ARENBERG PORTE DU HAINAUT France (Reuters) - Chaos and carnage rained down on the Tour de France on Wednesday as defending champion Chris Froome crashed out of the race on stage five and Italian Vincenzo Nibali seized control.
On a miserable wet day in northern France, Froome did not even make it to the notorious cobbled sections as his second fall of the day, following another painful spill on Tuesday, led to him quitting after less than a week of his attempted defense.
The batted and bruised Briton, who fell some 70km from the finish of the 152.5-km ride from Ypres in Belgium, hobbled around in clear pain before climbing into a Team Sky car.
“Obviously it’s devastating for Chris and for the team. We knew it was going to be a tough race,” Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford told reporter.
With crash after crash decimating the peloton, Italian Nibali powered away from Spain’s Alberto Contador on the slippery cobbled sections, taking over two minutes on the Spaniard who, before the race, was regarded as the main threat to Froome’s title defense.
The Astana rider, who took third place on stage won by Dutchman Lars Boom, now leads twice former champion Contador, who is 19th overall, by 2:37.
Boom is the first Dutchman to win a Tour stage since Pieter Weening in 2005.
“It was a really stressful day and a very hard race. I wasn’t thinking of the yellow jersey,” Nibali told reporters.
“I was just focused on riding the best I could. I’m in good shape. I’ve prepared for this particular stage but the conditions today were very different from those I experienced when I came and rode on the cobbles.”
Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang guided team mate Nibali home, taking second place on the stage and is second on the overall standings, two seconds behind the Italian.
Froome had already hurt his wrist in another tumble on Tuesday and he looked edgy as the rain pelted down.
He was helped back into the peloton early in the stage after one crash which left him with some grazes but when he hit the tarmac again later it was more than his body could take.
After talking to his support crew and shaking his head, he limped to the team vehicle and climbed in.
“We really believed in Chris and his ability to win this race. But it’s not to be this year,” Brailsford said.
“It was exciting, wasn’t it? You’ve got to say that when you see the way Nibali rode, it was very impressive.
“It’s just unbelievable to ride away from (Fabian) Cancellara and (Peter) Sagan on the cobbles. We’ll remember it for a long time.”
Froome is the second high-profile casualty of the Tour so far after fellow Briton Mark Cavendish abandoned after a horror crash in Saturday’s opening stage bunch sprint in Harrogate.
As Froome departed, Nibali powered ahead.
With mud splattering his face, the Italian looked light on the cobbled sectors whereas Contador struggled but at least stayed on his bike to limit the damage.
“It was a complicated day,” Contador told reporters seconds after crossing the finish line, mud dripping from his face.
“I lost some time but the most important was to avoid crashing. We will now recuperate and look forward.”
Contador had some sympathy for Froome.
“From here I want to give support to @chrisfroome, months of work and everything gone. A big loss for the Tour,” he wrote on his Twitter page.
With Froome out the race will be harder to control as it heads towards the Vosges region, where Contador will fight tooth and nail to close the gap on Nibali.
Cannondale rider Sagan is third in the overall standings, 44 seconds behind Nibali, after the Slovakian stayed out of trouble to maintain his solid start to the race.
Among those who crashed on a hectic day were triple Paris-Roubaix champion Cancellara as well as overall contenders Tejay van Garderen (now 2:11 behind overall), Alejandro Valverde (2:11) and Jurgen van den Broeck (1:45).
American Andrew Talansky and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot also managed to stay on their bike and trail Nibali by 2:05 and 2:25 respectively.
Team Sky will now back Australian Richie Porte, who lies 1:54 off the pace in eighth place overall.
“It’s all for Richie now, surely,” said sports director Nicolas Portal.
Thursday’s sixth stage will take the battered peloton over 194-km from Arras to Reims as the Tour commemorates the centenary of the start of World War One.
Editing by Martyn Herman/Alan Baldwin