Wednesday July 10, 2013

SAINT-MALO, France -- Hitting the asphalt at something like 60 kilometers (40 miles) per hour flayed off a patch of skin from Tom Veelers’ right thigh. Blood snaked down his leg from his sliced-up right knee. His white jersey was torn and soiled.

"Bruised and scratched from all sides," said the big Dutchman when asked how he felt. "But ... yeah, OK."

In short, Stage 10 was another day at the office for the charging-bull sprinters of the Tour de France.

Chris Froome, the race leader, isn’t a sprinter. The Briton was just relieved to survive unscathed all the pushing and shoving on two wheels.

The "worst nightmare," he said, for riders like him -- lighter, less muscular and with eyes fixed on reaching the podium in Paris on July 21 -- is to be felled by crashes like the one that floored Veelers on Tuesday in Saint-Malo. The fall came in the shadow of this Brittany port’s crenelated walls, with spectators crammed cheek by jowl to get a look.

"Every day you get through with the yellow jersey is a blessing," Froome said. "So I’m happy just to tick that one off."

Veelers’ job is to help launch his teammate, sprinter Marcel Kittel, in the final mad dash for the line. He did that just fine on Tuesday, because Kittel won -- becoming the first rider at this 100th Tour to win two stages, having also won Stage 1.

As Kittel sprinted away, rival Mark Cavendish hared after the German. In doing so, Cavendish’s left arm barged into Veelers’ right arm. Because both were riding at such speed, the contact was enough to tip the Dutch rider over.

"Marcel went all the way left and Cavendish dived to the left, I think to try to follow Marcel," Veelers explained after he picked himself up, climbed back on his bike and rode through the finish to his Argos-Shimano team bus, where a shoal of impatient, sharp-elbowed reporters waited.

"He touched my handlebars and knocked me over."

Cavendish was adamant this wasn’t deliberate. The Briton with 24 Tour stage wins lost his temper with an Associated Press reporter who asked if he was at fault, grabbing his voice recorder.

"I touched with him. But the road’s bearing left. I know you’re trying to get all the ‘Oh, Mark Cavendish, a really bad sprint again.’ The road’s bearing left. Two hundred and fifty meters to go, the road bears left ... I followed the road," he said.

"So I think if anyone’s trying to get, ‘Oh, Mark Cavendish, dangerous sprint.’ I think you’re in the wrong there, you know?"

The race jury studied video of the incident but took no action, allowing Cavendish to keep his third place behind Kittel and stage runner-up Andre Greipel, another German who won the finishing sprint on Stage 6.

Having luxuriated Monday in their first rest day, riders were generally content Tuesday to race at a leisurely pace. The pack allowed five riders to race away and build up a lead -- and then reeled them in as teams set up their sprinters to compete in the final dash.

The 197-kilometer (122-mile) jaunt from the Brittany town of Saint-Gildas-Des-Bois to Saint-Malo on its northern coast took the race past Plesse, where Lucien Mazan was born in 1882. Better known as Lucien Petit-Breton, he won the Tour in 1907 and 1908.

On Wednesday, the focus shifts away from the sprinters and back to Froome and his rivals for overall victory.

Stage 11 -- a time trial where the riders all race individually against the clock -- could be one of the most visually spectacular of this Tour where every day already has delivered a feast for the eyes.

The 33-kilometer (20.5-mile) course loops from the Normandy port of Avranches, with its memorial to U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, to the breathtaking Mont-Saint-Michel, a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey and walled village that towers skyward from an islet perched in a bay.

Froome got bronze in the time trial -- a specialist discipline -- at last year’s London Olympics. This year, he used a wind tunnel in Southampton, England, to improve his position on his time trial bike.

As race leader, Froome will set out last on Wednesday afternoon in his canary yellow jersey. He aims to widen the time gaps he opened on Saturday, when he demoralized rivals by blowing them away on a climb in the Pyrenees mountains.

The Tour runner-up last year behind Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins, Froome already has a lead of 1 minute, 25 seconds over second-placed Alejandro Valverde. Another Spaniard, two-time champion Alberto Contador, is 1:51 off Froome, in sixth.

If Froome significantly increases his lead, then barring a crash or other mishap, victory in Paris should pretty much be in his pocket.