NICE, France (VN) – Three crashes in the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice saw Levi Leipheimer tumble out of contention for the overall when he was just 10 seconds out of the lead going into Sunday’s decisive time trial.
Leipheimer fell once after his rain jacket became tangled up with his front wheel, and then twice coming off the technical descent of the Cat. 1 Col de Vence.
The third crash was the worst, when he and three other Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammates crashed and slid into a police motorcycle that was on the road marking where another rider had fallen.
“I think we set a record for the number of crashes on the Col de Vence,” sport director Brian Holm said. “That’s racing. It’s too bad, because with just 10 seconds behind Wiggins, I am pretty sure Levi could have won tomorrow.”
Leipheimer lost more than 16 minutes to stage-winner Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) and fell to 39th overall, at 7:36 back. Badly banged up and bleeding, Leipheimer struggled to step onto the team bus. He did not immediately speak to reporters at the finish line in Nice.
“On the first crash, there was a corner with gravel and I dropped my vest into my front wheel because everybody reacted,” Leipheimer said in a team statement released later Saturday evening. “I was holding my vest, but I had to let go to brake and it went in the front wheel. By the time I crashed I was going slow so it was not such a big deal. I hit my wrist, which is swollen but it was OK.”
Leipheimer crashed a second time near the top of the long, technical descent off the Cat. 1 Col de Vence, when Leipheimer said someone crashed into him from behind.
“On the downhill, I was right there at the front with Bradley Wiggins and Alejandro Valverde. I was fine, I was paying attention, but someone from behind wasn’t and they hit me hard and broke my bike at the same time as Movistar attacked,” he said. “Stijn Vandenbergh and Kevin de Weert and Dries Devenyns and Tony Martin waited for me, but we were really close to the bunch.”
Omega then put Kevin De Weert, Tony Martin, Dries Devenyns and Stijn Vandenergh with Leipheimer to help pace down the climb and put him back in position to regain contact with the main peloton, less than a minute up the road.
That’s when things quickly unraveled. Lampre rider Matt Lloyd crashed on a right-hander, where a police motorcycle had stopped on the left hand side of the road to mark the crash.
The chasing Leipheimer group swept into the corner only to see the motorcycle parked perfectly in their trajectory. With nowhere to go, four of the five riders crashed into the bike.
“We arrived close to the group, but in the right corner there was a motorbike protecting someone from Lampre who crashed,” Leipheime said. “We couldn’t avoid them. I think everyone passed except Dries and I couldn’t avoid it, and I crashed into him. It’s easy for me to say I could have done this or that tomorrow, but that’s part of the race. It was just bad luck.”
Holm criticized the police motorcycle driver for parking on the wrong side of the road.
“I think somebody put a motorcycle on the wrong side of the road. There’s no reason to park a motorcycle on that side of a road on a right-hand corner. Anyone with experience would park the car on the other side of the road.”
Holm said without the third crash, he believed that Leipheimer could have easily regained contact with the main pack.
“We were pretty sure he could have made it back. There was no panic,” he said. “Boonen would have waited on the flat. After the crash, he was down maybe a minute, we would have 15km of flats. We had four guys with him.”
The extent of Leipheimer’s injuries were not known yet, nor did the team speculate about whether he will be able to start Sunday’s final stage.
The crashes come as a bitter disappointment for Leipheimer, who was perfectly positioned to make a run for the win. A student of the history the sport, Leipheimer said he would have loved to have a shot to win what’s considered one of the sport’s most prestigious and historic stage races.
It’s not the first time a mishap has cost Leipheimer a likely podium in a WorldTour race.
Last spring, Leipheimer was forced to abandon the Volta a Catalunya when he was second overall behind eventual winner Alberto Contador when he succumbed to stomach pain from a long-running injury.