MEAUX, France - The initial, flat stages of the Tour de France may look easy compared to the mountains, but champions like Lance Armstrong know this is where disaster often lurks.
Everyone has fresh legs. The sprint specialists have only a few days to make their mark. Anxious riders knock around like unbroken colts in the bunch as they sprint at the end of the course. When they tangle, a chain-reaction crash can ensue.
Armstrong, figuring most of the mistakes will be made toward the back of the pack, tries to stay near the front, flanked by a couple of teammates. But yesterday, that strategy backfired when he and several other top riders got caught in a massive pileup in the last half-mile of Stage 1, won by Italian Alessandro Petacchi.
The four-time defending Tour champion escaped with only a couple of dings, but the centennial race lost some fizz on its second day as the crash's casualties included two top U.S. riders expected to challenge Armstrong.
Tyler Hamilton of the Denmark-based CSC team exited with a fractured collarbone. Levi Leipheimer, leader of the Dutch Rabobank team, was forced to quit with a broken hipbone.
Both are ex-teammates of Armstrong's with excellent climbing and time-trial ability, and both had demonstrated their staying power by reaching the podium in three-week races: Hamilton was the runner-up in last year's Tour of Italy, and Leipheimer placed third in the 2001 Tour of Spain. Both were considered potential obstacles to Armstrong's record-tying fifth straight Tour victory.
"It's never good to crash, but it wasn't that bad," Armstrong said after crossing the finish line on teammate Jose Luis Rubiera's bike because his own had a flat rear tire. Rubiera, as a support rider is supposed to do, gave Armstrong his bike and waited for a team staff member to get him a replacement.
"I just fell over and got piled on top of," Armstrong said. "In the cities, there are a lot of spectators and traffic islands and it makes for a hard day. But it's always good to get the first one over with."
Another of Armstrong's expected rivals, Saeco's Gilberto Simoni, bruised his right side.
Replays showed Spain's Jose Enrique Gutierrez of the Kelme team lost his balance careening around a left-hand turn after another rider apparently crowded him. Gutierrez, on the outer edge of the pack, tipped toward the middle of the course, starting a domino-effect crash that eventually brought down 35 riders. Bodies lay splayed like broken action figures on a downtown street in this city east of Paris.
"We were all going too fast to stop or react," said a grim-faced Leipheimer as he waited to be taken for X-rays.
Hamilton and his team director, 1996 Tour champion Bjarne Riis, had harsh words for the course layout, which included an "S" curve in the final stretch when the road narrowed and riders would be expected to go full throttle.
"You couldn't tell what it looked like on paper," Hamilton said, adding, "It's a good thing I was wearing my helmet."
Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.