Cobbles cause chaos at the Tour de France but GC battle remains perfectly poised

Thomas continues to lead 'virtual GC' as first mountains approach

The medical bulletin issued after stage 9 of the Tour de France included a long list of riders who were injured on the cobbles and roads of northern France, but offered little detail of the enormous physical battering the riders endured on the 15 sectors of cobbles that so shaped the stage and brought so much drama.

The faces of the riders offered far more detail, revealing the inner pain and suffering sparked by the cobbled farm tracks of northern France. The riders really were the forçats de la route – the convicts of the road – as French journalist Albert Londres once famously described the Tour de France riders, as the Tour put on a sadistic Grand Tour freak show on Sunday, forcing the overall contenders to fight for wheels and try to simply find a safe passage to the finish.

The Grand Tour flyweights had to fight with the beefy Classics specialists in what was never going to be a fair fight. Yet, remarkably, despite the crashes in the past nine days, and the team time trial, and the Mûr-de-Bretagne finish, and, ultimately, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the overall classification remains perfectly poised, with 23 riders packed into three minutes behind race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) remains an example of Grand-Tour-contender resilience. The fragile Frenchman suffered three punctures during the pavé sections, and changed bikes and wheels a total of five times. He was over a minute off the pace at one point, but fought back again and again thanks to some superb work by his team to limit his losses to just seven seconds on his main rivals. He rightly hugged his teammates in gratitude at the finish.

Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) crashed hard on Saturday's stage 8, and was worried about racing yet again with back injuries, but he also fought back to finish in the front group. No wonder UAE Team Emirates were happy to show their dirty faces and beaming smiles afterwards via social media.

Mikel Landa (Movistar) crashed hard on 'normal', non-cobbled roads as he was reaching for his bidon, but got up, chased with help from loyal teammates, and finished with Bardet. He was just behind teammates Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, who both performed way above expectations, rubbing shoulders and holding their own against riders some 30kg of muscle heavier. Movistar escaped the toil of the chain-gang and can now really begin their three-prong attack on their rivals.

Even Chris Froome (Team Sky) took a dive into a ditch after tangling with teammate Gianni Moscon. He lost his Garmin computer in the spill but kept his cool and so didn't lose any time to his rivals. Despite being 59 seconds down on Geraint Thomas, Froome remains Team Sky's 'plan A'.

Other riders crashed, got up and finished in the front group, others stayed up but lacked the legs to attack, while the likes of Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Astana's Jakob Fuglsang tried their hands but were kept in check.

The fight for time made for an unusual race on the cobbles, with the racing as tactical as expected. This was no summer version of 'The Hell of the North'.

Richie Porte (BMC Racing) was the biggest victim of the stage, and probably of the Tour. He crashed out after just 10km – before the race had even hit the cobbles. The Australian fractured his left collarbone, and was taken away by ambulance, his Tour de France hopes over in the blink of an eye yet again due to a high-speed crash, and yet again on stage 9, just like last year.

Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) was also struck by misfortune. He finished the stage, but lost time to the other overall contenders. The Colombian lost contact in a banal crash with 30km to go, and never saw his rivals again, despite a solid team chase.

Uran lost 1:28 to his GC rivals and slipped down to 22nd, 2:53 behind Van Avermaet and 2:10 behind Sky's Geraint Thomas. Only Dan Martin is further back, at 2:39 after his late crash on stage 8.

Thomas still leads 'virtual GC'

After Van Avermaet's polished ride to second place on the stage, the Belgian now leads the Tour overall by 43 seconds to Geraint Thomas.

However, in the 'virtual GC' of the fight between main contenders, Thomas still leads the way, with a 59-second cushion over Sky teammate Chris Froome.

Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is on the same time, with Vincenzo Nibali in his slipstream another six seconds back.

Tom Dumoulin is another 15 seconds behind again, while Romain Bardet – despite perhaps ageing a few years due to the fear and exertions of the pavé – is just under 30 seconds behind Dumoulin, and 1:49 down on Thomas.

"I think it's a good position to be in," Froome said before boarding the plane for the transfer to the Alps. "I'm really happy with that."

Most of his rivals were probably equally as happy. So much could have been lost in the opening nine stages across northern France and onto the cobbles.

But, in truth, despite all the drama, the fears and tension, picking an overall winner is a huge risk because there are still so many riders in contention: riders of different abilities, with different team strengths, yet difficult to separate.

That will surely occur in the mountains – first in the Alps this week, where the riders face three tough stages, culminating with the finish on Alpe d'Huez on stage 12 on Thursday, with a further three challenging days in the Pyrenees to come the week after, and then the stage 20 time trial to Espelette in the Basque hills.

As so many riders suggested after Sunday's stage, everything is still to play for. This wild and totally unpredictable Tour de France is only just getting started.

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