Cycling: Advantage Schleck as Contador crashes

LES HERBIERS, France, July 2, 2011 (AFP) - Alberto Contador began the defence of his Tour de France crown in disastrous fashion on Saturday, crashing on the first stage and losing over a minute to key yellow jersey rivals.

Saxo Bank ace Contador is defending his title despite risking a ban from the sport when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rules on his positive test for clenbuterol at last year's race.

And the Spaniard was reminded of the hazards of racing in the world's premier cycling event when he was caught up in a crash 9km from the end of the 191.5km stage to Mont des Alouettes.

AFP - Alberto Contador (L) rides during the 191,5 km and first stage of the 2011 Tour de France cycling race run between Fromentine La Barre-de-Monts and Monts des Alouettes in Les Herbiers, western France, on July 2, 2011.

Although apparently uninjured, Contador was left fighting with a group to limit the damage before trailing home 1min 20sec behind stage winner Philippe Gilbert of Belgium.

"In cycling today, races are won and lost in seconds," said Contador.

"So losing (around) 1min 15sec on all the favourites is a gap that will be hard to make up."

On his crash, he said: "I was very close to the front of the group but riders fell in front of me. I managed to brake in time and I got through as I could. But the (lead) group was a long way away."

Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis lamented: "It's one of these unfortunate accidents that often occur in the beginning of the Tour de France.

"Alberto is simply unlucky now to be behind some of his opponents for overall victory but the Tour has just begun and luckily, there's a long way to Paris from here."

The Spanish climbing star, fresh from victory at the Giro d'Italia, will be expected to come into his own in the mountains.

But RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel, who steered Lance Armstrong to all seven of his record wins, believes it's a significant blow that could give a psychological edge to his rivals.

"It's tough, it's a big gap (to lose) at this stage," Bruyneel said, after seeing his top riders Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer all finish with the bunch that lost only 06sec to Gilbert on the day.

"He's a fighter and mentally he's strong, but it's definitely not a good start. And if his team lose more time in the team time-trial, it's going to open the race right up.

"I don't think any of his rivals would have expected to have such an advantage on Alberto at this early stage."

In the past, the yellow jersey has been lost by as little as eight seconds -- Frenchman Laurent Fignon losing to American Greg Lemond after a final stage time-trial in 1989.

More recently, Australia's Cadel Evans lost the 2007 Tour to Contador by 23sec in 2007, while last year Andy Schleck lost the 2010 race to Contador by 39sec.

The crash that brought down Contador happened when an Astana rider clipped a roadside fan, ironically wearing a yellow jersey, bringing down a number of riders and causing the split.

The Schleck brothers and Leopard team-mates Linus Gerdemann, Fabian Cancellara, Jakob Fuglsang and Stuart O'Grady made the front group.

"When a crash happens while we are going 65 kilometres per hour, it’s impossible to see who is there or who isn't there," said Andy Schleck, who added they had no idea that Contador had been left trailing.

"We knew it was important to go full gas because there would be riders left behind. It wasn't until later that we learned Contador was in the second group."

Schleck went on to crash himself, but since his spill happened inside the final 3km, in keeping with the rules he was accorded the same time as the bunch he had been in at the time.

"Andy won some valuable time to Alberto Contador today," admitted Leopard sports director Kim Andersen.

"This is to our advantage, but we are aware it could have been one of our riders left out. This highlights the need to be attentive even in the first week of racing."

Other news