Bradley Wiggins' hopes of a Tour podium went up in smoke yesterday in a pile-up around 40 kilometres from the finish line that saw the Sky leader suffer a broken collarbone.
Sixth overall, Wiggins' exit leaves Sky facing near-catastrophe after their goal of a strong overall finish for the Briton following his disappointing 24th place last year collapsed well before the Tour has even reached the mountains.
After days of rainfall and twisting roads turned this Tour into one of the most crash-ridden of recent years, Wiggins' untimely departure came – ironically enough – on a straight, tree-lined avenue in dry weather.
The peloton was riding fast, but not flat out in the final hour of yesterday's stage, when the final third of the bunch suddenly crumpled into a mass of bicycles and bodies. Wiggins was not initially shown on TV images, but the way Sky riders were clustering around at the side of the road in twos and threes – waiting for their British leader to remount and hopefully for them to guide him back to the finish – was the most ominous of signs.
Then suddenly Wiggins was in range of the cameras, his British national champion jersey ripped, clutching his left shoulder and arm in the classic symptoms of a rider with a suspected broken collarbone – one of the most frequent injuries for bike riders – hobbling across the road, and grimacing with pain. The race doctor and Sky's medic were by Wiggins almost immediately, easing the dazed British contender to the side of the road, where he sank down on the verge, suddenly unable to stand.
Most of the other riders affected in the one big crash of the day were able to remount and get on with racing, but not Wiggins: after a few moments' hesitation, the Briton abandoned the race in an ambulance, his next stop Châteauroux hospital for a check-up on his injuries.
"Everyone was jostling for the front," Wiggins said of the crash. "We were constantly told on the radio that we've got to stay in the front. There was a risk it could split at any minute. Everyone was being told that.
"When you have got 200 riders trying to stay at the front on small roads like that it's always going to happen. It's just one of those things."
He added: "I couldn't get up off the floor for love nor money, and once I did make it to the side of the road I kept saying I wanted to get back on the bike, but there comes a point where you just can't do it."
For Sky the loss of their overall contender is arguably the biggest setback any Tour team with aims of finishing high in the overall classifications can face in the race, and comes at a point when team morale could not have been higher, given that on Thursday they had had their best day ever in the Tour so far. Edvald Boasson Hagen had blasted to victory in Lisieux, claiming the team's first ever stage win in the Tour, and confirming that after 2010's difficult Tour, Sky finally seemed to be getting the measure of the race.
On top of that, there was Wiggins himself. A superb build-up, with victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné, the most important warm-up race for the Tour, coupled with a lone win in the British national road race, had radically raised the hopes of UK cycling fans that the Londoner could be on for some major success.
Even more encouragingly, there was Wiggins' performance in the race itself. Sky claimed a strong third place in the team time trial, and Wiggins maintained his chances when he stayed with the other top favourites on the difficult hilltop finish on the Mûr de Bretagne on Tuesday's stage four. Lying sixth overall, he was one of the best placed contenders.
"It's tremendously disappointing, he's built up the whole year for this and suddenly it all comes to an end," said Sean Yates, Sky's sports director and a former Tour de France leader. Sky's Team Principal, Dave Brailsford, added: "He was in great shape and it's a real shame we'll never see him going in the mountains. He was in the form of his life."
If Wiggins abandonment means the roof has fallen in for Sky, on the same day the walls all but came down as well, as almost all his team-mates waited for him, losing over three minutes.
Gone, too, was Geraint Thomas's white jersey of Best Young Rider as well as Boasson Hagen's remote options on the overall. Sky's luck has turned so fast it will have left the team stunned, given Wiggins is one of just two favourites – the other, Slovenian outsider Janez Brajkovic – to go home this year so far injured.
However, it is true that crashes have been particularly widespread this year, with top riders like Belgian Tom Boonen quitting the race yesterday after his injuries even before Wiggins left. Then Frenchman Remi Pauriol also abandoned in the same crash as the Briton, also with a broken collarbone.
"It has been specially nervous this year, but I think it is mostly because of the [difficult] weather conditions," commented the race leader, Thor Hushovd. "Everybody's been riding on the front, there's not room for everybody, they get stressed out and then crashes happen."
"Everybody's been fighting and there've been a lot of small roads. But it's not normal like this year when I'm fighting with Frank Schleck [overall contender] at four kilometres to go," said Britain's Mark Cavendish, the winner yesterday.
"It's quite distressing," Cavendish added. "Bradley was in great form – and I'm really, really gutted for him."
Stage 7 (Le Mans - Chateauroux, 215km):
1 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad 5hrs 38mins 53secs
2 A Petacchi (It) Lampre - ISD
3 A Greipel (Ger) Omega Pharma-Lotto
4 R Feillu (Fr) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
5 W Bonnet (Fr) FDJ
6 D Galimzyanov (Rus) Katusha Team
7 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo
8 S Turgot (Fr) Team Europcar
9 J J R Gil (Sp) Movistar Team
10 S Hinault (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale all at same time
15 N Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale,
18 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo,
19 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto all at same time
128 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 3mins 6secs
145 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling both at same time
DNF: B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling
General classification: 1 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo 28hrs 29mins 27secs; 2 Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 1sec, 3 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 4secs; 4 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 8secs; 5 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at 10secs; 6 J Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek at 12secs; 7 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time; 8 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 13secs; 9 P Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad at same time; 10 R Gesink (Neth) Rabobank Cycling Team at 20secs. Selected: 18 N Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale at 1.12; 38 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 3mins 18secs; 59 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 6mins 6secs; 70 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 6.mins 56secs.Reuse content