Last modified on Tue 29 Jun 2021 05.13 BST
All hell broke loose in the Tour de France as overall favourites and sprint contenders both hit the tarmac in a chaotic climax to the third stage, won in Pontivy by Tim Merlier, a fast-rising Belgian sprinter.
The defending champion, Tadej Pogacar, the 2018 winner, Geraint Thomas, the 2020 runner-up, Primoz Roglic, the Australian star Jack Haig and the sprinters Caleb Ewan, Peter Sagan and Arnaud Démare were among the many high-profile casualties on a day when the peloton tackled narrow winding roads on the fast approach to the finish.
As the 183km stage was won by Merlier of Alpecin-Fenix, a teammate to the overall race leader, Mathieu van der Poel, Sagan and Ewan crashed hard on the final bend with the stricken Australian sprinter lying on the tarmac as others rode around him. Ewan, winner of five stages in past Tours, was later forced to abandon the race with a broken collarbone.
The tortuous and claustrophobic nature of the closing 20km, which left numerous riders in ditches or sprawled on the tarmac, brought a furious reaction from leading figures in the race convoy, including Démare’s Groupama-FDJ team manager, Marc Madiot, who described the route design and ensuing carnage as “deplorable”.
Another leading sports director called the course “unbelievable” and said his view represented those of many of his colleagues. “It’s a circus game,” the sports director told the Guardian, “where you see they clearly don’t mind about the rider’s health. It was crazy, scary. The only thing that counts is that the show has to be sensational.”
Mark Cavendish said: “I was so fortunate. I didn’t come down, I just destroyed the front end of my bike. There was a wave in the peloton and guys were down. I came in and I saw Caleb there, holding his shoulder. I just hope everyone else is OK.”
Asked if the route was dangerous Cavendish responded: “It’s the same for everyone. We will always have the same debate every week about safety, but I think the riders have as much responsibility to make things safer as the course design.”
Cavendish’s Deceunink-Quick-Step sports director was succinct in his description of the stage’s closing moments. “It’s like driving on a highway in a traffic jam at 120kph,” he said. But the EF Education-Nippo team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, said the route showed “poor course design”.
“The Tour de France is always the most dangerous race of the year,” he said, and added that the course to Pontivy “had more road obstacles and speed bumps than I’ve ever seen”.
Earlier, Thomas’s hopes of a successful Tour de France had appeared to be evaporating fast after the Ineos Grenadiers rider crashed alongside Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Robert Gesink, who was forced to abandon less than 40km into the stage. Thomas spent a few minutes sitting on the tarmac, clearly in pain, but eventually remounted and finished ahead of many of the day’s other fallers.
Thomas was far from the only pre-race favourite to fall but, even after having his dislocated shoulder put back in, by the end of the afternoon, he looked to have got off lightly. Roglic also fell heavily, with 10km to go, and was forced to chase furiously with five of his teammates as the peloton sped towards the finish. The Welshman Thomas chased back and managed to finish alongside Pogacar and ahead of the bloodied Roglic.
But although Thomas finished the stage, his shoulder injury may yet hamper him in the days to come, particularly in Wednesday’s potentially crucial first individual time trial, consisting of 27km from Changé to Laval. Roglic, too, shorts ripped and hip shredded as he crossed the line, may struggle to be at his best.
Meanwhile the hunt for the unknown banner-wielding fan, blamed for the mass crash on stage one, continued, with French police renewing their efforts to locate the mystery woman. The French media suggested that, if found guilty of an offence, the culprit could be subjected to a custodial sentence.
“According to article 222-20 of the penal code, the spectator would risk a maximum penalty of one year of imprisonment as well as a fine of 15,000 euros,” stated L’Equipe. However, life happens fast on the Tour de France and for some of those in the race caravan, now nursing battered bodies and railing against the race organisers, that incident already seems a long time ago.