By Kirsten Robbins in Santa Rosa, California
A massive pile up at Tour of California involved the heaviest hitters, including race leader Levi Leipheimer. The crash happened with two laps to go on the finishing circuits of stage one resulting in neutralized race times and Leipheimer holding onto the leader's jersey in his hometown of Santa Rosa.
UCI guidelines have a three-kilometre rule permitting the neutralization of results so that riders receive the same time as the leader in the event of accidents like Monday's in stage 1. In Monday's case, a crashed caused by the road's Botts' dots on the finishing straight happened with ten-kilometres to go. [Botts' dots are raised, semi-spherical pavement lane markers used on roads to give tactile feedback to drivers - ed.]
Leipheimer was caught in the accident and came through the finish line in the second group over one minute down from the winning group. Chief commissaire of the Tour of California Fabrizio Darnellio initiated discussions on changing the UCI regulation from three to ten kilometres to go, ultimately giving Leipheimer the leader's jersey. "Due to the size of the crash and the large number of riders that went down in the crash, our panel of commissaires made a decision to award all the riders with the time of the winner," Jim Birrell, race director said. "I think it was a fair decision and the right decision."
The finishing circuits at the end of each stage are designed to attract cycling fans in the cities. It is a way to increase support for road racing and to showcase the events like the Tour of California. "The circuits are a necessary evil because when you see the tens of thousands of spectators that line the circuit finishes, it provides a great show for the community that hosts these finishes," Birrell said. "It is something that we need to have, and the accident is an unfortunate situation to have happen today on the most scenic route of the tour."
Leipheimer was caught in the accident, but was fortunate to have the help of his two teammates George Hincapie and Ivan Basso to limit his losses in the general classification. "Coming into the laps we did one circuit and it was incident free," Leipheimer said. "But coming through the finish the second time, I had just made a surge to move up on the right side, and I was in the first fifteen riders and right at the front. All of a sudden, I could see that a T-Mobile rider hit one of the metal balls on the road and his hands came off the bars and he flipped over the bars. He fell to the right causing a huge pile up. There was not a lot of space, one lane. Anyone who was on the right side of him came down. All those little metal dots on the road that are all over California roads, you see we don't get snow so the snow plows don't have to worry about them," Leipheimer joked.
The first group came through for the finishing sprint with Graeme Brown of Rabobank taking the win over Greg Henderson of T-Mobile. The front group included Ben Jacques Maynes of Priority Health, who was sitting in third place overall after the prologue. If the decision was made to stick with the UCI regulated three-kilometre rule, Ben Jacques Maynes from Priority Health would have been presented with the leader's jersey of the Tour of California. "Thinking that I was going to be in the leader's jersey is an honour and a dream, but that is counting chickens before the eggs hatch," Jacques Maynes said. "The commissaire's ruling is sticking, and we just have to live with that. We have a lot more racing and my team is motivated to keep going and to race our hearts out. I'm trying not to pay attention to all these details and get on with the job at hand."
Jacques Maynes added, "I'm not in a position to question the commissaires and I just have to live with it keep racing my bike. I'm paid to pedal, and they are paid to make those decisions. It is hard to swallow that, but that is what we have to do."
The riders have the ability to protest the chief commissaire's decision but there has not yet been a complaint at this time. "I am not surprised with the commissaire's decision," Leipheimer said. "We have to remember that circuits in a race of this caliber are not very common but it is very necessary. You saw the crowds today and the amount of people who came out to see the race. They deserve a show and to see some great bike racing. Doing these three laps gets them that."
Leipheimer added, "With the crash I didn't know what the commissaires would decide after the race but I was still happy that I had the experience because these are the races I have suffered on and have trained on for the eleven years that I have lived in Santa Rosa. To be here and race with the world's best at the Tour of California is a dream come true.
Wearing the leader's jersey from the prologue from the San Francisco prologue through Santa Rosa's stage one is a career highlight for Discovery rider. The thought of winning the Tour of California is a dream for Leipheimer but no sweeter because of today's unfortunate crashes in the finishing circuits or the abandonment of CSC's Dave Zabriskie.
Zabriskie was a favourite after having placed second in the event last year. He was rushed to the hospital with a concussion and a possible broken wrist after he crashed at the seventy-mile mark along HWY 1. "I don't wish crashes like these upon anyone," Leipheimer said. "I am very disappointed that Dave Zabriskie crashed today because he was the race favourite to win, in my opinion, and I certainly don't want to beat him this way, and I hope he is OK. If I go on to win it doesn't make it any sweeter for me because he crashed out."
Friday's time trial is the stage Leipheimer is focusing on as being the most decisive stage for the general classification. "All I can do is my best, and I would like to have a good time trial," Leipheimer said. "But I shouldn't even be thinking about the time trial yet because there are still three more stages that are tough and just as phenomenal as today. Tomorrow is another picture postcard day."