METZ, France -- There are always crashes in the first week of the Tour de France, but this year seemed a little more forgiving.
Going into Friday's stage, most of the major GC riders had avoided a disastrous crash, accident or mishap that would torpedo his yellow jersey dreams.
Just as the Tour was poised to shift gears with a tidy little sprint into Metz before turning into the first climbing stages of the 99th edition, disaster struck just 25km from the finish line.
No one quite knows who caused it, but the reasons were the same and the aftermath cruel.
"Someone doesn't know how to ride their bike!" cursed Valverde, who had cuts and scrapes to his left side. "Someone fell in front of me and then people plowed into my back and I got knocked off my bike. Today was not a day to lose time."
That was the verdict among a party of GC candidates that ceded valuable time Friday, all but sinking their maillot jaune ambitions even before the Tour enters the decisive stages.
Joining Valverde with GC hopes in the ICU were Frank Schleck (RadioShack), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp). Outsiders Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Jean-Cristophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) were licking wounds as well, while Tom Danielson (Garmin) abandoned.
None of those were five-star favorites for victory, but the benign brutality of the crash confirmed the old idiom that the Tour can be lost in an instant.
"Some of those guys lost a couple of minutes and that's not where you want to be," said Sky manager David Brailsford. "When you see those guys behind you, losing time, you realize the importance of spending that little bit extra more of energy to be at the front."
While the likes of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Denis Menchov (Katusha) dodged the bullet, others were not so lucky.
Garmin-Sharp was among the worse of the bunch, seeing eight of its nine riders crashing, including Giro d'Italia champion Hesjedal, who lost more than 13 minutes.
Johan Van Summeren was knocked unconscious in the crash and finished last, at 16:12 back.
"One second I was on my bike and the next, I was sliding, sliding, sliding across the road. There were bikes and bodies all over me," Van Summeren said. "It was awful. I am really cut up. I hope to start tomorrow."
About 75 riders made it through with the lead group. Behind that, riders were picking up the pieces to try to salvage their Tours.
Teams will have to reassess their GC ambitions and, in some instances, ditch them altogether.
Some saw their GC hopes erased, meaning that there will be less riders trying to crowd onto the final podium in Paris.
Here's a run-down of the major GC victims:
Rabobank: All three of the Dutch outfit's GC options lost time. Amgen Tour of California champion Robert Gesink crashed early in the stage at 35km, but was not seriously affected. He went down again in the pileup and then couldn't hold pace with the main chase group, losing 3:31 to drop to 51st at 4:13 back.
"Greipel took my wheel out when he slipped on wet roads in roundabout, but that was not a big deal," Gesink said. "In the second crash, someone crashed in front of me and I couldn't do anything but go over the handlebars. My bike was broken and I waited a long time for a new bike, and finally used the bike of (Luis Leon Sanchez). I am not hurt. What hurts is the time I lost."
Stephen Kruijswijk stayed with Gesink to finish on the same time while Bauke Mollema finished in the group at 2:09 back.
RadioShack: Frank Schleck stood impatiently at the side of the pile-up waiting for a new bike, knowing his GC chances were disappearing up the road with the chasing peloton that included teammates Andreas Kloden, Haimar Zubeldia and Chris Horner, none of whom lose time. Schleck lost 2:09.
"Now that I have lost time, it changes things," said last year's third-place man. "I wasn't one of the top favorites to win, but this is untimely. We'll see with the team if we change my strategy."
Lampre: Michele Scarponi also crossed the line in shock and disbelief that he had lost 2:09 with the lead chasing group. The 2011 Giro d'Italia champion was knocked off his bike in the melée.
"Losing two minutes in a sprint stage is certainly not what I had planned today," Scarponi said at the line. "In an instant, suddenly everyone was on the ground. There was nothing especially interesting about the road. It was straight, slightly downhill. We were going fast and then -- boom! -- I am tangled up with someone on top of me."
Movistar: Alejandro Valverde was livid at the line after finishing with the big chase group at 2:09 back. Valverde, who is racing his first grand tour since 2009, wasn't the only Movistar rider to crash. In fact, all nine members of the team fell, including 2011 Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo and Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa, who landed hard on his back. Their teammate Imanol Erviti abandoned with what the team called a "deep wound in his right leg with loss of muscular mass that will require surgery -- probably." Ivan Gutierrez is also likely to withdraw before Saturday's stage, leaving Movistar with six riders in the race.
Garmin: Among the worst off of the peloton, Garmin-Sharp lost Tom Danielson, who abandoned, and saw Giro champ Ryder Hesjedal lose 13:24. It's unsure if Hesjedal will be able to start tomorrow (see "Black day for the black and blue").
Europcar: It looks like there will not be a repeat of last year's miracle rider for the French team. Pierre Rolland, who won the best young rider's jersey and the Alpe d'Huez stage and finished 10th overall, lost 2:09 and dropped to 40th, at 2:50 back. Thomas Voeckler, last year's fourth-place man, lost 6:02.
Astana: Janez Brajkovic crashed for the second time this week, pulling the group at 2:09 across the line, while team captain Alexander Vinokourov lost 13:24. Vinokourov is not riding for GC, but he hopes to be able to contend for a stage win. Brajkovic, however, dipped to 31st, at 2:27 back.