Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland were today wiped out by a television vehicle as an incident-packed Tour de France suffered further casualties in the Massif Central.
Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) won the 208-kilometre ninth stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour, with Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) five seconds behind in second - assuming the yellow jersey from Thor Hushovd in the process – and Sandy Casar (FDJ) third, 13 seconds adrift.
But the main talking points were the overtaking France 2 car which careered into Flecha and Hoogerland – two of the five breakaway riders – with 35km remaining and an earlier crash which saw four riders abandon ahead of tomorrow’s first rest day.
The route across the extinct volcanoes of the Massif Central included eight categorised climbs.
The undulating terrain and damp conditions made the roads treacherous and further crashes followed on an already incident-packed Tour.
After 102km of today’s stage a crash occurred on a downhill section involving numerous riders and the consequences will be felt after today.
Jurgen van den Broeck, Frederik Willems (both Omega Pharma-Lotto) and David Zabriskie (Garmin-Cervelo) hit the road hard and were later forced to abandon, following Astana leader Alexandre Vinokourov out of the race and to hospital in Aurillac.
Vinokourov was reported to have suffered a fractured femur (thigh bone) in his fall, Zabriskie suffered a fractured wrist, Van den Broeck a fractured shoulder blade and Willems a broken collarbone.
Perhaps in trying to avoid the mayhem, Vinokourov, who was banned for blood doping in 2007, overshot a corner and ended up flying into some trees.
The controversial Kazakh had to be helped up the slope back to the road side by two team-mates and the race medic, but appeared struggling to find his feet and abandoned.
Vinokourov was riding in what he said would be his final Tour and his career may now have come to a premature end.
With Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Van den Broeck, Chris Horner, Janez Brajkovic (both RadioShack), Vinokourov, Zabriskie and Tom Boonen (QuickStep) among those to have already withdrawn, the race was without numerous star names.
Flecha and Hoogerland could have followed them after a dangerous overtaking manoeuvre by a French television car on a narrow stretch of road.
While apparently trying to avoid a tree, the car clipped Flecha, who slammed to the tarmac, taking escape companion Hoogerland with him.
The Spaniard and the Dutchman were miraculously soon back on their bikes, both nursing ripped jerseys following an incident which had echoes of the moment on Wednesday’s fifth stage when a photographer’s motorbike clipped Danish rider Nicki Sorensen.
Flecha was in a six-man breakaway which escaped inside the first hour.
He was joined by Sanchez, Niki Terpstra (QuickStep), Casar, Voeckler and Hoogerland in the front group.
Early in the day, David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo) was involved in a four-rider crash, but recovered quickly, only for further chaos to follow.
Defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) was later also unseated, but was able to rejoin the peloton, before a major collision on the descent of the category two Col du Pas de Peyrol, 102km from the finish.
Millar was among those involved, as was Andreas Kloden (RadioShack), but while the duo returned to their bikes, four others did not.
Vinokourov appeared groggy after being thrown off the tree-lined descent and was helped back up to the road side by two Astana team-mates and a race medic before being taken to an awaiting ambulance.
Zabriskie and Van den Broeck also appeared groggy after being involved in the chaos along with Willems, the trio following Vinokourov out of the race.
Race leader Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) led calls for the peloton to slow the charge to allow the riders caught up in the crash to return to the main group.
Meanwhile, the five-man breakaway, having dropped Terpstra, increased their advantage to more than seven minutes with 92km remaining.
Voeckler, pushing the breakaway on, was the virtual race leader on the road after forging forward oblivious to the carnage behind him.
However, six categorised climbs remained and the peloton began to trim their deficit.
The breakaway was moving along serenely until the television car’s mad manoeuvre which saw Flecha knocked over and take Hoogerland with him.
The duo recovered to return to their bikes, but were soon passed by the peloton.
Garmin-Cervelo, attempting to preserve Hushovd’s lead, controlled the pursuit, but the three front riders were untroubled in the finale.
Sanchez’s sprint proved too much for Casar and Voeckler, who had to be content with taking the yellow jersey after beginning the day 1:29 behind Hushovd.