Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was the victor today as the centenary Tour de France provided another day of thrills and spills with Spain‘s much-fancied Joseba Beloki eliminated after injuring himself in a fall close to the finish.
Beloki, last year‘s runner-up and arguably the biggest danger to Tour leader Lance Armstrong, had to be taken to hospital after his freak fall a little more than four kilometres from the line.
Cradling his bloodied elbow and also apparently nursing an injured hip he wept in the arms of his team entourage as he was helped into the ambulance.
Armstrong, who had shadowed his arch-rival closely all day, narrowly avoided being caught up in the fall as 29-year-old Beloki‘s bike seemed to slip from under him after a puncture.
The American was forced into a cornfield before he cut across the hairpin turn with his bike on his shoulder and remounted to rejoin the race.
The 31-year-old Texan, bidding for a record-equalling fifth Tour win, retains the race leader‘s yellow jersey by 21 seconds from Vinokourov who came in 36 seconds ahead of his pursuers after the 184.5km ride to Gap from Bourg d‘Oisans including some more tough Alpine ascents.
Vinokourov savoured his win on the day, saying: “It was my best race and I am very pleased with this success in my fourth Tour. I did not know what was happening behind me.”
Victory was sweet for the Telekom rider whose close friend and compatriot Andrei Kivilev died after an accident during the Paris-Nice race earlier this year.
Italy‘s Paolo Bettini finished second on the day with Spain‘s Iban Mayo coming third just ahead of Armstrong, who did well to finish so high given his dramatic escape.
Mayo, who won yesterday’s eighth stage, is just one minute and two seconds behind Armstrong overall while Francisco Mancebo of Spain and American Tyler Hamilton, who continues to defy the pain caused by his injured collarbone, are both within two minutes of the front-runner after finishing in the group that followed Vinokourov home.
Jan Ullrich of Germany, the 1997 champion, recovered from his poor performance on Sunday to stay within 2:10 of the leader but the elimination of Beloki removes a further threat to Armstrong after another Spaniard Aitor Gonzalez, the 2002 Vuelta (Tour of Spain) winner withdrew yesterday.
There was no indication of the drama to come as the race wound its way down to the finish.
A breakaway group of seven riders still held a lead of 4:10 with 40km remaining.
Spain‘s Aitor Garmendia, Luis-Angel Casero and Alberto Lopez de Munain, German Jorg Jaksche, Italy‘s Danilo Di Luca and Franco Pellizotti and Colombia‘s Ivan Parra were the escapees.
The blazing sunshine and the fact that it was France‘s Bastille Day national holiday brought tens of thousands more spectators to the world‘s most-watched sports event.
But France‘s numerous competitors were unable to mount a challenge on the stage which included the famous Lautaret and Col d‘Izoard peaks.
With the centenary Tour keen to honour its history this year, Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc laid a wreath at the Col d‘Izoard to commemorate two of Le Tour‘s legends of yesteryear, the late Italian Fausto Coppi and France‘s Louison Bobet, the first man to win the race three times.
Tomorrow‘s 10th stage – a 215km run from Gap to Marseille – sees the peloton come down from the mountains although they will later in the race tackle the Pyrenees where Beloki had been hoping to count on the support of the Spanish and Basque supporters.
Now someone else must take up that baton but Armstrong, whose US Postal team were unable to stay with their leader on Monday, has plenty of other challengers breathing down his neck.