After years of scrapes and injuries but usually always managing to battle through, the Tour de France's Australian contingent of six riders, to put it in the local term, had a 'shocker' on Stage 8 after three riders either abandoned or were eliminated in one day. It was undoubtedly Australia's worst-ever day in the Tour de France, a day filled with drama, one that will be remembered by many Australian cycling fans as serious crashes took out marquee riders while aggression at the front shook up the GC contest.
A senior Australian cycling figure said to Cyclingnews, "(it was) a tough stage for the Aussies last night. After the Australians more often than not avoid major incident, accident and injury in the Tour over the past seven to eight years, we have copped our negative share in one shot."
No single rider could be more disappointed with the turn of events on Sunday than podium hopeful, three-time world time trial champion and T-Mobile's GC rider, Mick Rogers (T-Mobile).
Rogers had become maillot jaune virtuel on the road and was looking to become the first Australian to win the yellow jersey in a mountain stage of the Tour for many years. He crossed the Cormet de Roselend, 65 kilometres from the finish in the lead group with eventual stage winner, Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank). Suddenly, on the tricky descent with 54 kilometres remaining, Rogers and fellow breakway rider, Spaniard David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) crashed on a tight left hander; the Caisse d'Epargne man went over the barriers into a ditch while Rogers hit the deck on the road surface.
Both riders seemed - at the time - to have no major damage and quickly got back on their bikes in pursuit of the six front runners. (The descent of the Cormet de Roselend has caught out a few riders in the past, including Discovery Channel DS Johan Bruyneel in the '96 TdF (see story). The nasty corner is easy to find; after a few easy bends there's a very sharp turn to the left with a tighter-than-expected exit.)
However, Rogers was injured and he couldn't hold the pace, grimacing as rode and clearly favouring his right arm and wrist. He had so much pain following the crash he was forced to abandon. A later report stated he'd dislocated his shoulder. "I could see the yellow, I could taste it – now it’s gone," was all he could manage after the brutal stage to Tignes.
Fellow Australian Stuart O'Grady crashed out of the Tour on Sunday as well. Countryman Simon Gerrans (AG2r Prévoyance) said he saw the aftermath of the crash but didn't know it was the popular CSC rider being loaded onto a backboard and into an ambulance. "I saw Stuey about 3 km before the crash," he said. "I was going back for bidons and Stu came past with a pocket full of bidons. As I came around a corner I saw a few guys sprawled around the road and one CSC rider who was not moving he was wrapped around a pole. I know now that was Stuey."
Initial reports from France indicate O'Grady, who was taken by ambulance to hospital after being knocked unconscious, has suffered up to eight broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) was also sympathetic to his countrymen's plight. “I didn’t know Mick and Stuey crashed out of the Tour. That’s real bad luck," he said after the race.
McEwen is also suffering from a rare Aussie bad-luck streak at the Tour, as so often the Australians have enjoyed reasonably incident-free Tours de France, or if they have fallen, they've continued on regardless. "I have struggled since my crash and the Tour is no place to try and recover. (Yesterday), I was in the hurt bag all day. From the word go. It doesn’t seem like my knee is getting better, it’s getting worse. The course is getting harder and yesterday they just sprinted up the first climb and that just put me on the back foot the whole day. Still I’m happy with my stage win and thankful to all that supported me - team and fans."
About his crash earlier in the Tour, McEwen says the damage isn't overwhelming. "The way I landed on my knee, I injured the tendon as well. The patella tendon takes a lot of stress when you’re climbing. I’m hurting more every day and it’s staying inflamed and swollen. So then you try to compensate by putting more pressure on the other leg and more pressure on other spots and it’s just twisting me up on the bike and it’s a vicious circle."
McEwen says his prescription to make it beyond the rest day for the chance at another sprint stage win is "to manage it and hopefully I can hang on with the bunch to the feed and then just ride whatever pace I can to get to the finish and hope that’s inside the time limit. I’m fighting, literally, an uphill battle."
But the day wasn't filled with only bad news for Australian riders. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) was in the final group and stays in the mix of top GC favorites. And overall, Gerrans said he had "a great ride mate. Different to yesterday obviously but I think I needed that ride to clear out the cobwebs." Gerrans had a specific role in the stage. "I stayed with the main guys until the last climb. I was getting bidons for Christophe and kept him out of the wind. I am pretty happy with my day."