With over 100 kilometres of time trialling on the course, Fränk Schleck's Tour de France challenge was already hamstrung from the moment the route was unveiled last October, but the RadioShack-Nissan rider's task was complicated still further when he lost time in a crash on the run-in to Metz at the end of stage 6.
Schleck was one of a number of riders to hit the deck in a pile-up 26 kilometres from the finish, and such was the chaos when he picked himself up off the tarmac that he faced a lengthy and increasingly exasperated wait for a replacement bike. To compound matters, once he gingerly got going again, he found that only one teammate – Yaroslav Popovych – had remained with him.
The pair then gave chase as part of a 25-man group that included other stricken GC hopefuls such as Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar), and they succeeded in limiting their losses to 2:09 at the finish.
On crossing the line, a frustrated Schleck was first summoned to a random doping control, but by the time he wheeled to halt outside the RadioShack-Nissan team bus 20 minutes later, his annoyance had not yet dissipated. A loose string of reporters tightened around him as he dismounted, and the first question was the blindingly obvious one – what happened?
"There was a big bunch of riders going at 80kph," Schleck said flatly. "There was a big road but there was one crash and I couldn't avoid it. If you go at 80kpk you can't really avoid it."
Schleck's countenance darkened still further when a voice volunteered that he had seemed unhappy as he stood at the roadside.
"No, I'm fantastic. I just crashed and I'm really hurting, so why should I be unhappy," Schleck snapped. "Of course when you crash you're not happy. What do you want me to answer?"
As the dictaphones pressed closer, Schleck was asked to detail his injuries and the atmosphere relaxed slightly. While standing on the roadside, the Luxembourger had been spotted gripping the same right shoulder that sparked so many conspiracy theories when it forced him out of the Giro d'Italia in May.
"I don't think I have anything broken. I have pain in my shoulder from the Giro, I have pain in my hip, and my knee, but we'll check to see what the damage is," said Schleck, before adding: "It's not my nature to stop if there's nothing broken."
Now 2:43 off the overall lead with the Besançon time trial to come on Monday, Schleck's podium challenge appears to be in tatters, but he was determined to accentuate the positive as he edged his way towards the steps of the team bus.
"The Tour wasn't favourable to us this year anyway," he pointed out. "I was confident for tomorrow and the days to come, so now we'll take a look at the gaps and maybe change something tactically."
Given that a fractured collarbone on the cobbles near Arenberg forced him out of the opening week of the 2010 Tour, Schleck even summoned up his inner Candide before he signed off. "That's the Tour. You've got highs and lows. We had a great opening week with Fabian but now we've got this crash," he said. "I don't think it's anything serious, so I can consider myself fortunate."
As he waited for Schleck to return to the sanctuary of the team bus, RadioShack-Nissan directeur sportif Alain Gallopin had looked to put a brave face on his team's day. Pressed as to why Schleck was left so isolated after his crash, Gallopin insisted that the proximity to the finish and the speed of the peloton meant that there was precious little that could be done to salvage the situation.
"It was going too fast in front as the sprinters' teams still needed to pull back the breakaway," Gallopin said. "It was impossible to bring him back up and I couldn't send the whole team back there to lose two minutes."
RadioShack-Nissan had no fewer than six riders in the lead group at the finish, including yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara and the veteran Andreas Klöden. "We couldn't make the whole team come back when we had the yellow jersey up there and Andreas too, who is our leader here with Fränk," Gallopin said.
"On top of that, he said before the race that his ambition was to win stages and then see where that left him. As far as I'm concerned he only lost two minutes. He could have lost 7 or 8 minutes today."
Asked if Schleck's Tour challenge was somehow forever destined to be undone by crashes, Gallopin allowed himself a wry smile. "Last year he didn't fall and he didn't win the Tour either," he said. "We'll see how he is afterwards, but compared to how it could have been, it's not so bad."
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