THIEZAC, France — Defending champion Alberto Contador and main rival Andy Schleck have yet to properly test each other in this year's Tour de France – they have been too busy avoiding serious injury in nine days of manic racing, which came to a temporary halt with Monday's rest day.
Although Contador has already crashed twice, the Spaniard was somewhat lucky to escape with just a bruised right knee, given that several other riders had to drop out with more serious injuries. They include Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov (broken thighbone) and Britain's Bradley Wiggins (broken collarbone).
Also, Alexandr Kolobnev of Russia became the first cyclist at this year's Tour de France to fail a doping test, the International Cycling Union said. Kolobnev was in 69th place heading into Tuesday's 10th stage, but his Katusha team issued a statement saying he is out of the Tour after deciding to "suspend himself according to UCI rules."
The UCI said a urine sample collected from Kolobnev last Wednesday tested positive for a substance called Hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic that can also be used as a masking agent hiding the presence of other drugs. It came on the Tour's fifth stage – a flat sprint from Carhaix to Cap Frehel.
Schleck, the Tour runner-up to Contador the past two years, is grateful to have enjoyed more luck than his rivals in avoiding injury.
Contador crashed early in Sunday's ninth stage – in which Vinokourov was later hurt – and banged the same knee he hurt falling in Stage 5.
Vinokourov's Astana team said on Monday he had surgery for his injury on Sunday night in Paris.
"It's sad to see to what degree luck has influenced the course of the race," Schleck said Monday. "You can avoid crashes to a certain extent, by staying at the front of the bunch and being very aware of possible dangers."
But no race strategy could account for the fact a Tour car knocked Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha into Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland on Sunday.
"I was bleeding everywhere," Flecha said Monday. "I saw Johnny laying there, and I said 'Wow.'"
Said Schleck: "It's really out of your hands. We feel very fortunate that none of our team members was involved in a big crash."
With Contador's sore knee still bothering him, Schleck will gauge the three-time champion's true fitness in the Pyrenees climbs starting Thursday. Schleck is in the driver's seat as Contador needs to make up time, a role reversal from last year when Contador beat Schleck by 39 seconds to win his third Tour.
Contador lost valuable time on the first day this year, when he was stuck behind a crash that split the peloton while Schleck stayed ahead of it.
Like the toss of a coin, Schleck got the good call that day. He is 1 minute, 30 seconds ahead of Contador in the overall standings, and 11 seconds behind two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia, the other main contender.
"So far, so good. The team has been great, keeping me out of trouble, and if it could continue like this I would be very, very happy," Evans said.
After Monday's rest day, there are two flat stages for sprinters before riders enter the Pyrenees in Stage 12, with its colossal climb up Col du Tourmalet – one of the Tour's most famed and feared ascents.
That stage is so demanding it could decimate the field.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler leads the race after taking the yellow jersey from Thor Hushovd, while Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez, who won Stage 9, is second overall. But neither is a Tour contender and both should soon wilt.
Thursday's stage from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden lasts 131.1 miles and ends with a mammoth climb up Luz-Ardiden.
Like the Tourmalet, Luz-Ardiden is so tough it is known as an HC – or "Hors Categorie" – climb, meaning it is even harder than a category 1 climb and is therefore beyond classification.
The pain does not stop there.
Friday's 13th stage from Pau to Lourdes features an HC trek up Col d'Aubisque, followed by a hair-raising 24.8-mile descent to the line.
Saturday's 14th stage starts from Saint-Gaudens and is harder than the previous two – an intense day featuring two nasty category 1 ascents up Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes, and finishing with a long HC climb up to Plateau de Beille.
Associated Press writer Greg Keller contributed to this report.
Jerome Pugmire can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire