There was no winner of stage 2 of the Etoile de Bessèges on Thursday as a massive crash with 25km to go, which left one rider clinging to the side of a bridge, led the stage to be cancelled.
The incident left medical resources too stretched for the organisers to ensure safe conditions, and, after a long standstill, the decision was taken to fully neutralise the stage.
The crash occurred with 24km remaining on a stage that was igniting on a second successive day of crosswinds. A small bridge made for a pinch point for a bunch that was full of tension, and a touch of wheels led to a huge pile-up.
Valentin Ferron (TotalEnergies) was launched to the wall of the bridge on the right-hand side of the road and almost fell over into the ravine on the other side. He was saved by his quick thinking and upper body strength, and was seen hanging by his arms before he climbed back to the road with help from Alpecin-Deceuninck's Axel Laurance. The team reported that he "escaped with minor injuries".
The race support vehicles, including the medical car, were caught behind the crash and held up as the riders who avoided the crash pressed on ahead. For that reason, the organisers made the decision to neutralise the stage, calling all riders to a halt at the 22km-to-go mark.
A delay of more than 15 minutes ensued, giving riders a chance to regroup, brush themselves off and check for injuries, as well as the organisers to get everything else into place. However, it was deemed unsafe to continue, and the organisers took the difficult decision to leave the stage unfinished.
The riders started rolling again but they were all wearing warm clothing and it was a case of simply soft-pedalling the final 20km to the finish.
"Three ambulances had to leave the race and for that we couldn't guarantee safety if something happened in the following kilometres," explained race director Claudine Fangille to L'Equipe TV. "The best decision was to neutralise."
Stage 1 winner Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dsnty) remains atop the standings of the GC, points and young riders' classification, but breakaway rider Vito Braet (Team Flanders-Baloise) claimed the mountains jersey as the race counted the points toward that classification on the stage. Andrea Mifsud (Nice Metropole Cote d’Azur) was named most combative rider for his time in the breakaway.
Lotto-Dstny communicated that Sébastien Grignard was taken to hospital "to check for a possible fracture". Two riders for Israel-Premier Tech sustained injuries, the team confirmed on social media, with Dylan Teuns requiring stitches for facial contusions and Guillaume Boivin sustaining a contusion on his left hand and back. Both are expected to start stage 3 on Friday.
There were three vehicles, according to race organisers, that were used to transport riders to hospital. It was not known if the two Israel-Premier Tech riders were in those vehicles or if other riders were transported and being treated.
How it unfolded
The weather was fine for the 170km stage from Bagard to Aubais on a sunny and pleasant but blustery afternoon.
Jérémy Leveau (Go Sport-Roubaix Lille Métropole), Maël Guégan (CIC U Nantes Atlantique) and Mifsud were the first attackers. They were soon joined by Ludovic Robeet (Bingoal-WB) and Vito Braet (Team Flanders-Baloise) to form a five-man leading group.
The first hour went off at a brisk pace and the leaders never gained much more than two minutes on the peloton. After the first passage of the finish, the gap had fallen into the double digits and, with 83km to go, Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Deceuninck) soloed across the gap. Reinforced, the breakaway gained more time, but the peloton was in full flight and with 50km to go their lead began to plummet.
Crosswinds and a crash shattered the peloton behind and a select group went clear, driven by EF Education-EasyPost.
They pulled away 12 riders including Luke Rowe, Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers)Mads Pedersen, Mattias Jensen (Trek-Segafredo), Sam Watson (Groupama-FDJ), Magnus Cort, Neilson Powless (EF Education-First), Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), Thomas Bonnet, Dries Van Gestel (TotalEnergies), Eugenion Sanchez (Kern Pharma), Norman Vahtra (Go Sport-Roubaix Lille Métropole).
With Ineos leader Michal Kwiatkowski left behind and driving the chasing peloton, Rowe was none too pleased with the proximity of the leading motorcycles and gesticulated and cursed at the driver to shoo them away but it didn't matter.
The huge crash in the peloton at the narrow stone bridge forced organisers to neutralise the stage as the medical support vehicles attended to the injured and the rest of the peloton rolled easily to the finish.
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