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Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Updated: July 5, 11:29 AM ET
Top cyclist Valverde out; Kessler wins 3rd stage

Associated Press

VALKENBURG, Netherlands -- Wheels touch. Bikes and riders go down. A bone breaks. Tour de France over.

So it went for Alejandro Valverde during an accident-strewn third stage Tuesday. The Spaniard, whom Lance Armstrong once said could be cycling's next big thing, fractured his right collarbone, taking yet another favorite out of the showpiece race that already lost its top contenders to a doping scandal even before it began.

On the road, there was a new overall leader, Tom Boonen, who donned the Tour's yellow jersey over the rainbow-striped world champion's shirt he already owns. Matthias Kessler of Germany won the hilly stage that covered three countries -- Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was the first stage victory in four tours for Kessler.

Boonen will wear yellow in his native Belgium on Wednesday's stage four, "something that happens maybe only once every 10 years, so I think it will be special," he said.

He holds a one-second lead over Australian Michael Rogers, the world time trial champion. American George Hincapie is third, with previous leader Thor Hushovd of Norway slipping back to fourth after he struggled on the final hill of the 134.5 miles route from Esch-sur-Alzette.

But crashes and a perennial headache for the Tour -- how to keep riders safe in a race that prides itself on enabling spectators to get up close to their sporting heroes -- were unfortunate themes of the day. Doctors were busy.

American Fred Rodriguez's Fourth of July holiday finished in a hospital emergency unit. A pothole ended his sixth Tour, one of his teammates said. Rodriguez injured his right shoulder and wrist and sustained a concussion.

Dutch rider Erik Dekker apparently hit the same hole, his Rabobank team said, catapulting him over his handlebars onto the road. He broke teeth, ripped his upper lip, had multiple deep cuts on his face and sustained a concussion. A four-time stage winner, he had been riding his 12th Tour.

"Some of the guys thought he was dead," team spokesman Jacob Bergsma said. "The tar from the road was all over his face."

Valverde will now return to Spain, where he may need surgery. He plowed into a teammate's wheel when the pack of riders slowed sharply, hitting the deck. Grimacing in pain, he was initially seen to by the doctor who rides behind the race in a car and was then taken to a hospital.

His first Tour last year finished no better: After impressing Armstrong by beating him up a climb in the Alps, Valverde was forced to drop out in tears three days later with an inflamed left knee.

Just four days into the three week-race, the Tour has become one of attrition, with five of the 20 teams missing their lead riders. T-Mobile, Kessler's squad, withdrew 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich because of allegations that he was linked to a doping ring in Spain. CSC's Ivan Basso, the Tour of Italy champion, was withdrawn for the same reason, as was Francisco Mancebo, leader of the French squad AG2R and fourth at the Tour last year.

A fever deprived Italy's Liquigas squad of Danilo Di Luca, and now Illes Balears of Spain will ride on without Valverde.

Crashes, especially in the fast and relatively flat first week, are nothing new at the 103-year-old Tour. The intense summer heat had also tired riders, making them more accident-prone. That's why Americans like Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, now both favorites in the depleted field, have kept a low profile, concentrating on staying safe for the mountains and time trials later in the three-week, 2,272-mile race that will decide the winner.

"You calculate your risks. The main thing is just to get through the day alive," said Leipheimer, whose 2003 Tour ended with a crash.

Spectators are an added danger. Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd sliced open his right arm on a cardboard hand -- a sponsor's freebie -- held out by a fan on Sunday. The hands have since been banned in the fast final sections of flat stages.

French rider Sandy Casar also got knocked down Tuesday when he bumped into a roadside spectator.

"There was this guy in a group who was dead drunk on the side of the road," said the race manager of Casar's Francaise des Jeux team, Marc Madiot. "After he got knocked down the guy started making fun of him because he had fallen.

"What can you do to control the spectators? It's impossible," Madiot added. "That's cycling -- stuff happens."

Incoming Tour director Christian Prudhomme said organizers are worried about a new crowd phenomenon: spectators holding out camera-equipped mobile telephones and digital cameras to snap riders as they flash past.

"It's a new danger that we are discovering now," Prudhomme told The Associated Press.

"But it's very complicated to keep spectators away. One of the chances that the Tour has is to be able to offer to spectators the possibility of being right next to the riders. It is a communion between the public and its champions," he said. "You can't keep them 10 [yards] away over a distance of 3,500 kilometers."