Headline: Two Americans crash out of Tour | VailDaily.com

Headline: Two Americans crash out of Tour

Byline: Andrew Hood

American hopes in the 100th Tour de France nearly crumbled entirely Sunday when two of the country’s favorites for the podium, Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton, both crashed out of cycling’s marquee event.

Four-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong also crashed – but escaped serious injuries – in the dangerous pileup just 400 yards from the finish in the 2003 Tour’s first stage.

Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi of the Italian Fassa Bortolo team survived the melee to win the state while the winner of Saturday’s opening prologue Brad McGee of the French Fdjeux.com squad held onto the race leader’s yellow jersey.

Petacchi held off two big names from the often dangerous world of sprinting, beating reigning green jersey champion Robbie McEwen of Lotto and Telekom’s six-time points winner Erik Zabel.

Lotto rider McEwen, who deprived Zabel of a seventh points title last year, came second behind Petacchi to take the green jersey thanks to the points he picked up by winning the first of the day’s intermediate sprints.

Zabel came third and Petacchi was one of the first to admit he’d enjoyed the experience.

Podium hopes dashed

Hamilton, of Marblehead, Mass., fractured his right collarbone and Leipheimer, of Santa Clara, Calif., cracked his hip bone in the high-speed crash. Neither is expected to start Monday’s stage second stage of the three-week, 2,000-mile race across France.

“I can take a lot of pain, but you have to draw the line somewhere,” said Hamilton, who said he wouldn’t decide until Monday morning whether he’d start. “I’m very disappointed. I’m very cautious when I speak to the press about my chances, but I felt like I could have finished in the top three.”

Hamilton and Leipheimer were former Armstrong teammates who left the U.S. Postal Service team in 2001 to become leaders on rival squads. Hamilton finished second in the 2002 Giro d’Italia while Leipheimer was third in the 2001 Tour of Spain and both started the 2003 Tour with eyes on the final top-three podium.

“Bad, real bad,” Leipheimer said before he left for the hospital. “I went down and it’s not looking good. It was just a huge pileup. Everyone was going too fast to stop or react.”

Texan continues

For Armstrong, the news wasn’t nearly as bleak. The Texan and his U.S. Postal Service teammates George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov went sprawling to the ground after a Spanish rider lost control during the frenetic charge to the finish line.

“I fell over and several other riders piled on top of me, but it wasn’t that bad,” said Armstrong, who was forced to swap bikes with teammate Jose Luis Rubiera after his crank shaft was damaged. “There were a lot of traffic circles and fans along the road, so it made it a hard day. It’s always good to get the first stage over.”

Armstrong only suffered a scrape to his left shoulder and a bruise on his left thigh and is expected to start Monday’s second stage without difficulties.

“Everything is in one piece, nothing’s broken,” said Postal’s spokesman Jogi Mueller. “This is not a big concern. We always try to stay at the front to stay out of trouble. Tomorrow is another race and that’s what we will worry about.”

“Horrendous sound’

“There was this horrendous sound, it sounded like a train wreck,” said Felix McGowan, an American watching just 50 yards from the crash. “It was the worst finish-line crash I’ve ever seen in a race.”

Sunday’s crash is another sign that Armstrong’s efforts to join the Tour’s elite five-win club won’t be as easy as many expected.

The 31-year-old Texan finished an uncharacteristic seventh in Saturday’s opening prologue, an event he’s won two out of the four years he’s won the Tour.

Armstrong needs to survive another week of hectic flat stages before the first steep mountain stages, Armstrong’s preferred terrain where he can ride alone at the front.

Second crash in a month: Lance Armstrong’s spill in Sunday’s stage is his second in a month. Armstrong rarely crashes but he suffered his first race action crash in four years when he went down during a French race in early June. Armstrong skidded out of control coming down a steep mountain road in the French Alps, but wasn’t seriously injured. Armstrong typically stays out of trouble by being near the front of the main pack of riders, the safest, but difficult place to be.

Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.

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