The gentleman’s agreement among the peloton not to contest the final sprint in Monday’s crash-marred stage didn’t sit well with everyone.
Sprinters were held in check by the peloton’s big bosses out of respect for other fallen GC contenders, but not everyone felt like the pack should have pulled on the brakes.
Among those were defending green jersey Thor Hushovd, whose Cervélo team was driving the chase group and wanted to put its Norwegian sprinter in position for the victory.
“I feel frustrated by what happened today. Our team was working hard and we would have had a good chance for victory. I feel like they have taken something away from us today,” Hushovd said. “Everyone made a gentleman’s agreement not to sprint, but I lost an important opportunity to try to win the stage and gain points.”
There was major confusion among the peloton as the race lurched toward Spa following the disastrous descent off the Col de Stockeu. Among the many GC riders crashing were a good number of sprinters, including green jersey holder Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions). Top sprinter Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) had already been gapped.
“There was something on the road. We just couldn’t stay on our bikes. And when we went down the road, we just kept passing guys, all the way. I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Lance Armstrong, one of four RadioShack riders to crash. “You were up the road, you didn’t know what to do, the Schlecks were behind, it was conflicting on what to do.”
That opened up a huge opportunity for Hushovd, who gained points in Sunday’s opening sprint while rivals Farrar and Cavendish had missed out.
Hushovd was part of an elite group that made it down Stockeu without falling and was poised to reel in the solo-attacking Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) to vie for the win or at least take important points against his green jersey rivals.
The crashes came behind, and when big favorites such as Alberto Contador (Astana), Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) and the Schleck brothers (Saxo Bank) hit the deck, there was a reluctance among those teams to continue driving the front group toward Spa.
“If the crash wasn’t there, I am quite sure that there would have been a sprint and Thor would have been a big favorite. What the other teams decide to do, that’s their problem,” said Cervélo sport director Jean-Paul van Poppel. “They decided not to sprint for the points, and Thor was really upset about that. It ended up badly because of the crash. Otherwise it could have been the flowers and maybe the champagne.”
Yellow jersey leader Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) took it upon himself to convince others in his group to slow and allow the chasing riders reconnect with the front group. Perhaps it was no small coincidence that his two GC captains, the Schleck brothers, were chasing desperately after each fell.
Cancellara later spoke with Tour official Jean-Francois Pescheux and agreed not contest the sprint due to the dangerous racing conditions. Finish-line points were only awarded to Chavanel, who took the green jersey along with the yellow.
“It was the right thing to do to wait, so everybody comes together to the finish line together,” Cancellara later explained. “When you have everybody on the ground and people five minutes behind because they can’t find their bike then it’s only normal. I think fairness comes before being selfish. That was the reason why I spoke with Pescheux.”
The agreement cost Cancellara the yellow jersey as Chavanel hung on to win the stage.
Pescheux said officials agreed that if the bunch was neutralizing the sprint finish that there should not be points awarded at the finish.
“Cancellara came to see me to tell me there had been enough injuries in the peloton today,” Pescheux said on French TV. “(He said) there were (potential) leaders stuck behind and that no one wanted to sprint for second place. It was a tacit agreement.”
Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) was called back to help the Schleck brothers to try to chase back on. Until Cancellara led the effort to slow the leaders, the Schleck brothers were nearly three minutes behind the yellow jersey group.
The veteran German insists that waiting was the right thing to do.
“Fortunately, we have unwritten rules and I would say most people respected them. You cannot chase in the front group for your own little 10 minutes of fame. You have to look at the bigger picture and say, they are friends of mine laying back there, and teammates,” Voigt said. “I think it was the right decision to say, ‘OK, guys, we are not going to profit from this carnage’ and respect the rules and give the boys a chance to get back.”
It will be interesting to see if the peloton has the same sense of fraternity Tuesday on the cobblestones, when the inevitable crashes return center stage. — AFP contributed to this report