PONTIVY, France (AP) — Early days in the Tour de France are always full of nervousness and crashes. What makes the latest a little different is that after just three days of frenetic racing two top contenders have already taken a hit.
Last-year’s runner-up, Primoz Roglic, tumbled in a crash on Monday in Stage 3 in the western Brittany region, a few hours after 2018 champion Geraint Thomas also hit the ground. Defending champion Tadej Pogacar was lucky enough to stay on his bike but was slowed in another pileup.
Tim Merlier of Belgium escaped the chaos and powered to his maiden stage victory. Merlier, who is not among the favorites in the general classification, won ahead of his Alpecin-Fenix teammate Jasper Philipsen and French rider Nacer Bouhanni.
The final sprint was disrupted by another crash when Caleb Ewan’s front wheel slid from under him on the final turn. He brought down Peter Sagan with him. Ewan, who won two stages last year, broke his right collarbone and abandoned the three-week race.
Saturday’s opening stage was marred by two big pileups — one caused by a spectator — and the latest brutal scenes prompted veteran sports director Marc Madiot from Groupama FDJ team to lash out over the lack of safety on the road.
“Tonight, I don’t want to see my son become a professional rider,” Madiot said at the finish in the town of Pontivy.
“My wife does not want to see my son on a bike. It’s been years that we are talking about (safety), we need to find solutions. It’s not bike racing anymore. One day there will be dead people.”
Race leader Mathieu van der Poel rode safely at the front throughout the day and escaped unscathed to keep the yellow jersey he earned on Sunday with a blazing attack.
The narrow roads in the stage finale took a toll on many competitors who crashed as the peloton rode at full speed. Roglic, went down about nine kilometers from the end.
He quickly got back on his bike but lost ground to his main rivals as his Jumbo-Visma teammates tried to pace him back to the peloton. Roglic lost 1 minute, 21 seconds and dropped to 20th overall, 1:35 off the pace.
With two time trial stages still to come and many stages in high mountains, it’s way too early to say his bid is over for a maiden Tour win. But it remains to be seen how quick he will recover, with the first race against the clock coming as soon as Wednesday.
“Luckily, everything is still in one piece, nothing is broken,” Roglic said.
He took another blow with the abandonment of experienced teammate Robert Gesink, who crashed out early in the stage.
“Not the best day for us, but we continue,” he said.
Defending champion Tadej Pogacar was slowed a few kilometers further down the road following another high-speed pileup.
“It was not a nice day out there,” Pogacar said. “We saw too many crashes again and it was really hectic. I heard some of my rivals crashed and lost time, but it’s not what we want to see. These first days have been really stressful and we hope it calms down soon.”
Pogacar crossed 26 seconds behind the stage winner in a group also including Thomas, who tumbled early in the stage but managed to keep on racing and was paced back to the peloton.
The Ineos-Grenadiers leader fell with about 145 kilometers left. The 2018 champion sat on the road for a while clutching his right shoulder and grimacing in pain as he was tended to by the race doctor.
His dislocated shoulder fixed and his racing kit ripped apart, Thomas struggled at the back. Teammate Luke Rowe waited for him and the Welsh pair lagged 2 1/2 minutes behind the main pack. With the help of more teammates they eventually caught the peloton after Thomas changed his bike.
Van der Poel has an eight-second overall lead over world champion Julian Alaphilippe. Thomas’ teammate, Richard Carapaz, was in third place, 31 seconds back, with Pogacar sixth overall, 39 seconds off the pace.
Thomas sat 18th in the general classification, 1:07 behind Van der Poel.