LISIEUX, France — Alberto Contador knew it made little sense to take risks on a day when blinding, torrential rain lashed riders in the Tour de France.
The 141-mile course Thursday — the sixth and longest stage in the three-week race — made for a dangerous trip. And the field was fortunate to avoid a major crash, a day after riders went tumbling everywhere.
“It was another nervous stage and because of the rain I virtually couldn’t see anything,” said Contador, the defending champion and three-time Tour winner who crashed Wednesday. “At the end of the stage I was moving to the very front of the pack, simply to avoid accidents, and not because I wanted to attack.”
Contador and his Tour rivals, like two-time runners-up Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck, played it safe as Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway led a sprint to capture his first stage on the Tour. He finished in 5 hours, 13 minutes, 37 seconds.
Matt Goss of Australia was second and overall race leader Thor Hushovd was third, giving Norway the distinction of having the stage winner and yellow jersey holder on the same day.
Moving fairly close to the front meant relative safety for Contador, Schleck and Evans. They all were part of the first 50 of the 197 riders who completed the stage.
“Yesterday wind, today rain. … Luckily, there seemed to be some kind of understanding within the peloton not to take too many risks today,” Schleck said. “As if all the teams had suffered enough crashes yesterday.”
Evans kept second overall. The Australian is one second behind Hushovd while Schleck is 12 seconds behind in 10th spot. Contador is 1:42 off the lead in 34th place.
A rider would have encountered untold trouble if caught behind the peloton in a dominolike crash on the treacherous, narrow roads snaking toward Normandy. Wind made things even more hazardous, as fans watched, soaked to the skin in kinship with the riders.
“In the last few kilometers I was thinking only about not falling because it was a dangerous course,” Contador said. “At the end of the stage I got to the front of the peloton not to lose time, to avoid problems.”
Contador is no stranger to problems. The 28-year-old Spaniard tested positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol late in last year’s Tour and he could yet be stripped of all his titles back to last July if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month.
Although he was cleared to race by the Spanish cycling federation, many fans have questioned his presence on the race and he has been jeered by some.
Contador’s Tour got off to a dreadful start when he was slowed by a crash that split the main pack in last Saturday’s stage, causing him to lose valuable time to Schleck. He is 1 minute, 30 seconds behind Schleck — time he must recover in the mountains or on during a time trial.
It looked as if Contador was set for more bad luck Thursday. He already felt weary from the previous day’s crash that left him cut and bruised.
Then he had to suddenly change bikes early into Thursday’s ride across northwest France from Dinan to Lisieux in Normandy. Saxo Bank teammate Daniel Navarro leant him his bike.
“When you have little cuts and scratches you’re not comfortable until you’re warmed up,” Contador said. “I had a problem with the water, the roads, with a little stone … and that’s why I preferred to change my bike after 30 kilometers.
Tour organizers have been looking to spice up what is traditionally a predictable first week for sprinters by making otherwise routine stages more difficult, opening possibilities for others. It has not met with much approval from riders.
RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer was highly critical of the thin roads in Wednesday’s stage. The veteran American found himself bouncing on the road Thursday after coming off his saddle near the end.
Maxime Monfort, a Belgian riding in support of Schleck, complained that finishes like Thursday’s — with their short, steep climbs — only make the rush to the line more crowded and cause bottlenecks.
“You have the pure sprinters on one hand, who say ‘OK, it’s a little hard but I can get over it,’ and on the other hand you have the favorites,” Monfort said. “That makes two breeds of rider fighting for position, when usually there is just one. There’s not room for everybody.”
Hagen, a sprint specialist with Sky, burst free with about 200 yards left and held on, jutting his arms in the air as he crossed the line with rain spurting off his wheel.
“I really surprised myself,” he said. “Lots of people say that I’m a talented guy, so it’s nice to show it by winning a stage.”
Friday’s seventh stage should favor sprinters. The 136-mile course from Le Mans to Chateauroux is the last flat stage before riders enter the Massif Central mountains.