Spanish veteran Rodriguez wins crash-marred third stage of Tour de France

Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez celebrates as he crosses the finish line at the end of the 159.5-kilometer stage between the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Huy.

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HUY, Belgium — Spanish veteran Joaquim Rodriguez won the crash-marred third stage of the Tour de France on Monday, with British rider Chris Froome finishing second to take the race leader’s yellow jersey.

The crash happened with a little under 60 kilometers (37 miles) remaining, forcing the stage to be neutralized and then stopped altogether shortly after — for nearly 20 minutes — while organizers allowed those who fell to catch up.

With the race moving from neighboring Netherlands into Belgium, stage three was 159.5 kilometers (99 miles) from Antwerp to Huy.

It featured four short and sharp climbs but the crash took place before any of these when Frenchman William Bonnet went down and several riders tumbled around him.

All of the main Tour contenders avoided the crash, unlike Fabian Cancellara, who started the day in the yellow jersey and ended it in agony after being one of some 20 riders who fell.

After taking chunks of time out of his Tour rivals Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana on Sunday’s rain-soaked and wind-battered second stage, Froome did it again as he accelerated in the last climb. He almost caught up Rodriguez, but the Spanish rider held on with Froome closing in on him.

"It’s never too early to take the yellow jersey," Froome said. "Really happy to come second and put more time on my GC (general classification) contenders. I was in front (of the crash) and just heard it about it on the radio."

Rodriguez and Froome clocked the same time of 3 hours, 26 minutes, 54 seconds. Frenchman Alexis Vuillermoz was third, four seconds behind them.

Froome, the 2013 Tour champion, leads German rider Tony Martin by just one second and is 13 seconds ahead of American rider Tejay Van Garderen.

The day’s final two climbs — 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) — up Cote de Cherave and the famed Mur de Huy featured on this year’s Fleche Wallonne (Walloon Arrow) classic. That prompted Froome to ride the Wallonne this year, where he crashed toward the end.

He had better luck this time, gaining 11 seconds on Nibali and Quintana and 18 seconds on two-time Tour champion Contador.

"I lost quite a lot of time. I said before the stage that stages like this are often difficult," Contador said. "It was very hard in the end and I was lacking something. Froome is very strong and he’s come here in good form."

Monday’s heavy crash took its toll.

Cancellara was one of the last to go down, leaping into the air with his bike attached to him, then landing with a thud — luckily on the grass — and skidding on his side. Escaping with a few cuts and bruises, Cancellara got back on his bike.

Filippo Pozzato of Italy collects himself in the aftermath of the huge crash during the third stage.

But others were not so lucky.

Bonnet was taken off on a stretcher with a brace around his neck. Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin — competing for the best young rider’s white jersey — Australian veteran Simon Gerrans, and Russian Dmitry Kozontchuk also withdrew from the race.

During Sunday’s trek along the Dutch coastline, time gaps were made when heavy side winds caused a split in the front of the peloton.

This time, the weather was not to blame.

Bonnet lost control and his bike slid forward and down.

Racing at tremendous speed on the flat, low roads of Belgium, it was impossible for those behind to either slow down or get out of the way, and one after the other they went up, down, or sideways in a bewildering flash of colors, bobbing helmets, spokes and wheels.

The end result was a tangled mess of bikes, spewed in all directions on the side of the road, while some riders lay on their backs in the grass and others were curled up in agony on the hot tarmac.

As the pack up ahead slowed down — waiting stretched out in a narrow street — riders started coming back into the race: cuts and bruises decorating their backs and legs. Cancellara grimaced in pain, Australian Michael Matthews looked to be in tears, and it was hard to see which team Johan Van Summeren was riding for given how shredded his shirt was.

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The stage re-started for good at the top of the first climb, meaning there were about 50 kilometers (31 miles) remaining.

But it almost seemed like a training ride in slow motion for about 8 kilometers (5 miles) as no rider wanted to speed up.

Finally, the pace stepped up again, and about a dozen riders surged ahead. Doubtless due to fatigue, the others let them go.

Tuesday’s fourth stage stays in Belgium’s Walloon region, starting out from Seraing, and ending in the northern French town of Cambrai 223.5 kilometers (138.6 miles) later, making it the longest of the race.

With 13 kilometers (8 miles) of cobblestone sections dotted around the route, it could also prove treacherous.

Given how Sunday and Monday went, riders will hardly be relishing it.

"It’s been an incredible Tour so far and there have been nerves and stress every day," Contador said. "Tomorrow will be the same."