Armstrong avoids crash, keeps lead at Tour |

Armstrong avoids crash, keeps lead at Tour

Andrew Hood, Special to the Post Independent

If this year’s Tour de France hasn’t been exciting enough already, Monday’s 114-mile ninth stage through the scorched French Alps proved yet again there’s never a dull day in the Tour.

Last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki crashed out in a high-speed spill with less than three miles to go while four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong had to test his cyclo-cross skills when he bounced through a hay field to avoid the crash.

Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokourov rode an impassioned race to win the stage in the name of his fallen compatriot Andrei Kivilev, who died after crashing in Paris-Nice back in March.

If that weren’t enough, this Tour isn’t even halfway over.

Last day in the Alps

Temperatures were scorching again Monday, but by the day’s penultimate climb, the St. Apollinaire, the Tour favorites came to the fore and led the main bunch over the summit before the final descent to Gap. Armstrong and

Spanish teammate Roberto Heras, Beloki, Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia, Bianchi’s German Jan Ullrich, CSC’s American Tyler Hamilton, Vinokourov,’s Francisco Mancebo and Fassa Bortolo’s Ivan Basso rode over together.

Then the day’s final climb, the Cote de la Rochette with about six miles to go was Vinokourov’s launching pad. The Kazak blasted over the climb ahead of the pursuers, which included all the favorites, as well as Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini.

Vinokourov’s dangerous move forced Beloki, Armstrong and the others to chase hard. The Kazak wasn’t aware of Beloki’s horrible crash, however, until after he won the stage, 36 seconds ahead of Bettini and Mayo, who shot ahead to take third.

“This is like a dream come true for me,” said Vinokourov, who slipped into second place behind Armstrong at 21 seconds back.

Beloki KO’d

Beloki, meanwhile, didn’t want to finish second or third in this year’s Tour. He was intent on winning this year’s Tour. With just over 2 miles to go Monday, the Basque rider came roaring into a sweeping right-hand turn that lead into a left-hand switchback, braking hard, causing his rear wheel to slip and his tire to puncture.

Beloki high-sided over the bike and crashed hard on his right side, fracturing his right elbow and wrist and breaking his upper right femur.

“We were all chasing hard because of Vinokourov was a dangerous rider. We came into that corner way too fast and Beloki locked up his brakes and his rear wheel started sliding everywhere and his tire blew,” Armstrong said. “It was so hot the asphalt on the road was melting, but it wasn’t slippery until we got to that section.”

Beloki’s departure leaves a big hole in the fight for the overall title and Bruyneel called Beloki the U.S. Postal team’s “most dangerous rival.”

“You hate to see him go down like that. I send my condolences to him and the team,” Armstrong said of Beloki. “Days like today are not normal. We have a few days to take it easy. I think we’ll make it.”

Tyler tunes

Hamilton, meanwhile, endured another hard day in the saddle and finished safely with the lead group to move into fifth overall at 1:52 back. He said the day’s brutal accelerations caused pain in his fractured right collarbone, but Team CSC manager said Hamilton’s arrival through the Alps is good news for the New Englander.

“Making it through the Alps changes everything,” said Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis. “Tyler managed very well today. Tyler is one of the favorites in this Tour. He’s doing better and he’s looking good on the bike. Everyone can see that. His pedaling is smooth and the pain is decreasing.”

The Tour continues Tuesday with the 136-mile 10th stage from Gap to Marseille, one of the Tour’s original host cities from 1903.

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