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Top cyclist Valverde out; Kessler wins 3rd stage

7/5/2006

VALKENBURG, Netherlands -- Wheels touch. Bikes and riders go
down. A bone breaks. Tour de France over.

So it went for Alejandro Valverde during an accident-strewn
third stage Tuesday. The Spaniard, whom Lance Armstrong once said
could be cycling's next big thing, fractured his right collarbone,
taking yet another favorite out of the showpiece race that already
lost its top contenders to a doping scandal even before it began.

On the road, there was a new overall leader, Tom Boonen, who
donned the Tour's yellow jersey over the rainbow-striped world
champion's shirt he already owns. Matthias Kessler of Germany won
the hilly stage that covered three countries -- Luxembourg, Belgium
and the Netherlands. It was the first stage victory in four tours
for Kessler.

Boonen will wear yellow in his native Belgium on Wednesday's
stage four, "something that happens maybe only once every 10
years, so I think it will be special," he said.

He holds a one-second lead over Australian Michael Rogers, the
world time trial champion. American George Hincapie is third, with
previous leader Thor Hushovd of Norway slipping back to fourth
after he struggled on the final hill of the 134.5 miles route from
Esch-sur-Alzette.

But crashes and a perennial headache for the Tour -- how to keep
riders safe in a race that prides itself on enabling spectators to
get up close to their sporting heroes -- were unfortunate themes of
the day. Doctors were busy.

American Fred Rodriguez's Fourth of July holiday finished in a
hospital emergency unit. A pothole ended his sixth Tour, one of his
teammates said. Rodriguez injured his right shoulder and wrist and
sustained a concussion.

Dutch rider Erik Dekker apparently hit the same hole, his
Rabobank team said, catapulting him over his handlebars onto the
road. He broke teeth, ripped his upper lip, had multiple deep cuts
on his face and sustained a concussion. A four-time stage winner,
he had been riding his 12th Tour.

"Some of the guys thought he was dead," team spokesman Jacob
Bergsma said. "The tar from the road was all over his face."

Valverde will now return to Spain, where he may need surgery. He
plowed into a teammate's wheel when the pack of riders slowed
sharply, hitting the deck. Grimacing in pain, he was initially seen
to by the doctor who rides behind the race in a car and was then
taken to a hospital.

His first Tour last year finished no better: After impressing
Armstrong by beating him up a climb in the Alps, Valverde was
forced to drop out in tears three days later with an inflamed left
knee.

Just four days into the three week-race, the Tour has become one
of attrition, with five of the 20 teams missing their lead riders.
T-Mobile, Kessler's squad, withdrew 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich
because of allegations that he was linked to a doping ring in
Spain. CSC's Ivan Basso, the Tour of Italy champion, was withdrawn
for the same reason, as was Francisco Mancebo, leader of the French
squad AG2R and fourth at the Tour last year.

A fever deprived Italy's Liquigas squad of Danilo Di Luca, and
now Illes Balears of Spain will ride on without Valverde.

Crashes, especially in the fast and relatively flat first week,
are nothing new at the 103-year-old Tour. The intense summer heat
had also tired riders, making them more accident-prone. That's why
Americans like Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, now both favorites
in the depleted field, have kept a low profile, concentrating on
staying safe for the mountains and time trials later in the
three-week, 2,272-mile race that will decide the winner.

"You calculate your risks. The main thing is just to get
through the day alive," said Leipheimer, whose 2003 Tour ended
with a crash.

Spectators are an added danger. Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd
sliced open his right arm on a cardboard hand -- a sponsor's freebie
-- held out by a fan on Sunday. The hands have since been banned in
the fast final sections of flat stages.

French rider Sandy Casar also got knocked down Tuesday when he
bumped into a roadside spectator.

"There was this guy in a group who was dead drunk on the side
of the road," said the race manager of Casar's Francaise des Jeux
team, Marc Madiot. "After he got knocked down the guy started
making fun of him because he had fallen.

"What can you do to control the spectators? It's impossible,"
Madiot added. "That's cycling -- stuff happens."

Incoming Tour director Christian Prudhomme said organizers are
worried about a new crowd phenomenon: spectators holding out
camera-equipped mobile telephones and digital cameras to snap
riders as they flash past.

"It's a new danger that we are discovering now," Prudhomme
told The Associated Press.

"But it's very complicated to keep spectators away. One of the
chances that the Tour has is to be able to offer to spectators the
possibility of being right next to the riders. It is a communion
between the public and its champions," he said. "You can't keep
them 10 [yards] away over a distance of 3,500 kilometers."