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(AFP) – Stage five of the 100th Tour de France, the second-longest in this year’s race, was uneventful for long spells before two crashes lit up the closing kilometres into Marseille.
The day will be best remembered for Mark Cavendish’s victory in a sprint finish on the city’s seafront, although there was drama just before as a whole host of riders went to the ground just 200 metres from the finish.
That followed another pile-up with 16 kilometres remaining that brought down as many as 15 riders, including polka-dot jersey wearer Pierre Rolland and Marcel Kittel.
The German got lucky on Saturday’s first stage when he avoided the carnage of a crash on the way into Bastia before snatching victory in a sprint finish and seizing the yellow jersey.
Fast forward to Wednesday, and the Argos-Shimano team star was far less fortunate, as he admitted later.
“I got up to get back on my bike and I saw that my chain was stuck,” he said, ruing the moment that his chances of winning the stage disappeared.
“A BMC rider in front of me just hit the ground and I couldn’t get past him. Just before the crash I was taking to John Degenkolb, who was asking me what the plan was for the lead-out, and then the BMC rider went down.
“It’s shit that it happened there. We tried to save our energy for the rest of the race, for the final.
“The opportunity was there, but I suppose I can be happy that I didn’t crash on stage one, and tomorrow it’s flat and it’s a new race.”
Save for having a bit of skin torn off his left arm, Kittel came out unscathed and can look forward with optimism to Thursday’s sixth stage, a flat 176-kilometre ride from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.
Overall race favourite Chris Froome was lucky too, escaping the second crash near the line to complete a stage which saw his Team Sky teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen just lose out to Cavendish on the line.
“Even if you’re at the front these days it seems as if the crashes are happening right there, so you’ve definitely got to be awake all the time. But I managed to get round it,” said Froome.
Other riders, however, were not so lucky, and the official medical report issued at the end of the stage revealed a long list of injuries, some potentially serious.
Veteran Basque Haimar Zubeldia of the RadioShack-Leopard team was diagnosed with a broken bone in his left hand after undergoing tests in a nearby hospital, while his teammates Andreas Kloeden and former yellow jersey wearer Jan Bakelants were also knocked off their bikes.
The FDJ team later confirmed that French rider Nacer Bouhanni had been taken to hospital for a check-up on injuries to his back, left leg and right shoulder, but the worst luck appeared to befall the Garmin team.
Christian Vandevelde of the USA and Ryder Hesjedal both fell near the finish line, with the former suffering nasty bruising while his Canadian teammate needed an X-ray on a rib that he previously fractured during the first stage.
Garmin team member Tom Danielson, who finished eighth overall on the Tour in 2011, was in good spirits after the stage despite taking knocks to a shoulder, a leg and to his face.
“Landed hard on my right shoulder but seems ok. Can’t believe there was a crash in that finish!!!” he tweeted later, before adding: “There is no safe zone here.”
Three riders of the original 198-man field had already gone from the race before Wednesday, with Kazakhstan’s Andrey Kashechkin of Astana and Frenchman Yoann Bagot of Cofidis both abandoning on Monday before Ted King’s Tour de France debut ended in controversial fashion on Tuesday after he missed the time cut-off for the stage four team time-trial by seven seconds.