Bradley Wiggins has led the way in this year's Tour de France, but not in the way he might have hoped. Following his exit on Friday, the list of crash victims mushroomed yesterday as a huge accident saw two more major contenders quit injured, while the Sky rider Juan Antonio Flecha and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland somersaulted into a ditch when they were sideswiped by a French TV car.
With what is becoming a depressingly familiar pattern, the latest big pile-up happened yet again about two-thirds of the way back in the bunch, on this occasion on a sweeping left-hand bend rendered treacherous by heavy rainfall.
What seemed like a perfectly compact, well-organised bunch suddenly crumpled, with the television showing blurry images of riders spun over a barrier and flung down a ravine several metres deep on the hillside, while others sat on the roadside, trying to work out how they had got there.
One official yelled at a TV cameraman to move away, but not before we had seen major contender Alexandre Vinokourov's arms wrapped around two team-mates as they tried to carry the Kazakh, suffering from a broken femur, back to the road and a waiting ambulance.
The Belgian hopeful Jurgen van den Broeck did not fall as far as Vinokourov, but his exit was equally definitive, his jersey half-ripped open while he clutched his shoulder in agony as he sat on a verge.
"I went past a little later and saw a rider down and my hair stood on end," race leader Alberto Contador – also affected by a crash – said. "That curve should have been signposted."
In total, no less than four riders ended the Tour in an anonymous patch of dense woodland deep in the French Massif Centrale, with Vinokourov and Van Den Broeck the top names, along with former maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie and Van Den Broeck's team-mate Frederik Willems.
Veteran Vinokourov's positive for doping in the 2007 Tour makes him a controversial figure, but one who has never failed to impact on the race: this year was supposed to be the Kazakh's last Tour and yesterday's accident was the worst way to end it.
Van Den Broeck, on the other hand, was just starting to climb up the hierachy. Fifth last year, the young Belgian was Wiggins's most aggressive rival in the Critérium du Dauphine: now, like the Briton, he will be watching the rest of the race on television.
It will be of scant consolation to either that yesterday saw yet more riders crash out – seven in total – while some like Spain's Juan Garate, winner of the 2009 Mont Ventoux stage, did not even make it to the start because shoulder and back injuries from previous days.
Others, such as the likable American Zabriskie, who led the Tour back in 2005, went down in the same pile-up as Vinokourov and broke his wrist, while the pint-sized Spanish climber Amets Txurruka hit the road alone before smashing his collarbone.
The most bizarre of the 209 kilometre slog happened to leading favourite Contador, whose saddle entangled with a Katusha rider's handlebars.
"It was just bad luck," Contador later told Spanish radio, although his misfortune saw him hurt his knee and go flying to the side of the road, as well as chasing for 10 kilometres on a spare bike.
"My knee is hurting a lot more now than it was when I went down," Contador said at the finish, "and that's worrying. It's not my Tour this year."
It can be argued that crashes form part and parcel of the Tour's week, albeit this year in a more extreme version than usual, with Contador blaming a combination of exceptionally wet weather and narrower roads.
However, at least one of yesterday's accidents, involving Flecha and Hoogerland, was completely unnecessary. The sight of two riders somersaulting into the road brought a gasp of horror from the press room. Fortunately, neither was hurt so badly they had to abandon, although Sky refused to rule out Flecha would have to quit from injuries whileHoogerland needed 30 stitches to a knee injury.
"There is an inherent risk attached to professional cycling, and all teams recognise that racing crashes will, and do, happen," a Sky spokesman said.
"However, today's incident, that saw both Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland knocked from their bikes by a media car should not have happened."
Hoogerland was far more graphic, saying: "I did what felt like a few somersaults. I don't know where the car came from.
"There was nothing I could do. I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, 'Is this what cycling is about'?"
While such collisions between vehicles and riders in bike races are so rare they can still be called freak accidents, the incident underlined just how much crashes, rather than actual racing, has shaped this year's Tour so far.
The car's driver was later excluded from the race, with the Tour issuing a communiqué acknowledging that it had failed to follow orders not to overtake and to let a team car past and that such behaviour was "intolerable".
The three riders – Frenchmen Thomas Voeckler and Sandy Casar, together with Luis Leon Sanchez – who were lucky enough not be hit by the vehicle continued to lead the race over the bleak volcanic moorlands of central France.
On the final uphill finish into Saint-Flour, Voeckler was the first to accelerate, but Sanchez comfortably charged past to claim the third Tour stage win of his career, while the Frenchman settled for a return to the race lead for the first time since 2004.
However, while the battered remnants of the peloton then heaved their way up the steep final slope – including Britain's David Millar with a cut in his arm – Sanchez used his winner's press conference to blast against the risks that he and other riders had been subjected to.
"There were cars going past us all day, far too close, and it was pretty much going to happen at any moment," Sanchez said.
"I have to ask the Tour organisation to sort this out. Measures have to be taken. You don't expect something like that to happen in the best race in the world."
The casualties so far
* Jurgen Van De Walle (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
* Christophe Kern (Fra) Team Europcar
* Janez Brajkovic (Svn) Team Radioshack
* Vasil Kiryienka (Blr) Movistar Team
* Ivan Velasco (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi
* Rémi Pauriol (Fra) FDJ
* Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step Cycling Team
* Bradley Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling
* Benat Intxausti (Esp) Movistar Team
* Christopher Horner (US) Team Radioshack
* Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Pro Team Astana
* Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
* Frederik Willems (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
* David Zabriskie (US) Team Garmin- Cervelo
* Woulter Poels (Hol) Vacansoleil-DCM
* Pavel Brutt (Rus) Katusha Team
* Juan Manuel Garate (Esp) Rabobank Cycling Team
* Amets Txurruka (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi
Tour de France details
Stage 8 (Aigurande - Super-Besse Sancy, 190km):
1 R Da Costa (Por) Movistar Team 4hrs 36mins 46secs;
2 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 0.12;
3 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 0.15;
4 S Gonzalez (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi; 5 P Velits (Svk) HTC-Highroad;
6 D Devenyns (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team;
7 D Cunego (Ita) Lampre - ISD;
8 A Contador (Esp) Saxo Bank Sungard;
9 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek;
10 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek;
Selected Others: 23 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 0.15secs; 26 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 0.26; 170 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 19.59; 180 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at same time.
Stage 9 (Issoire - Saint-Flour, 208km):
1 L Gil (Esp) Rabobank Cycling Team 5hrs 27mins 09secs,
2 T Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar at 0.05,
3 S Casar (Fra) FDJ at 0.13,
4 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 3.59,
5 P Velits (Svk) HTC-Highroad at same time,
6 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at same time,
7 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time,
8 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at same time,
9 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time,
10 D Cunego (Ita) Lampre - ISD at same time,
Selected Others: 22 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 4mins 07secs, 81 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 6.47, 137 Ben Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 16.38, 178 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 21.26.
General classification after Stage 9: 1 T Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 38hrs 35mins 11secs, 2 L Gil (Esp) Rabobank Cycling Team at 1.49, 3 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 2.26, 4 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.29, 5 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.37, 6 T Mars Highroad at same time, 8 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at 2.43, 9 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 2.55, 10 J Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek at 3.08. Selected Others: 28 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 5mins 32secs, 32 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 5.51, 118 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 41.44, 131 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 45.42.