Thomas Voeckler seizes yellow jersey
SAINT-FLOUR, France -- Riders sprawled over the course. One wound up in a ditch, another with a busted leg. Everyone, it seemed, needed ice: A rest day couldn't come soon enough.
The bleeding and battered Tour de France field endured its worst day yet of crashes, a strange and dangerous ordeal in which even a car took out riders.
When cyclists ease their aching bones Monday on their day off after nine frenzied and punishing stages, Alexandre Vinokourov will be waking up several hundred miles away in a Paris hospital after surgery on a fractured thigh bone.
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Defending champion Alberto Contador's right knee will be bathed in ice, and Juan Antonio Flecha's legs will be bruised and scabbed after he was slammed by a car late in Sunday's stage.
"It is too bad to see riders crashing out of the race like this," two-time Tour runner-up Andy Schleck said.
Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez won the ninth stage after a long breakaway in the second day of mountains, and France's Thomas Voeckler took the yellow jersey from Thor Hushovd. But they left plenty of wreckage behind them.
Cyclists anticipate all number of obstacles during this three-week showcase -- wet roads, extreme heat, dehydration, exhaustion, crashes. Getting sent airborne by a Tour car is not one of them.
But that's what happened to the Flecha and to Johnny Hoogerland as they entered the final stretch of the 129-mile route from Issoire to Saint-Flour in the Massif Central. They were in a five-man front group that included Voeckler, Sanchez and France's Sandy Casar.
If Vinokourov's crash, which involved about 30 other riders midway through the stage, was not scary enough, the sight of an out-of-control car swerving right into Flecha was a perplexing sight -- even in a race more than a century old.
The impact hit Flecha like a shovel, sending the Spaniard flying sideways into Hoogerland. Hoogerland then soared upward, just scraping a barbed wire fence. Had the Dutchman hit that face-first, the damage would have been gruesome.
"I understand that guests want to have a close look at the race," Sanchez said. "But we need to get a message across to the organizers so that the drivers are more careful."
Remarkably, Hoogerland, who landed in a roadside ditch, and Flecha, got back up: speed gone, spirit intact.
Vacansoleil manager Michel Cornelisse said Hoogerland had deep cuts to both legs. But the rider still had enough strength to hobble to the podium and slip on the red and white polka dot jersey as the new leader in the King of the Mountains competition.
Flecha's Sky team manager, Dave Brailsford, was considering a formal complaint.
"We might bring the matter forward tomorrow, but tonight we are not making comments", he said.
Tour organizers banned the car and its driver from the rest of the race, saying the driver ignored a warning to let a team car pass to bring a water bottle to Voeckler.
Last week, a photographer's motorcycle hit Danish rider Nicki Sorensen and sent the Saxo Bank cyclist skidding along the roadside while the motorbike dragged away his bicycle. Organizers also barred that driver.
Earlier in Sunday's stage, Hoogerland and his four companions were several minutes ahead of a huge crash that left dozens of riders sprawled over the road like marbles as they flew into a turn descending down the Col du Pas de Peyrol.
It was a frightening sight for those behind, including Tour contender Cadel Evans.
"I came around a blind corner and they were all lying there," Evans said. "I saw a lot of riders in the road and honestly, it really, really frightened me, especially after what happened to Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d'Italia."
Weylandt was a Belgian rider who died in a crash during the Giro d'Italia in May, clipping a wall during a descent.
Vinokourov wound up in a ditch and was carried up a small bank by an Astana teammate and staff member. They helped him up by putting their arms around him.
As other stricken riders peeled themselves off the ground, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Frederik Willems, both Belgian riders on the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, and American David Zabriskie of the Garmin-Cervelo team all had to quit.
"This crash came at the front of the peloton in a slippery turn," Schleck said. "The reason so many guys were seriously injured when they went down was because there were no concrete blocks on the right side of the road."
Vinokourov was to be taken by helicopter to La Pitie Salpetriere hospital in Paris for immediate surgery, his team said.
Almost unnoticed in the mayhem was that Contador had crashed for the second time in five days. The three-time defending champion, however, did not point blame, apart from his handlebars.
Contador, who had hurt his right knee during the fifth stage, fell early but recovered to finish the stage in 12th place.
"I had a problem with my handlebars, which knocked into another rider's saddle," Contador said. "The bike hit me on the right knee again. It was a bad day. I was in pain for the whole stage. ... With a bit of ice and rest I can recover."
Voeckler leads Sanchez by nearly two minutes overall. But neither is a Tour contender and will drop in the Pyrenees.
Contador remains 1 minute, 30 seconds behind Schleck in the overall standings, and 1:41 behind Evans -- his two biggest rivals, both twice runners-up.
After the rest day, there are two relatively short flat stages before riders enter the Pyrenees on Thursday's 12th stage, with its colossal climb up Col du Tourmalet -- one of the Tour's most famed and feared climbs.
That stage is so demanding it could go a long way to narrowing the Tour to a handful of genuine contenders.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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