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It doesn’t take long for a brilliant Tour de France to take a turn for the worse, as Euskaltel-Euskadi leader Iban Mayo learned this afternoon in Stage 3. His high hopes of challenging for the yellow jersey were seriously damaged after he was involved in a crash immediately prior to a highly anticipated section of treacherous cobblestones. Try as he might, even with the help of his team, he could not close the gap to the front of the race and he lost four minutes to Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Roberto Heras. The orange-clad Spaniard’s troubles aren’t over yet either; he stands to lose even more time to his rivals in tomorrow’s team time trial.
Mayo was the most notable victim of a crash many expected to happen. It wasn’t the cobblestones themselves that felled the celebrated climber, but the mad rush that always precedes them. The cobblestone farm-roads of northern France are very narrow, extremely rough, and—for cyclists—fraught with danger. The best way to get across them safely is to be among the first ten riders to reach them, and there were over 180 men fighting tooth and nail today to be one of those ten. When you try to squeeze 15 men across a road that can only fit five, a crash is inevitable.
Lance Armstrong benefited from having George Hincapie and Vjatcheslav Ekimov to guide him through the danger. Both men excel in the hellish spring classics races that feature long stretches of cobblestones, including the ones covered today. They know how to get into the right position and hold the best line through the stones, and their expertise was crucial to Armstrong’s success.
The efforts of the US Postal riders actually helped Lance’s rivals, including Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton. By sticking close to Armstrong in the kilometers preceding the cobblestones, and following closely behind him once on the stones, they were part of the first group that reached the smooth pavement.
There were still more than 50 kilometers of road left to race, including one more section of cobblestones, and the team leaders immediately realized they had an opportunity to distance themselves from Mayo and potentially eliminate a threat to their individual chances of winning the Tour de France. They each sent teammates to the front of the group to share the work of maintaining the gap and ensuring that Mayo didn’t catch up. A few minutes behind them, the Euskaltel-Euskadi team was chasing as hard as they could, but one team is no match against the concerted effort of four teams. The gap that started out at two minutes steadily increased to four, and Mayo’s chances of wearing yellow diminished with every passing kilometer.
The Tour de France is far from over, and a misfortune like the one the Spaniard suffered today could just as easily befall any one of the other favorites in the next two weeks. You need strength, stamina, determination, and tactical savvy to win this race—but you also need more than a little luck.