Quimper, France Now for some well earned rest and relaxation, Tour de France style.
Battered and bruised physically and mentally by a crash-filled first week, cyclists get their first day of rest today -- a chance to treat wounds, sleep in and steel themselves for the first mountainous stages ahead.
"It's been a crazy first week. I don't ever remember doing one like that," said five-time champion Lance Armstrong, who is nervous that a crash could end his bid for a record sixth crown.
Norway's Thor Hushovd won Sunday's hilly but fast stage through Brittany in western France, using a closing burst of speed to claim the 104-mile stage from Lamballe to Quimper in 3 hours, 54 minutes, 22 seconds. Armstrong remained in sixth place overall, 9 minutes and 35 seconds behind leader Thomas Voeckler.
After today's day off, the Tour swings for three days through the Massif Central, a mountainous, agricultural plateau of central France that will offer a foretaste of more brutal climbs that lurk further south in the Pyrenees and then, in the final week, in the Alps. There, muscular sprinters will give way in the mountains to more nimble climbers and all-arounders like Armstrong.
"We'll start to see the start of the real race," Armstrong said Sunday evening before boarding a flight that took riders south to the Massif Central. "There are a few days that are not so selective, but then we have the mountains and the start of the real Tour."
More than half of the 188 riders who started the Tour have been involved in crashes in the nervous and mostly flat first week that took the Tour through Belgium, into northern France and, Sunday, to the Brittany town of Quimper, near the Atlantic coast.
A dog scampering into the pack of riders near the end of Sunday's stage took down French rider Samuel Dumoulin, who finished nearly 11 minutes behind Hushovd.
Armstrong escaped serious injury in a fall Friday, and Hamilton is still sore from a spill.
The crashes are largely due to rain that has doused the race and slickened roads, early nerves and the high speeds of the first week, where stages have ended with mass sprints.
Teams looking to shepherd their leaders toward the front of the pack, out of trouble, fueled jitters by boxing for position.
"Every time I do the Tour, we talk about it being the craziest one to date. But this year has definitely been tough with the weather and all of the crashes," said American Bobby Julich, racing in his seventh Tour. "Once we get into the mountains, it's really nice ... There's a lot less stress."
American Tyler Hamilton is 36 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall standings, and rival Jan Ullrich is 55 seconds behind the 32-year-old Texan.
"I had trouble because it was slippery and dangerous," said Ullrich, the 1997 champion and five-time runner-up.
Voeckler may be able to hang on to the overall leader's yellow jersey into the Pyrenees, before Armstrong and other top challengers look to take it from his 25-year-old shoulders.