The 2011 Tour de France has been rolling through the countryside for more than a week now, still hasn't encountered its first serious climb, still hasn't offered a clue as to the winner of the thing, but already has witnessed almost unprecedented carnage on the road.
What happens when the route goes into the clouds on Thursday for three massive climbs in the Pyrenees, capped by an uphill finish at Luz-Ardiden, the scene of one of Lance Armstrong's greatest triumphs, is anyone's guess, but it can hardly be more bloody than what has transpired so far.
Entering Stage 11 on Wednesday, 20 of the 198 riders who pushed off from the Brittany coast for the start of the race had been knocked out of contention. Of that missing 10 percent of the field, 16 riders left the race because of either broken bones or concussions. Several dozen more are riding hurt, trying to hang on despite being involved in one or more of the many brutal crashes.
The tumult has removed four podium contenders, including Alexandre Vinokourov, who tumbled deep into a wooded ravine in a huge pileup on Sunday, suffering a compound fracture of his upper femur. Tour favorite Alberto Contador has fallen on at least four occasions, losing time to his rivals, but nothing he can't erase when the real test begins in the mountains.
Two crashes were caused by deus ex machina. Quite literally. A motorcycle carrying a still photographer alongside the peleton hit a Danish rider named Nicki Sorensen during Stage 5, took him down, and dragged him for a bit before spinning him into the spectators lining the road. Then on Sunday, a car from the French television network broadcasting the race tried to pass a breakaway group, swerved to miss a tree growing near the narrow road, and sideswiped one of the riders at about 35 m.p.h. That rider, Juan Antonio Flecha of Spain, went down hard, and the man just behind him, Johnny Hoogerland of the Netherlands, hit the fallen Flecha and was somersaulted off the road. Hoogerland was impaled on a barbed wire fence as he landed and eventually required more than 30 stitches to close three deep gouges. Both Flecha and Hoogerland got up and finished the stage _ with Hoogerland bleeding profusely down one leg _ and are still in the race.
There really isn't an equivalent for that kind of inadvertent intrusion in major American sports. Maybe a beer will spill on an outfielder as a fan tries to catch a ball, but after a week or so on the disabled list, the player will be as good as new. Very few cars swerve across the outfield.
Cycling has become familiar with outside forces' having a disastrous effect on the sport, however, whether the faltering economy that has made team sponsors hard to find, or the negative blasts of publicity from the routine suspensions for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
With indictments anticipated in the U.S. government case against Lance Armstrong and associates from his days with the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams, there will be sooner rather than later another buffeting of bad news. Cycling has suffered more than other sports because it has done a better job of figuring out how to catch cheaters. When the NFL starts to test for human-growth hormone, cycling will look like high tea at the cotillion by comparison.
Hopefully, when the mountain stages begin Thursday and the field spreads out a little, the focus will return to the racing, without the drama that has played out in the real and the figurative ditches of the sport. The finish up Luz-Ardiden will be dramatic, and it could be there that Contador and the other contenders for the general classification _ Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, and a small handful of others _ will begin to make themselves known.
It might also be that the Pyrenees won't be that selective, with the riders keeping something in reserve for what should be two crushingly difficult days in the Alps. Stages 18 and 19 finish uphill on the Galibier and L'Alpe D'Huez, two of the most famous climbs in cycling.
Either way, Contador will be the marked man. He has won the last six grand tours he has entered and is racing this one while his latest skirmish with the doping police is under appeal. It is more than possible that if he wins a fourth Tour this year, the win will be vacated, along with his 2010 title and his win in the 2011 Giro D'Italia. Now, "there's something for cycling to look forward to.
Not a very popular guy in the peleton _ his attack last year when Schleck slipped his chain on a climb was typical behavior _ Contador will need a lot of help from his teammates, because he won't get much from anyone else. When Contador tried to squeeze into a pack on a roundabout turn Sunday, Vladimir Karpets of Russia appeared to shoulder the diminutive Contador into the crowd, and the defending champion hit the pavement again. Oops.
Racing more than 2,100 miles in three weeks, taking on 14 Category 1 or "Beyond Category" climbs, and surviving to ride the streets of Paris isn't supposed to be easy, but it's also not supposed to be as hard as it looked on the mostly flat or rolling stages so far.
The narrow, winding roads of the first week, with their sharp, greasy turns, are behind the riders now, however. Maybe the motorcycles and cars will pay a little more attention, too. What is ahead is what is always ahead. It is the mountains and, after a brief delay while the demolition derby came to a close, it is finally the start of the Tour de France.
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