ARENBERG, France — An injured wrist was just too much for Tour de France champion Chris Froome, in one of the most memorable and crash-marred stages in recent race history.
The Kenyan-born Briton ended his repeat bid Wednesday, dropping out of cycling’s big event and dropping a bombshell on his competitors after crashing twice in a rain-, mud-, sweat- and blood-soaked fifth stage for the pack through nerve-wracking cobblestones along France’s border with Belgium.
The 29-year-old Team Sky leader, already nursing pain in his left wrist a day earlier, first scuffed up his right hip, tearing his uniform, then scraped his face. Both falls happened even before he got to the start of 8 miles over joint-jangling cobblestones.
He was the best-known of several big-name riders who crashed Wednesday. They found out months ago, when the course was announced, what they would face on the roads from Ypres, Belgium to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut. It’s the same big bumps known to racers of the celebrated Paris-Roubaix one-day race.
What they couldn’t foresee was the rain, which slickened roads and unsettled many rider nerves — and psychology was crucial to surviving the stage. Before Froome crashed, Sky sporting director Nicolas Portal said it best: “His wrist hurts a bit, but it’ll be a question of mental as well today,” according to the Tour’s Web site.
Before the stage, Froome had said that the biggest concern about the cobblestones was not riding over them, but the nervousness of the peloton as riders jockey to get up front, which is considered the safest place to be.
Froome didn’t speak to reporters after his second spill on the day at around the halfway mark. Wincing and limping, he shook his head at a Team Sky staffer, walked over to a team car, and climbed in. The team said later that he was already on his way home.
On Twitter, he wrote that he was “devastated” to withdraw: “Injured wrist and tough conditions made controlling my bike near to impossible.” Froome wished luck to new Sky leader Richie Porte of Australia and his other teammates for the rest of the race.
Sensing the danger from the rain, race organizers scrapped two of the nine scheduled cobblestone patches, and reduced the stage by two miles. But that still wasn’t enough to stop many riders from tumbling.
“It’s devastating for Chris and for the team,” Sky boss Dave Brailsford said. “We really believed in Chris and his ability to win this race. But it’s not to be this year.”
The last time a defending champion abandoned the Tour was five-time winner Bernard Hinault of France in 1980, according to French cycling statistics provider Velobs.com.
The withdrawal of the pre-race favorite left the Tour wide open with 16 stages still left.
Overall leader Vincenzo Nibali of Italy wasted little time in speeding ahead, notably after he saw that his other big rival for the title this year — two-time champion Alberto Contador — had trouble on the second run on cobbles.
Nibali, too, was one of several high-profile riders who crashed, recovered and excelled on the 95-mile route. The Italian finished third and extended his lead. He and second-place Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark were 19 seconds behind stage winner Lars Boom of the Netherlands.
“This is a special, special day for me,” said Boom, who rides for Belkin Pro Cycling. “I was really looking forward to the cobblestones.”
Overall, Nibali leads Astana teammate Fuglsang by 2 seconds. Cannondale rider Peter Sagan of Slovakia was third, 44 seconds back. Contador, breathing hard under a mask of mud at the finish, lost about 2 1/2 minutes to Nibali: He’s 2:37 back, in 19th place. Sky’s Porte was eighth overall, 1:54 back, and Valverde was 10th, 2:11 behind.
Nibali expressed little reaction to Froome’s pullout.
“We have to be calm. The road to Paris is very long,” he said. “Cycling is made of crashes, and we have to take that into account.”
Contador expressed a bit more concern.
“Froome was the favorite for victory in the Tour de France and now he’s out of the race,” the Spaniard said. “I feel sorry for him and I feel sorry for the Tour, because he would have been amazing in the mountains.”
Tour director Christian Prudhomme, referring to Froome, said that he felt “disappointment, of course — first of all for him. It’s always peculiar: There are years you’re on, and years you’re not ... on the other hand, he’ll be back.”
Others who went down but kept going included Americans Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Germany’s Marcel Kittel, winner of three of the first four stages. In what was perhaps the day’s most visually dramatic crash, Belgium’s Jurgen van den Broeck hurtled over his handlebars in a bend on a cobblestone patch, and tumbled into a grassy roadside.
Van den Broeck said later he was unhurt, and just got some dirt in his eyes.
In his crash, Valverde said he’d gotten bumped from the side, his gears broke, and he hit the tarmac. Then Movistar teammate Jose Joaquin Rojas gave his bike to Valverde, who rode to the finish on a smaller seat position.
“It was really impossible to switch bikes before the finish, because it was ‘full gas’,” Valverde said.
While the chaos on the course raised questions about riding in such poor conditions — critics in social media had a field day — it made for great racing imagery: Many riders were caked in sloppy, wet mud on their faces and shins, their biceps jiggling as they held their handlebars. A mix of sweat, rain, mud and drool dropped from many chins. Many looked as if they’d ridden through a shower of chocolate pudding.
Prudhomme shot back at critics: “It’s true that this morning, we were stressed. But the cyclists who complain today in several days are going to be really proud that people say, ‘you cyclists are heroes’ ... and in the long winter evening, they (the riders) will say: ‘I was there.’”
The race heads to Champagne country on Thursday, with a mostly flat 120-mile run from Arras to Reims in Stage 6.