Glut of Crashes Make Safety the Main Tour Talking Point

Prior to the start of the Tour’s third stage between Lorient and Pontivy, Deceuninck–Quick-Step lead-out man Michael Mørkøv, who’s recognized as the best in the business when it comes to getting his sprinter in the right place to go for victory, predicted that the finale would be more frantic and dangerous of the race so far. “It’s going to be more nervous than the first two days. It’s going to be very dangerous because of the size of the roads and also because it looks like it’s going to be wet,” said the highly experienced Danish rider.

By Peter Cossins | Images by James Startt

“It’s down to the way the parcours is designed,” he continued. “We’ll be going on super narrow roads, just one-lane wide. Everybody has to be up there – the sprinters, the GC guys. If you’re not up there at the front you’ve got no chance on this stage.”

Mørkøv was far from the only rider to be concerned about the final run-in to Pontivy. His teammate Tim Declercq was reported to have put in a request to the race commissaires for GC times to be taken at the 8km-to-go mark, in order to reduce the number of riders who would be battling to be at the front of the peloton from that point on. Nothing came of this request and the stage went ahead as planned, with all riders having to be in the front group at the 3km mark if they wanted to be credited with the same time as the stage winner.

Four hours later, Mørkøv’s prediction had proved frighteningly correct and several of the Tour’s biggest names were heading for the Tour’s mobile x-ray lab and to the hospital in Pontivy. Jack Haig crashed out of the race at a pinch point that led into a tight left-hand bend. Defending champion Tadej Pogačar was also caught up in the incident, although he was fortunate enough to be able to remount quickly and limit his losses to a comparatively insignificant 26 seconds.

At the final bend, just 150 meters from the finish line, Caleb Ewan went down extremely hard after clipping stage winner Tim Merlier’s rear wheel. Like his compatriot Haig, the Australian sprinter won’t restart on Tuesday after suffering a broken collarbone.

Caleb Ewan Tour de France Stage crash
Caleb Ewan crashed in the final sprint. Image: James Startt.

There had been further incidents earlier in the stage too. In the first hour, Geraint Thomas crashed, dislocating a shoulder. The medical staff popped it back in and the 2018 Tour champion was able to continue. Not long before the peloton reached the final tricky section, another Tour favorite, Primož Roglič, veered sideways out of the bunch, landing heavily on his back and buttocks. He too managed to remount and finish, his shorts tattered and jersey ripped, a hole also blown in his GC hopes.

Moments after the finish, French TV switched from rerunning the finish line images to an interview with Groupama-FDJ boss Marc Madiot, whose sprinter Arnaud Démare had also been involved in the Haig crash. The Frenchman was incandescent. “There are lots of families that watch the Tour de France on the television and they’ll be saying tonight that they don’t want their kids taking part in the Tour de France. They won’t want their kids taking up cycling because of what we’ve seen today.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time and we have to find solutions. We can’t continue like this, it’s not cycling any more. With the bend at 150 meters, what state is Ewan in now? We have to change. Perhaps we have to change the equipment, to get rid of earpieces, to do all kinds of things, but we have to do something because if we don’t act there will be deaths… It’s the route, but there’s all kind of other factors to blame too.

Caleb Ewan Tour de France Stage 3 2021 crash
Caleb Ewan crashing out on stage 3 and taking Peter Sagan with him. Image: James Startt.

“It’s not down just to the organizers, but to the teams, to the riders, to the international federations that don’t do enough.”

Just before hearing Mørkøv’s take on the stage this morning, I’d talked to Jumbo-Visma team manager Richard Plugge about safety issues around the Tour and other races. His opinion was much the same as Madiot’s, that much needs to be done to improve this key aspect because the safety of riders is clearly paramount. Like Madiot, Plugge believes that the issue isn’t the fault of one particular stakeholder, but is down to all of them, and all of them need to be involved in order to resolve it.

“I believe that every accident can be can be prevented if you work hard on that, and the problem’s not just down to the organizers. It’s a problem for cycling as a whole and I think we really should look at it that way. The teams, the riders and the organizers should work together to solve this problem,” he told me.

The Jumbo team manager added that he believes the solution to the issue needs to come from outside the sport. “I think we should bring in external safety experts who would look in a different way at the sport than we all do. We’re all too deeply involved in it, blinded by the business side of it. If we can find external expertise on this specific subject it would help a lot,” said Plugge.

Listening to the post-stage reaction of yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel—who admitted after the stage that he had gone to the front of the bunch in the final couple of kilometers partly to help his Alpecin-Fenix teammate and partly because he was worried about the dangers that might still be ahead having seen riders going down all around him—and also to other riders, they recognize that crashes are an unavoidable part of the sport, but that they are becoming more frequent and inevitable. As Marc Madiot highlighted, it’s not a compelling spectacle for fans either.

We’d surely prefer to see the quickest, the most agile and the most tactically astute riders winning bike races rather than them becoming a horrifying elimination race that you almost have to watch from behind the settee or between your fingers.

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