CAP FREHEL, France — Crashes, crashes everywhere: Alberto Contador and some other top Tour de France riders tumbled to the asphalt Wednesday in a nervous ride on Brittany’s narrow, wind-swept roads.
Most recovered, and a rider who skirted trouble to excel was British speedster Mark Cavendish, who again showed that he’s one of the world’s top sprinters by leading a frenzied mass dash to the finish to win Stage 5.
Gritting it out through pain of bruises, scrapes or broken bones, defending champion Contador and most of the other crash victims bounced back to finish the 102-mile trek from Carhaix to Cap Frehel along the rocky western French shores on the English Channel.
The top of the standings didn’t change. Thor Hushovd of Norway kept the yellow jersey for a fourth day, with a 1-second lead over Cadel Evans of Australia. Frank Schleck of Luxembourg is third, 4 seconds back.
One who didn’t make it through was RadioShack rider Jani Brajkovic, who was briefly knocked unconscious in a crash and taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a concussion and a collarbone fracture.
The promising 27-year-old Slovenian, who quit the race, was but one of the U.S. team’s riders to run into trouble.
“It’s a bad day for us,” said Johan Bruyneel, the RadioShack team manager, bemoaning also that Jaroslav Popovych of Ukraine badly injured his right wrist and scraped up his left knee and elbow.
Bruyneel said Brajkovic was so dazed and disoriented that he couldn’t remember the crash: “He couldn’t tell us what happened, where he was and on which race.”
American veteran Levi Leipheimer, another RadioShack star and a four-time top-10 finisher at the Tour, was also involved in a crash but returned to the course. French time-trial champion Christophe Kern also dropped out.
The stage ran along a picturesque patch of rocky Brittany cliffs overlooking the Atlantic — but it was anything but pretty for many of the riders. Leipheimer complained about the dangers of the tight Brittany roads that often forced the pack to suddenly compact, making crashes more likely.
“These roads don’t belong in the Tour, especially 1st week,” he tweeted.
At least six crashes marred the stage. Sky rider Bradley Wiggins of Britain and the Netherlands’ Robert Gesink, of the Rabobank team, joined Contador as title hopefuls who went down but recovered to finish.
“It was very nervous, and because of that you get a lot of crashes, because there are 200 riders who want to be in front,” said Hushovd.
The course was tricky, but so was the finale.
Cavendish, one of the world’s best sprinters, collected his 16th career Tour stage victory and his first this year by speeding past Philippe Gilbert of Belgium — who finished second — and Jose Joaquin Rojas in third.
“I am really happy. It was a difficult finish,” said Cavendish, who rides with the HTC-Highroad team. “I put everything into it … If we win, it’s not because we’re lucky, it’s because we’re good.”
The British sprinter, known almost as much for his powerful legs as his sharp tongue, took aim at unidentified critics who he said expressed doubts about his abilities: “It’s always sweet to silence the ignoramuses.”
But Gilbert succeeded in making him work hard in the sprint.
“Normally, I try to win by a little-ish margin, just to try and save energy,” Cavendish said. “Today, I had to give everything I had. He’s taken a lot out of me, so I’ll take a couple of days to recover.”
Frank Schleck’s younger brother, Andy — the Tour runner-up in 2009 and 2010 — avoided the spills and remained 10th, 12 seconds after Hushovd. Contador, who lost time in a Stage 1 crash, is 39th overall, 1:42 behind.
Contador fell at about the 45-mile mark — just a kilometer after Brajkovic fell. With his Saxo Bank jersey ripped over the right shoulder, the Spanish three-time champion took off his helmet briefly, then gave a thumbs-up to signal that he was OK.
“It was very difficult day, with a lot of tension,” said Contador, who had scrapes on his right shoulder, elbow and knee. He said he took “a little knock” while braking to avoid one crash, then had his own a few kilometers later.
“When I got back going, 5 kilometers later, my chain came off — so I fell,” Contador told French TV, which showed images of him throwing his bike on the roadside at the time. “What matters is, I was able to get back up.”
“Yes, it’ll be a bad night, of course, but you have to think about tomorrow,” he added, suggesting his bruises and bumps might cause him to lose some sleep.
In one of the more dramatic spills, Saxo Bank’s Nicki Sorensen bumped into the motorcycle of a race photographer, and skidded on a roadside. The motorbike dragged his bike along the road — and race organizers barred its driver from continuing to cover the race.
A mass crash tangled up France’s Sylvain Chavanel and Wiggins. Yet another ensnared Belgian sprint star Tom Boonen and Quick Step teammate Gert Steegmans.
“I kept hearing over the radio, ‘Crash! Crash! Crash!’, and then I saw guys like Gesink coming back to the peloton all covered in dirt,” Evans said. “It was a dangerous day I think.”
With his jersey torn over his right shoulder, Boonen struggled through wincing pain behind an escort from teammate Andy Engels, and finished more than 13 minutes behind the main pack.
On top of his injury, Boonen was penalized along with Rojas for an “irregular sprint” during the intermediate sprint earlier in the day’s stage, race officials said. The riders were stripped of points used to calculate who wins the Tour’s green jersey awarded to the best sprinter.
Andy Schleck summed up the pandemonium.
“The roads in the villages were very small and there was wind coming from every direction,” he said. “We went left, right, up, down. It made for a dangerous finale.”
“By the end of the day, nearly every team had a rider involved in a crash today.”