A second day of spectacular crashes on the Tour de France involving British favourite Bradley Wiggins, American champion Lance Armstrong and last year's runner-up, Andy Schleck, saw the main contenders call a truce and cross the finish line grouped together behind stage winner Sylvain Chavanel.
While Sunday's three pile-ups all came over two kilometres in the centre of Brussels, yesterday's mayhem largely took place on a single steep, narrow descent of the Stockeu hill deep in the Ardennes. On a badly-cambered, rain-soaked corner, a rider skidded, causing the pack to crumple up behind him, some flying down grass banks, others slamming onto the tarmac.
Luxembourg's Schleck and his brother Frank looked to be the most affected, Andy clutching his left arm with his bloodied right. But as Armstrong, who fell ripping his shorts and grazing one hip, said afterwards, “there were riders down everywhere. It was like a war. There was crash after crash after crash. I was scared.”
With the peloton split into five on the descent, race leader Fabian Cancellara insisted on a truce being called, and the bunch eased up to try to reform.
A group containing favourite Alberto Contador — who had to drop back to change his bike, damaged in the crashes — and Armstrong was the first to join following a frantic chase, and the 140-strong main group finally crossed the line together.
“That descent from the Stockeu had become a skating rink and they reached an unofficial agreement to neutralise the stage,” said race organiser, Jean-Francois Pescheux. Wiggins sustained a scratch on his elbow and knee but should be fine.
Appropriately, the victory went to the Frenchman Chavanel, whose career came close to ending two months ago when he skidded off the road a few kilometres away from today's finish in the Lie-Bastogne-Lige race, fracturing his skull. The last survivor of an eight-man daylong break, Chavanel soloed away 15 kilometres from the finish before making a series of prolonged victory salutes.
“I won fair and square,” the Quick Step rider said. “But all the crashes behind and the truce certainly didn't do my chances any harm, either.”
Meanwhile, perhaps the moment the peloton has been fearing most will arrive at about 4.30pm today, in between one bleak post-industrial town in southern Belgium and another in northern France. This is when the Tour hits the cobbles. Lance Armstrong predicted last week that there would be carnage and he wasn't exaggerating. Riding on cobbles might not sound as difficult as all that, but these are far from the perfectly ordered rows of neatly carved elongated ovals you might find in any city centre seeking to give itself an olde-worlde air.
Rather they will be great broken chunks of stone, 15 or 20 centimetres long and seven wide, and clustered in poorly formed half-broken patterns across muddy, windlashed country backroads: as one British specialist magazine put it, “tossed randomly from the sky by an angry cycling god.”