Sanchez comes through crash test

Spanish rider leads mountain breakaway while Voeckler wrests yellow jersey from Hushovd amid crashes during stage nine.

    Sanchez leads Voeckler on a breakaway through the mountains of France's Massif Central [AFP]

    Spanish rider Luis Leon Sanchez won a crash-marred ninth stage of the Tour de France after forming part of a long breakaway in the mountains.

    Frenchman Thomas Voeckler took the yellow jersey, finishing the stage in second place and to wrest the race leadership from Thor Hushovd.

    The 27-year-old Sanchez is second overall, while Australian Cadel Evans is third.

    "It was really a hard stage Today," Sanchez said through a translator. 

    "The roads were thin the whole day long."

    Veteran Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov abandoned the race after crashing near the halfway point of the 208-kilometer (129.2-mile) trek from Issoire to Saint-Flour in the Massif Central.

    Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha was hit by a car late on, and took down Dutch rider Johnny Hoogerland with him as he flew sideways off his saddle.

    Both recovered and continued the stage.

    "Even before the accident a lot of cars brushed right past us," Sanchez said.

    "I understand that guests want to have a close look at the race, but we need to get a message across to the organisers so that the drivers are more careful."

    Flecha did not speak as he boarded the team bus, but Sky team manager Dave Brailsford is considering making a formal complaint.

    "We might bring the matter forward tomorrow, but tonight we are not making comments," he said.

    Fallen champion

    Defending champion Alberto Contador fell early on, but the Spaniard was unharmed and rode on.

    The 32-year-old Voeckler once defended the yellow jersey for nine days during the 2004 Tour, but he could not match Sanchez as he turned out of a corner and accelerated in the last 300 metres.

    "These are good times. I wouldn't have bet on taking the yellow jersey today," Voeckler said.

    "Time passes and I appreciate this one even more."

    Frenchman Sandy Casar finished third, and all three had been part of a breakaway early in the stage.

    Flecha and Hoogerland had also formed part of the same early break, but their chances of a stage victory ended with about 36 kilometers to go when the car swerved into Flecha's side.

    Hushovd had worn the yellow jersey since his Garmin-Cervelo team won last Sunday's team time trial, but the burly sprinter looked tired as he rolled over the line several minutes behind Voeckler.

    This year's Tour has already seen several spectacular crashes, but none as wild as those on Sunday.

    Vinokourov, who has said he will retire from cycling at the end of the season, was caught in a heavy crash that sent him and about 30 other riders tumbling.

    Several other riders retired as well.

    Vinokourov was carried back up a small bank by an Astana teammate and staff member.

    They had rushed to his aid as he lay momentarily next to a tree, and helped him up on his feet by putting their arms around him.

    Contador, having survived that early scare, stayed bunched in with the main pack, along with other Tour contenders such as two-time runner-ups Evans and Andy Schleck.

    They all crossed the line safely, choosing not to chase Voeckler – who is not a Tour contender.

    Voeckler and Casar, both former stage winners, upped the tempo in the first big climb of the day – the 7.7-kilometer (4.8-mile) ascent up Col du Pas de Peyrol – and the small front group was more than three minutes clear when they reached the top.

    As the pack approached the second category-two climb of the day up Col du Perthus, a mass crash had stricken riders picking themselves off the ground.

    They included Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Frederik Willems, both Belgian riders on the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, and American David Zabriskie of the Garmin-Cervelo team.

    All three quit the race injured.

    At the front of the peloton, in a show of solidarity, Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara asked the pack to wait for other fallen riders – which included Garmin-Cervelo's David Millar, who struggled on.



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