Tour de France: Pile-up sends race favourite Valverde crashing out

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There is a well-worn saying that it is always possible to lose the Tour in the first week but never to win it, and it came true once more yesterday on Stage Three to Valkenburg in the Netherlands when one of the leading contenders, Alejandro Valverde, broke his collarbone and left the race in an ambulance.

Riders are fresh out of the stalls, as it were, in the first week of the race and pile-ups in the final hour as they jostle for position at high speed are almost inevitable.

Accidents were waiting to happen on the approach to Valkenburg, with its narrow, twisting roads and around 200,000 spectators spilling on to the road.

The riders were crammed together on a road less than five metres wide some 15 kilometres from the finish when Valverde touched wheels and went flying over the handlebars.

"We'd even thought about a stage win today for Alejandro," Valverde's team manager, Eusebio Unzue, said. "As it is he's absolutely devastated."

Nicknamed "Bala Verde" [the Green Bullet], Valverde had been tipped by the seven-times Tour winner, Lance Armstrong, as "the future of cycling" after he was outgunned by the Spaniard in an Alpine stage finish last year.

The next two high points of Valverde's career both took place less than an hour's drive away from Valkenburg. In April he won the prestigious Fleche Wallonne one-day race in Huy, Belgium - the same town where today's stage starts - and followed that with an equally powerful victory in the nearby Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic: a rare deed known as "the Ardennes double".

One of the few favourites to avoid last week's mass exclusions following the anti-doping operations in Spain in May, Valverde fell foul of one of the Tour's more traditional perils.

He was not the only favourite to do so: 2004 Tour runner-up Andreas Klöden, whose team-mate Matthias Kessler shot off on a short, steep climb close to the finish for the stage win, also came a cropper in the same crash as Valverde.

The world champion Tom Boonen, who starts today's 207km leg from Huy to St Quentin in France in yellow after he finished in a small group close behind Kessler, was scathing about the dangerous conditions.

"The roads were so narrow it was impossible to manoeuvre. Every time you tried there was some old lady with a pram blocking you, or a kid running in the road," he said.

Despite his complaints, Boonen was content with his first lead in the Tour, not to mention taking over the green points jersey lead.

"My first big aim of the race was to wear the yellow jersey on home soil," said the 25-year-old, already an idol in Belgium after his spectacular victories in the Spring Classics races.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly