On a day of chaos and crashes, riders tumbled like dominoes in the rain and littered the road in a scene Lance Armstrong called "surreal."
The seven-time champion did not escape the mayhem at the Tour de France on Monday. He was left searching for his bike, nursing scrapes and bruises to his hip and elbow and joking about the decision to come out of retirement.
He was in good company, joining dozens of riders who hit the asphalt on a slippery downhill run some likened to ice skating.
Sylvain Chavanel of France was among few to avoid trouble. He sped to victory after breaking away early in the 125-mile trip from Brussels to Spa and taking the yellow jersey from Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara. With the pack banged-up, he finished nearly four minutes ahead.
With so many riders down in crashes, organizers said they briefly considered canceling the stage altogether. But under the race rules, the spills were too spread out to warrant a cancellation.
Armstrong returned to the RadioShack team bus with his team outfit torn and a bloody scrape on his thigh. His team said he also injured his elbow but otherwise was all right.
"You had people everywhere. It was surreal. When I got back on my bike ... I saw crash, after crash, after crash," Armstrong said, noting riders laid out on the ground. "It was like war."
Chavanel began the stage in 87th place and knocked everyone on the leaderboard down a notch: Cancellara dropped to second, 2 minutes, 57 seconds behind. Germany's Tony Martin is third, 3:07 back.
Armstrong sits fifth, 3:19 back, and defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain is seventh, 3:24 behind. The Spanish two-time Tour winner bruised his right hip, knee and elbow but was expected to start Tuesday.
Some riders believed a motorcycle crash in the race caravan before the pack passed left oil on the road, creating an especially slick mix with the rain.
On the descent from the midlevel Stockeu Pass, Armstrong, Contador and 2009 runner-up Andy Schleck all went down. Armstrong said he knew he was not badly hurt, but he did have other concerns.
"I knew I was fine," he said. "My first thought was: 'Where is my bike?' I tried to find my bike. You know in the rain these guys are very good downhill. I'm not one of them. But even the good ones, with something like that: No chance. Absolutely no chance."
Everybody finished, except French rider Mickael Delage, who slammed into a road barrier early in the stage. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider was taken to hospital with a concussion, a broken bone in his face and shoulder, knee and hand injuries.
Scrapes and bruises were reported by the dozens, and nearly every team was affected. Some riders estimated at least half the 194-rider peloton had fallen. A post-stage medical report listed 23 as at least slightly injured during the day.
On the Garmin-Transitions team alone, Americans Tyler Farrar and Christian Vande Velde and Julian Dean of New Zealand were taken to a hospital for evaluation.
"Riding downhill was almost like ice skating," said Johan Bruyneel, the RadioShack manager and Armstrong's longtime mentor. Teammates Andreas Kloeden and Levi Leipheimer fell. "Almost half of the peloton crashed today," Bruyneel said.
The spills wreaked havoc on organizers and riders alike. Some took longer to rejoin the race than others.
After Schleck dropped several minutes back of the pack — threatening his Tour title ambitions — the main bunch appeared to slow down, with his Saxo Bank teammate Cancellara at the front.
Between Schleck, under an escort from his older brother and teammate Frank, and Chavanel's group at the front, confusion broke out in the pack about how to respond in a sporting and competitive way.
"There was a group up the road, we didn't know what to do," Armstrong said. "The Schlecks were behind, some other guys were behind. It was sort of a conflict about what to do then."
Contador said he ordered his Astana team to wait.
With so many riders downed in the crashes, the thought of canceling the stage altogether briefly crossed the minds of race organizers, the course director said. But under the race rules, the spills were too spread out to warrant a cancellation.
Cancellara, who as race leader can act as spokesman for the pack, asked Tour organizers not to award points for a final sprint out of respect for the fallen riders, course director Jean-Francois Pescheux said. Tour organizers called it a show of good sportsmanship.
That request, made with just 1.2 miles left, was honored by the race jury and, in effect, slowed the finish. The decision will have deprived some sprinters of points in the competition for the green jersey, which is awarded to the race's best sprinter.
"There was no reason to not contest the sprint today," said two-time green jersey winner Thor Hushovd of Norway." Everyone made a gentleman's agreement not to sprint, but I lost an important opportunity to try to win the stage and gain points."
Armstrong was already lucky to have avoided six crashes in Sunday's first stage. The mishaps have injected drama into the first week of racing even before its most dreaded test: Tuesday's run on seven patches of cobblestones.
The third stage takes the pack over the bone- and bike-jarring cobbles during the 132-mile ride from Wanze Arenberg to Porte du Hainaut.
Armstrong has predicted "carnage" on his Twitter account — and that was before the disorder of the last two days.
Armstrong, who returned to the Tour last year after a 3½-year retirement, got a handy reminder of the treachery that often lurks early in the three-week race. Many sprinters are eager to win a stage, and the pack can get antsy and nervous. It's all a far cry from Armstrong's easier life as a retiree.
"Almost all day, I wondered why I came off the beach," Armstrong cracked, reiterating that this Tour will be his last. "But I'll be back at it tomorrow."
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.