The first rest day after Week 1 of this year’s Tour de France proved itself a much-needed breather, in more ways than one.
It wasn’t just a chance to reflect on the photo finishes, have an ice-bath and take on some fluids – but also a chance for the riders to air grievances in what they see as a course where more are set up to fail than ever. Have you been thinking, “there’s been more crashes than usual”? So have some riders.
The competitors were barely out of the gate for the first 14km time-trial stage in Dusselldorf before the problems started. Plenty drew attention to a slippery left-hander corner that claimed at least eight separate casualties, most notably Alejandro Valverde and Ion Izagirre. Veteran rider Valverde took a hard collision with the barriers that broke his left kneecap and bruised several ribs – meaning several months out. Izagirre, meanwhile, slid and injured his back – later confirming his withdrawal due to a fractured lumbar.
While unofficial reports pointed a motorcycle going over in that corner earlier in the day and potentially leaving oil on the road, both fans and riders alike questioned the lack of crash barriers. As Cannondale-Drapac sporting director Charly Wegelius put it, “Anything to improve safety is good, and that needs to be an ongoing process.”
The situation worsens
While everyone knows that crashes are part of cycling, let alone the pressured air of the Tour de France, the fact that so many of the fallers have been top-tier racers should be a cause for alarm. After Valverde on the first day, there were soon more spills on day two – one of which was immortalised as British freelance photographer Chris Auld’s ‘right place, right time’ snap went viral.
300m from the finish – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte and a whole host of others went down in an almighty sprawl in the rain at a roundabout. The concern on the faces of all involved could well be seen as the perfect picture for the Tour so far. Fear and falling.
Image credit: Chris Auld
Mark Cavendish was the next victim on Stage 4, fracturing his shoulder blade after being seemingly elbowed to the floor by world champion Peter Sagan – who was himself disqualified as a result. A shocking misdeed by a man so highly respected in cycling circles, but perhaps evidence of the mental toll that the Tour de France was beginning to take on all riders.
Sunday’s demolition derby
It took until the ninth stage for the ‘curse of the crashes’ to finally take down Geraint Thomas for good, but take him down it did. After four falls in the first nine stages, Thomas seemed to have survived the worst unscathed. However, the devilish ninth stage between Nantua and Chambéry that ended with the Mont du Chat claimed vast swathes of the pack to injury, in perhaps the most brutal day seen on the tour in a long time.
Along the 181.5km route, the day’s official medical bulletin listed 11 fallers of various types – from punctured lungs, to broken vertebras and shattered collarbones. The collarbone was Thomas’.
As he described it, “Everyone was nervous, everyone wanted to be at the front and a few people were battling to get between myself, Froomey and the rest of the boys. I let Majka in and then he came down right in front of me on a straight bit of road. I had nowhere to go, went over the top of him, and landed on my collarbone.” Thomas tried to carry on, pedalling down the flat, but stopped again. “I ended up stopping then, went for a scan, and it’s broken.”
Of the elite competitors, Geraint Thomas wasn’t the only one to have their Tour ended on the treacherous mountain route. After plenty had already questioned the organiser’s wisdom of placing such a difficult ascent at the end of an already exhausting run, Richie Porte proved them right.
Flying down the Mont du Chat at over 45mph, he lost control of his slippery front wheel as it missed the winding road edge, smashing into the rock face opposite. Before he could move, he was thundered into by Irish rider Daniel Martin. Porte lay stock still in the road for quite a while, before being gingerly loaded onto a bodyboard and taken straight to hospital. Upon investigation, he had suffered a fractured pelvis and broken collarbone.
Martin’s comments after the stage were telling. Clearly upset and angered by the attritional day, he claimed the organisers had “got what they wanted” by placing the Mont du Chat where they had.
It was not just Martin and his team Quick Step Floors that were out of sorts, several other teams – including Team Sky – controversially declined the traditional rest-day press conference, blaming the logistical issues of the transfer from the Alps, but many suspect they were too concerned at what they might say in anger. Chris Froome, in particular, will be devastated to have lost his ‘lieutenant’ in Geraint Thomas.
The road ahead
Without a doubt, more crashes await. Whether they will continue to be serious enough, or damaging enough, to force a change in thinking behind the scenes for next year and in the future? Only time will tell.
As the famous saying from Ian Fleming goes, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” While we’re not accusing the TdF of enemy action, we’re simply saying that the serious crash number is now in double digits, and climbing.
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