CAP FREHEL, France (AP) — Believe it or not, Alberto Contador is a lucky man.
The assertion sure sounds paradoxical after the three-time champion hit the road Wednesday during the fifth stage of the Tour de France.
But the Spaniard was fortunate enough to escape with bruises while RadioShack team leader Janez Brajkovic, one of Contador’s main rivals, had to withdraw because of fractured collarbone and a concussion.
Yes, Contador is struggling. However, luck might be on his side because his early problems could have been worse. Much worse.
He started the defense of his title by losing more than an minute after he was slowed down by a massive pileup during the first stage. But he didn’t crash.
He then limited his losses to a fistful of seconds in the team time trial while his Saxo Bank team was expected to suffer more in the very technical discipline.
All in all, Contador stands 39th in the overall standings, 1 minute and 42 seconds behind race leader Thor Hushovd, and trails his biggest rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, by 1:30.
Contador, the best climber in the world, has already shown his true face in Stage 4 when he dropped Schleck on a steep and short climb. And Contador’s expected to be even stronger in high mountains during the last two weeks of the race when the bunch will cross the Pyrenees and the Alps.
“I’m very happy because I went through this day without any serious problems,” Contador said after the 102.2-mile trek from Carhaix to Cap Frehel won by ace sprinter Mark Cavendish.
On narrow roads battered by the wind, Contador fell after 44½ miles when his chain came off. He was able to return to the race after getting a new bike and quickly went back to the front of the pack with the help of his devoted teammates.
“It was difficult today, very tense. A lot of people crashed. I was halted by a fall in a village and five kilometers later, my chain came off,” said Contador, who tested positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol during last year’s race. He could be stripped of all his titles back to last July if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month.
“What matters is that I managed to get back up,” he added. “Yes, it’ll be a bad night, of course, but you have to think about tomorrow.”
Contador scraped his right shoulder, elbow, and knee.
Brajkovic wasn’t as lucky. After touching wheels with another rider, the promising rider fell heavily on the pavement and briefly lost consciousness before he was evacuated to a hospital in the town of Guingamp. He was diagnosed with a broken left collarbone and a mild concussion, but a head scan showed no serious injuries.
“I don’t remember anything of the crash,” he said. “I remember the moment I was about to crash and then the next thing I remember was our team doctor asking me if I thought I can continue. But I wasn’t aware of where I was and which race I was in.”
The Slovenian, who won the Criterium du Dauphine race last year ahead of Contador, was one of the four RadioShack leaders with Levi Leipheimer, Christopher Horner and Andreas Kloeden.
Leipheimer and another RadioShack rider, Yaroslav Popovych, also crashed and injured their wrists. Both men are expected to start Thursday in the sixth stage, the longest this year at 140.1 miles, between Dinan and Lisieux.
Cavendish collected his 16th career Tour stage victory and his first this year by speeding past Philippe Gilbert of Belgium — who finished second — and Jose Joaquin Rojas in third.
“I am really happy. It was a difficult finish,” said Cavendish, who rides with the HTC-Highroad team. “I put every thing into it … If we win, it’s not because we’re lucky, it’s because we’re good.”
The British rider, known almost as much for his powerful legs as his sharp tongue, took aim at unidentified critics who he said expressed doubts about his abilities.
“It’s always sweet to silence the ignoramuses,” he said.
But Gilbert succeeded in making him work hard in the sprint.
“Normally, I try to win by a little-ish margin, just to try and save energy,” Cavendish said. “Today, I had to give everything I had. He’s taken a lot out of me, so I’ll take a couple of days to recover.”
The top standings didn’t change because the vast majority of riders crossed in a pack right behind the sprinters. Hushovd kept his one-second lead over Cadel Evans of Australia in second. Andy Schleck’s brother, Frank, was third overall, 4 seconds back.
Knowing the stage was going to be a nervous one, as often during the first week of the Tour, Schleck’s manager at Leopard-Trek team, Brian Nygaard, had asked his riders to spend the day at the front of the pack, which they did.
“By the end of the day, nearly every team had a rider involved in a crash today,” said Andy Schleck, the Tour runner-up behind Contador the past two years. “In our case, that was Maxime Monfort, who crashed halfway in the race. But he is not badly hurt. Other teams were not as lucky.”
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten and AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.