THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAINT-FLOUR, France — Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez won the ninth stage of the Tour de France on a wild day of crashes while France’s Thomas Voeckler finished second to take the overall lead from Norway’s Thor Hushovd.
Among those caught in the mayhem was defending champion Alberto Contador, who overcame another crash, banging his troublesome right knee after an early spill.
"I had a problem with my handlebars, which knocked into another rider’s saddle," Contador said after safely completing the stage in 12th place. "It pushed me toward the spectators on the side, and I went into them and the bike hit me on the right knee again."
Sanchez moved into second place overall, followed by Australia’s Cadel Evans.
"I’m so happy to win this stage as it was important for me and my whole team," Sanchez said through a translator. "It was really a hard stage today.
"The roads were thin the whole day long."
Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal finished the stage in 52nd, moving him to 43rd in the overall standings.
Veteran Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov fractured his right thigh bone and withdrew after crashing near the halfway point of the 208-kilometre route from Issoire to Saint-Flour in the Massif Central. He was to be taken by helicopter to La Pitie Salpetriere hospital in Paris and will undergo immediate surgery, his team said.
Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha was hit by a car later on, and took down Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland with him as he flew sideways off his saddle. Both got up and kept riding. Contador fell early on, but the Spaniard was unharmed and rode on.
"Even before the accident a lot of cars brushed right past us," Sanchez said. "I understand that guests want to have a close look at the race, but we need to get a message across to the organizers so that the drivers are more careful."
Organizers said they have excluded the car that caused the incident from the rest of the race, without further details.
Flecha did not speak to reporters as he boarded his team bus. Sky’s team manager, Dave Brailsford, is considering a formal complaint.
"We might bring the matter forward tomorrow, but tonight we are not making comments", Brailsford said.
Voeckler was also slightly hurt in the incident, but was careful not to criticize the driver.
"It was very possible it could have happened to me, I was lucky not to fall," Voeckler said. "My ankle really hurts because he went into me.
"I’m not here to cause controversy, but it’s very regrettable."
Contador, who also crashed in the fifth stage, fell early but recovered to finish in 12th place.
"I had a problem with my handlebars, which knocked into another rider’s saddle," Contador said. "It pushed me toward the spectators on the side, and I went into them and the bike hit me on the right knee again."
Hushovd had worn the yellow jersey since his Garmin-Cervelo team won last Sunday’s team time trial. But the burly sprinter looked tired as he rolled over the line several minutes behind Voeckler.
Voeckler once defended the yellow jersey for nine days during the 2004 Tour, but he could not match Sanchez as he turned out of a corner and accelerated in the last 300 metres.
"These are good times. I wouldn’t have bet on taking the yellow jersey today," Voeckler said. "Time passes and I appreciate this one even more."
Frenchman Sandy Casar finished third, and all three had been part of a breakaway early in the stage.
Flecha and Hoogerland had also formed part of the same early break, but their chances of a stage victory ended with about 35 kilometres to go when a Tour car swerved into Flecha’s side. Neither rider appeared badly hurt.
Vinokourov, who has said he will retire from cycling at the end of the season, was caught in a heavy crash that sent him and about 30 other riders tumbling like a house of cards. Several other riders retired as well.
Vinokourov was carried up a small bank by an Astana teammate and staff member. They had rushed to him as he lay next to a tree. They helped him to his feet by putting their arms around him.
Contador, having survived that early scare, stayed bunched in with the main pack, along with other Tour contenders such as Evans and Andy Schleck. They all crossed the line safely, choosing not to chase Voeckler — who is not a Tour contender.
Voeckler and Casar, both former stage winners, increased the tempo in the first big climb of the day — the eight-kilometre ascent up Col du Pas de Peyrol. The small front group was more than three minutes ahead when it reached the top.
As the pack approached Col du Perthus, a mass crash had stricken riders. Among them were Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Frederik Willems, both Belgians on Omega Pharma-Lotto’s team, and American David Zabriskie of the Garmin-Cervelo team. All three quit the race injured.
At the front of the peloton, in a show of solidarity, Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara asked the pack to wait for other fallen riders, including Garmin-Cervelo’s David Millar, who struggled on.
That extended the lead of the front five riders — and Voeckler’s group was more than seven minutes in front after completing the 4.3-kilometre Col du Perthus.
Voeckler and Hoogerland took turns going in front down the descents and up smaller climbs like Col de Cere and Cote de la Chevade — with Casar, Sanchez and Flecha still in the mini-group of five.
After completing the final tough climb of the day up Col de Prat de Bouc, Voeckler’s group led the pack by 4:40.
After a Tour car took down Flecha and Hoogerland — who came close to landing in a barbed-wire fence — three riders were left to contest the stage, which culminated in a short, twisty and sharp climb to Saint-Flour.
"It’s a shame for them because they rode hard with us all day," Sanchez said. "It’s a pity they had to give up the stage win because of the crash."
Monday’s rest day comes at a perfect time for the battered riders.