Crashes are the curse of bike racers. We’ve all had them. And we always hope that the consequences won’t be too bad. At the Tour de France, being involved in crashes, particularly like those we saw in Tuesday’s stage across northwest France, are the biggest hazards of opening week.
Last year, the crashes were no worse, but nearly all of them involved top contenders, and so altered the whole dynamic of the Tour. This week, there have been just as many pileups, but none (so far) has seriously delayed the true candidates for the final yellow jersey, even if some have lost key teammates.
Last year’s fourth-place finisher Thomas Voeckler was involved in one of the crashes Tuesday and lost more than seven minutes, but the enigmatic Frenchman came into the race short of form because of a knee injury and wasn’t considered to be a contender. And now that he’s far behind the leaders he should get a chance of figuring in some long-distance breakaways—his favorite exercise.
Observers often wonder why there are so many crashes at the Tour. In theory, with a peloton made up of the world’s most skilful and strongest riders, you’d think they’d have enough bike-handling skills to avoid falling so much. The answer to that is: If they didn’t have all those skills there would likely be even more crashes.
Crashes are normally due to extraneous issues. In Belgium, on Sunday’s and Monday’s stages, the biggest hazard was the size of the crowds, not the size of the peloton. So many people wanted to see the Tour that the crowds of spectators spilled over into the roadway. And if a fan had a camera in hand and didn’t pull back soon enough, he or she might be clipped by a racers, resulting in another crash.
Cameras causing crashes aren’t new. Most veteran race followers remember the first road stage of the 1994 Tour in Armentières, not far from the start of this Tuesday’s stage start in Orchies. That’s where a gendarme “guarding” the finish straight stepped forward holding a camera and was hit at full speed by Belgian sprinter Wilfried Nelissen, causing him and a half-dozen others contesting the stage win to crash spectacularly. The worst off was French star Laurent Jalabert, who smashed his face into the tarmac, breaking his jaw and losing several teeth.
That 1994 stage ended up being won by the Uzbekistan sprinter Djamolidin Abdujaparov, who three years before had one of the strangest crashes in Tour history. He’d already scored enough points to win the 1991 green jersey when he sprinted toward the final-stage finish in Paris—but he veered of his line and sped at 70 kph into a big, fiberglass replica of a Coke can. The “can” shattered, but Abdu’ was not seriously hurt and he walked across the line dragging his bike. As a reminder of how dangerous this sport can be, I picked up one of the red-and-silver splinters from that shattered Coke can and still keep it on my desk.
The crashes this week may not have been as spectacular as those I just described, but the consequences have been just as bad. World time trial champion Tony Martin is riding with a broken scaphoid after a bad fall on Sunday. Kanstantin Sivtsov of Team Sky is out of the race with a broken tibia, after his heavy fall in one of Tuesday’s pileups. And after being involved in another of those crashes, caused by high speeds and a packed peloton on narrow roads, Maarten Tjallingii of Rabobank rode the final 40 kilometers into Boulogne-sur-Mer with a broken hip!
Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp also bravely completed the hilly finale, 9:11 behind stage winner Peter Sagan, before discovering he’d separated a shoulder. So there will be no top-10 finish at this Tour for Danielson, even if he starts stage 4 on Wednesday. Others who lost time on Tuesday because of crashes included Danielson’s American teammate Christian Vande Velde, who conceded two minutes; and BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, whose spectacular fall cost him seven minutes and, more importantly, a chance of competing with Sagan for the stage win.
Thankfully, all the principal contenders came through the stage pretty much unscathed. This was not just due to luck. The top men all have teammates who ride in front of the peloton to keep their leader out of trouble, besides helping them stay in good position for the crucial parts of the course. That’s why defending champion Cadel Evans followed the wheel of big Gorge Hincapie for most of Tuesday, while his young BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen was there for the Australian on the climbs before the finish.
Sometimes, the team men have to play a strategic role, too. That was the case for American veteran Chris Horner in Tuesday’s finale, when an attack in the last 5 kilometers by Sylvain Chavanel threatened the yellow jersey of Horner’s RadioShack-Nissan teammate Fabian Cancellara. Chavanel took a 15-second lead into the last 2 kilometers, and Horner had to chase hard because the Frenchman began the day only seven seconds behind Cancellara on overall time.
With four days of racing complete, the relative positions of the top contenders is now this: 1. Brad Wiggins; 2. Denis Menchov, at 0:06; 3. Cadel Evans, at 0:10; 4. Vincenzo Nibali, at 0:11; 5. Ryder Hesjedal, s.t.; 6. Robert Gesink, ay 0:19; 7. Jurgen Van den Broeck, at 0:21; 8. Fränk Schleck, at 9:31; 9. Samuel Sanchez, at 0:33; 10. Levi Leipheimer, at 0:38.
Let’s hope none of them crashes in the days ahead in this treacherous opening week.