THE Tour de France came within a whisker of being plunged into chaos yesterday after tacks strewn at the summit of the descent of a major Pyrenean climb caused dozens of riders to puncture tyres and at least one to crash.
Bradley Wiggins was forced to change bikes after a mechanical incident but otherwise came through unscathed, but others, around 30 of the 162 taking part, were far less lucky and punctured. Croatian Robert Kiserlovski was the most unfortunate - he skidded off the road and broke his collarbone, while 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans punctured three times in less than a kilometre.
"We think the tacks were thrown on the last part of the climb and on the first part of the descent," said the Tour's technical director, Jean FranAois Pescheux, who showed one of the offending tacks to reporters afterwards.
Asked if he had thought of suspending the race, Pescheux said: "It was in a really difficult position, we had 50 riders off the front and a breakaway ahead of them, it was going fast and we couldn't really do anything. On top of that the roads to the top of the climb [the Mur de PEguEre, the last in the day's stage that directly preceded a 38km plunge down to the finish in Foix] were really narrow and it was difficult for the team cars to get through."
The Tour de France organisation later announced it had asked the French police to open an investigation and would be placing charges against the anonymous assailants. "We deplore such irresponsible acts that constitute an assault on the riders' physical integrity," it said.
With race officials unwilling to take action at the time, the riders themselves opted to ease back. Wiggins has said he does not wish to become the peloton's patron, but he behaved exactly as one would have, all but ordering the bunch to slow down while they waited for Evans.
The Briton then had an unrelated mechanical incident himself, but with a quick bike change it was all resolved. Evans, though, had not been so lucky. In an almost farcical scene, the Australian's first wheel change came at the summit of the PEguEre, but then after waiting for nearly two minutes - and one team-mate riding straight past him, with Evans clapping ironically as he did so - finally another BMC rider stopped and Evans could carry on.
Evans' woes continued as he punctured for a second time, with his sports director falling into a ditch as he lost his balance after changing the Australian's wheel, and then on a third occasion, by which time he had lost two minutes.
Wiggins then passed the word that the racing should be neutralised and they should wait for the Australian, surrounded by his BMC team-mates as they flung themselves into a break-neck pursuit, to catch up with the pack.
"It became very apparent very quickly that something was up, when one or two guys crash it's normal, but when 15 or 16 guys puncture it's clear that something's wrong, I knew straightaway that something had happened," Wiggins said afterwards.
After criticising the French rider who attacked while the peloton was all but freewheeling - "It didn't seem correct to benefit from people's misfortune, he attacked once, we came back up to him and then he did it again, but the race was over and the stage win had gone" - Wiggins said the assault highlighted the riders' extreme exposure to assaults of this kind.
"What can you do? It's nothing that we can control, we're there to be shot at, literally. If that happened in football in a stadium you'd have CCTV, but we're extremely vulnerable. Hopefully it won't happen again, but there's nothing we can do. We just have to get on with it, don't we?"
The stage win itself - a fourth for Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez in the Tour, but his country's first in the race this year - was all but overshadowed. Part of a day-long breakaway of 10 including green jersey holder Peter Sagan, Sanchez then powered off with 10km to go.
Today's flat stage to Pau, sandwiched between the Tour's first assault on the Pyrenees and a rest day tomorrow, could see Mark Cavendish claim his 22nd stage win, equalling the Tour's all-time great AndrE Darrigade. Cavendish showed yesterday his climbing ability has improved enormously as he led the pack up the lower slopes of the PEguEre, but today it will be his sprinting talent that counts.