PAU, France (AP) — Ahead of two grueling days filled with some truly punishing ascents, the main contenders on the Tour de France were all hoping that Wednesday would be a nice, relaxed day on the bike.
It didn’t happen.
Instead of what riders call a “transition” day, with a comfortable run to the gateway to the Pyrenees mountains, Stage 11 proved to be a brutal experience for some of the top riders after a series of crashes left them nursing cuts and bruises.
When crosswinds started making the bunch nervous toward the end of the 203.5-kilometer (126-mile) stage from Eymet to Pau, the stress became palpable and led to several crashes at the back of the peloton.
German sprinter Marcel Kittel steered clear of trouble and claimed the stage in a sprint finish, taking his tally to five stage wins since the race started.
But Frenchman Romain Bardet, who is third overall behind race leader Chris Froome, was not so fortunate. He hit the deck and slightly hurt his knee, but the AG2R La Mondiale rider was able to continue after changing bikes and did not lose any time.
“It was a nervous day and I was caught in a crash,” said Bardet, who is trying to become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault last managed the feat in 1985.
“It’s never enjoyable to fall. I just have to soak it up and to wait for better days.”
Two-time champion Alberto Contador went down twice, while second-place Fabio Aru lost one of his Astana teammates when Dario Cataldo was forced to retire with a broken wrist after a crash in the feed zone midway through the stage.
Fifth-place Jakob Fuglsang, another Astana rider expected to play a key role alongside Aru in the mountains, was caught in the same crash.
Though he was able to reach the finish, Astana later said in a statement that Fuglsang had suffered two minor fractures in his left wrist and left elbow. However, they will not prevent him from starting Thursday’s stage.
“It was a nervous day,” Froome said of the crashes. “Everything was good on our side.”
Froome kept his overall lead intact ahead of the…