital now," Aldag confirmed. "All day there were accidents waiting to happen."

Like all the other overall contenders, Bradley Wiggins completed the stage thankful that he had managed to stay out of trouble. After yesterday's crash-ridden ride from Holland to Belgium, today's stage is another high-risk affair as the peloton ventures deep into the twisting roads of the Ardennes, while on Tuesday they hit the dreaded cobbled sections that form an integral part of the Paris-Roubaix race, graphically dubbed "the Hell of the North".

"These first few days are key, they are all about the long-term and not losing time," Sky road coach Rod Ellingworth explained. "It could be all very different after that cobbled stage, and the goal is for Bradley to remain in contention."

Ellingworth insisted that Wiggins' below-expectations ride in the rainsoaked prologue formed part of the same general conservative approach, because "he doesn't want to throw it all away at this point".

"He was very straight about it with the lads, he came in the team bus this [Sunday] morning, and admitted he'd undercooked it in the prologue.

"But in the Tour of Italy prologue [won by Wiggins in May in similarly wet, dangerous roads in Rotterdam] he'd already proved that he's got the balls for racing in this sort of terrain. He just didn't put his balls on the table yesterday [Saturday].

"So there's no panic; we all agreed it was the right policy," he added. And, after yesterday's carnage, probably the one most likely to keep Wiggins out of trouble until the right moment comes for him to strike.