An untimely flat dealt a serious blow to Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France hopes as the most anticipated day of the Tour’s first week delivered on the hype. The cobbles of Stage 3 shredded the peloton, rearranged the overall standings, and knocked one favorite out of the race altogether, as Frank Schleck went out with a broken collarbone.
Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, of Cervelo Test Team, won the stage, sprinting out of a six-man group that included Prologue-winner Fabian Cancellara, who moved back into yellow, and Cancellara’s Saxo Bank teammate Andy Schleck. The latter is Frank’s teammate and younger brother, and most observers’ number-two pick for the overall behind Alberto Contador.
BMC’s Australian captain, Cadel Evans, also finished in the front group and moved up to third overall, 39 seconds behind Cancellara, with Schleck now sixth, at 1:09. Contador, the only other pre-race favorite currently in the top ten, sits in ninth at 1:40. Armstrong, who was near the front group and almost a minute ahead of Contador when he flatted with about 10 miles to go, dropped to 18th overall, 2:30 behind the yellow jersey.
Today’s 132-mile route from Belgium to northern France included six sectors of harsh cobblestones toward the end of the stage. Armstrong’s hope was that he would be able to gain time over featherweight climbers like Contador and Andy Schleck, who tend to suffer on the rough roads.
With about three sectors to go and the field broken up into several small groups, it looked as if Armstrong would indeed gain time on Contador and, at the very least, not lose any to Schleck. He flatted while riding in the gutter next to a section of cobbles, however, and his rivals distanced him as he waited for a wheel change. He spent most of the remaining miles riding alone, trying to limit his losses and rolled across the line more than two minutes down on Schleck and 55 seconds behind Contador.
After three crash-filled stages that have seen off not only Frank Schleck but also GC contender Christian Vande Velde of team Garmin-Transitions—while leaving nearly every other rider in the race with cuts, bruises, or hairline fractures—the race enters four flat, relatively calm stages that should see little change to the overall as the sprinters come to the front.
The next shakeup should come on Sunday, as the race enters the Alps.There’s not a rider in cycling who has shown that he can climb with Contador when the Spaniard attacks. His rivals could target the time trials, but this year’s Tour has only one, a 31-mile test on stage 19—and Contador has developed into one of the best time-trialists in the world, anyway.
Right now Evans would seem to be Contador’s biggest threat, as he can climb and, unlike Andy Schleck, can also time trial. But Evans’ career is littered with mid-race meltdowns—off days that see him drop down the standings. It’s true that anyone can have a bad day. But it’s also true that Contador has never had one, at least not in a race he was trying to win. This Tour is now his to lose.