Sanchez's Tour stage victory was overshadowed by 'tacky' move
Luis Leon Sanchez took the Tour de France's 14th stage for his fourth career win
But it was eclipsed as tacks on the course caused at least 30 riders to have flats
In a show of sportsmanship, Bradley Wiggins ordered the peloton to slow down
FOIX, France -- Was this the world's greatest bike race, one of the most dramatic spectacles in sport, or a lost episode of Mr. Bean? On a day that served as an appetizer for the upcoming Pyrenees -- Stage 14 featured a pair of medium-sized climbs that set up nicely for stage-hunters, the one-day specialists no longer in contention for the overall -- Luis Leon Sanchez attacked his fellow breakaway riders 11 kilometers from the finish. The Spaniard's victory salvaged the race for snake-bitten Rabobank, down to four riders from its original nine, and was a testament to his pluck. Sanchez crashed hard in Stage 1, badly injuring his right wrist, and nearly had to abandon.
His courage will now be eclipsed by the cowardice of some nitwit who thought it would be a good idea to scatter tacks on a one-kilometer section of road 152 kilometers into the 191-km course. Sanchez's triumph will be overshadowed by the surreal sight of riders (and motorcycles, and official Tour cars, according to director, Christian Prudhomme), pulling to the side of the road with flat tires. The saboteur created a genuinely dangerous situation: the riders reach breakneck speed on these descents. As it was, both Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quickstep and Astana's Janez Brajkovic punctured, then crashed, though neither suffered serious injuries.
Part of the thrill of this event is that spectators can get close enough to reach out and touch the riders. This has led to unfortunate collisions and mishaps. But those have always been accidental. What happened Sunday was malicious, and criminal.
"I've heard about this sort of thing happening in the '30s," NBC's Bob Roll told me near the finish line today. "Back then, Europe was ramping up for World War II, and all the bike races were a lot more dramatic." Roll rode three Tours, and was a fixture in the pro peloton in the '80s, and couldn't recall anything like this ever happening since he became involved with the sport.
The anarchy on the descent of the Mur de Peguere brought a hidden gift: it showcased the code of honor that governs this sport. The man who came to embody the chaos reigning over the final 45 minutes in the final half-hour of Stage 14 was Cadel Evans, the gutsy Australian who won this race a year ago, at the age of 34. A year later, Evans isn't quite in the same class as current yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins, who leads him by 3:19. That gap would have at least doubled today were it nor for a display of sportsmanship by Wiggins and his Sky teammates.
Evans flatted at the summit of the viciously steep Mur de Peguere, 40 kilometers from the finish. Standing by his bike, trying to tamp down his panic, he waved frantically at teammate Stephen Cummings, whose rear tire Evans intended to cannibalize -- standard operating procedure in this sport. Problem: Cummings' wheel was flat as well. Finally Evans found a teammate whose rear wheel had some air in it, and rejoined the race. With riders puncturing and swearing and crashing all around -- at least 30 had flat tires, according to the Tour -- Evans had two more flats on his way down. Kudos to NBC's Phil Liggett, whose decades calling bike races served him well during the chaos. "It's got to be something like tacks on the road," he concluded, correctly.
Evans' third and final flat resulted in BMC director Jim Ochowicz exiting the team car with such alacrity -- such was his desire to assist his leader -- that he fell into a roadside ditch.
Well ahead, recognizing that something was seriously amiss, Wiggins put the brakes on the entire peloton. To press one's advantage at such a moment would have been unsporting --not cricket -- and the sideburned Brit wasn't having it.
"When 15 or 16 riders puncture at once, it becomes very apparent that something is wrong," said Wiggins. Unofficially neutralizing the race, allowing Evans to catch back on, "was the right thing to do."
Not getting the memo was ambitious young Pierre Rolland of Europcar, who began the day 8 ½ minutes adrift of the lead, and is clearly eager to move up in the standings. The 25 year old could be seen accelerating away from the Wiggins group while members of the Sky team gestured and berated him. Rolland didn't stay away for long, soon allowing himself to be overtaken by the yellow-jersey group. It's likely that he was informed over his earpiece that he needed to lay off the gas or risk becoming synonymous with poor sportsmanship. After the stage, Rolland explained that of course he is familiar with cycling's honor code. In this case, he said, he had no idea that a truce had been called.
While he chided Rolland for not being "very sportif," Ochowicz praised Wiggins and his team. "Sky did a great job. They tried to get the race back together."
Ochowicz described the incident as "a very dangerous situation. It was a criminal act. You're endangering people's lives." Asked if he was upset or angry, he replied, "I'm not pissed off, because I haven't had time to."
"I believe in karma," he went on. "Things come back and harm you if you hurt other people."
The converse, of course, is that those performing good deeds will be rewarded. Which would suggest that Wiggins may extend his lead over Evans when the race hits the big-boy Pyrenees, starting Wednesday. (Tomorrow's 158-kilometer jaunt from Samatan to Pau is a sprinter's delight -- will Lotto-Belisol's Andre Greipel take his fourth stage of this Tour? -- and on Tuesday they rest.)
Sanchez, the stage winner comes from a family of athletes. His younger brother, Pedro Leon Sanchez, is a winger for the Real Madrid soccer team. Their eldest brother died five years ago in a motorbike accident. As Luis crossed the finish line today, he pointed to the sky. It was a beautiful gesture, overshadowed by some idiot with a few boxes of nails.