Chateaurox: No American will stand on the winner`s podium when the Tour de France ends July 24th in Paris.
That much is clear after a disastrous end to the first week of racing left the United States` two brightest hopes for a high finish in the overall standings in tatters and one American team`s coach ruing this as his worst Tour ever as a team manager.
The 98th running of the world`s greatest cycling race enters its mountainous second week with the top placed American Tom Danielson, a 34-year-old from Colorado riding in his first ever Tour, in 25th place, almost 2 minutes behind the leader even before the real hostilities begin.
The 10-man U.S. contingent, the most American riders in 25 years, was cut to nine Saturday when RadioShack rider Chris Horner dropped out after a crash on Friday, while main U.S. hopeful Levi Leipheimer went down in the same crash and lost over three minutes on the stage.
Johan Bruyneel, the man who led Lance Armstrong to seven victories in the Grande Boucle, said he is "definitely" living through his worst Tour as a team manager.
"It`s unbelievable," Bruyneel said. "At one point everything looked fine, and a little bit after you lose all your guys."
When a dazed Horner crossed the line, the American hardly knew what town he was in. The 39-year-old Horner, from Bend, Ore., broke his nose, sustained a concussion and also hurt his right calf muscle.
Before the race started, Bruyneel was hoping that having four leaders — Janez Brajkovic, Leipheimer, Horner and Germany`s Andreas Kloeden — would be a huge asset in the team`s attempt to knock defending champion Alberto Contador off his perch.
Now RadioShack`s American leaders are out of contention. Slovenian Brajkovic had already crashed out earlier in the week, leaving German Kloeden as RadioShack`s best hope, sitting in fifth place overall — 10 seconds off the pace.
The sorry showing by U.S. riders is a disappointing reality check that despite the record-tying number of riders and even an American stage victory on the Fourth of July, this year`s 25th anniversary of Greg Lemond`s first Tour de France win in 1986 will not be celebrated with a new American victory.
The hills Saturday in the eighth stage are far less daunting than later climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps, and were a welcome sight after seven days of hectic racing on narrow, sinewy roads — sometimes under torrential rain.
"It will be a relief after several nervous and dangerous stages," said Andy Schleck, who ended the first week 12 seconds behind leader Thor Hushovd, but with a 1:42 lead over Contador.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish won the seventh stage Friday in the same town — Chateauroux — where he won his first in 2008.
Evans remained in second place, just a second behind Hushovd, while Andy`s older brother, Frank Schleck, was third — 4 seconds back.
Bigger gaps might start to appear by Saturday evening after the first of two consecutive medium mountain stages — although Contador and Schleck might not attack each other head on just yet.
The eighth stage up to the Super-Besse ski resort is the first of two medium mountain stages in the Massif Central that gives Contador, Schleck and Evans a chance to distance other lesser climbers.
British riders also sustained losses Friday.
British champion Bradley Wiggins left the stage in an ambulance after a crash left him nursing a broken collarbone, dashing for another year Britain`s hope of finally reaching the Tour de France`s victor`s podium, something none of the 62 British riders who`ve entered the race since 1937 has been able to achieve.
"Really bad day for the team because I was really looking forward to riding for him in the mountains," Sky teammate Geraint Thomas said. "We were lucky until now."
Thomas, another British rider who started the day in the top 10 overall and wearing the white jersey of best young rider, lost over 3 minutes Friday and slid into 38th place.