By Chris Carmichael
Crashing is a painful reality that all cyclists are familiar with, and during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France there were at least 10 crashes involving more than a dozen riders.
The most seriously injured appeared to be Radioshack’s Janez Brajkovic, who crashed heavily with a number of other riders and was very slow to get up. He was taken to the hospital and the team later announced that he suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion. A fall a little later in the stage left Quick Step’s Tom Boonen sitting on the ground with a cracked helmet, a visibly painful shoulder, and plenty of road rash. Boonen was able to finish the stage, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll start tomorrow.
Two of the yellow jersey contenders also hit the ground today. Alberto Contador said after the stage that he crashed twice today, which would bring his total for this year’s Tour de France up to four. And today’s second fall appeared to be the worst of them, judging by his shredded jersey. All the same, Contador fared better than Rabobank’s Robert Gesink, who crashed heavily and finished the stage with a lot of road rash and injuries to his elbow and hand that required stitches.
These are professional bike racers. Men who ride more miles each year than most people put on their cars. They’re some of the best bike handlers in the world, so why did so many fall down today? There are a few reasons:
Windy days often feature a lot of crashes. Riders are constantly moving around in the peloton to get into positions that offer protection from the wind. Today there were a lot of stretches that featured crosswinds, or winds that buffeted the peloton from the side. In these conditions, the best drafting position is not directly behind the rider in front of you, but rather diagonally behind him with your handlebars even with his hips. In a small group, this diagonal positioning is quite safe, but when you’re in a peloton of more than 180 riders, it means you’re all riding very close together. As a result, there’s a greater chance you’ll bump your handlebars into another rider’s legs or cross your front wheel over his back wheel. Riding closer together also leads to more chain-reaction crashes – the riders 30 guys ahead of you hit the brakes or move to the side and you have almost no time to react before that change in pace or direction filters through the pack and reaches you.
I live in Colorad Springs, where the roads downtown are so wide you can turn a truck around without doing a three-point-turn. But in Europe everything is a bit narrower, and many of the roads in Brittany, the region of France used in Stage 5 today, are barely wide enough for one car. With the windy conditions and the known dangers of crashing today, everyone wanted to ride near the front of the pack where the risks of crashing are lower. As riders battle for position, there inevitably comes a time when the riders are 8-wide in a space that’s only wide enough for 6. As a result, today we saw several riders laying (briefly) in ditches on the side of the road. And don’t forget, the riders are sharing these roads with motorcycles carrying photographers, cameramen, and officials; as well as a flotilla of team cars. In the unfortunate case of Nicki Sorenson, a motorcycle trying to move up the side of the peloton clipped him as it passed, and he went sliding into a (thankfully) grassy ditch as his bike was dragged up the road attached to the motorcycle.
The Europeans have invented quite a menagerie of traffic-calming devices, like roundabouts, narrowed sections of roads, and lane dividers of various shapes and heights. Will Frischkorn, a recently-retired pro who raced the Tour de France for the Garmin team a few years ago, once described the final hour of a Tour de France stage as being like a video game because of how fast and frequently the obstacles came at you. Remember, most of the riders have never seen the race route before, and they are traveling at 25-40mph in a tightly-packed group. You can’t see very far ahead of you, and riders rely on each other for warnings about upcoming obstacles. They use hand signals and verbal cues, but there are also times when you don’t know about a lane divider until the rider ahead of you moves to the right or left to avoid it himself. With the amount of “stuff” in the roads during the Tour de France, it’s somewhat miraculous that there aren’t considerably more crashes, with even more serious consequences.
With all the known risks involved with being a professional cyclist, they have relatively little protection against injury. Helmets have only been mandatory in European professional cycling since 2003, and helmets that provide actual impact protection have only been around since the late 80s and 90s. Back when I was a pro in the 1980s, we mostly raced with nothing on our heads, or with a leather “hairnet” helmet which was kind of like putting a well-ventilated catcher’s mitt on your head. They helped keep your head from getting cut up, but didn’t offer much in the way of protection from impacts.
Modern helmets have been a key innovation for cycling. They are extremely lightweight, very well ventilated, and very good for absorbing the energy from an impact with the ground. The helmet cracks so your head hopefully does not. Back in the 90s, the helmets were heavy and hot, so even though they offered protection, pro riders wouldn’t race with them. But after innovations in fit and ventilation, riders no longer have any real excuse for not wanting to wear them.
Another innovation that helps protect riders are their pedals. Cyclists and cycling fans who are relatively new to the sport may not remember a time when rider’s used toeclips and leather straps to bind our feet to the pedals. They worked great, but the problem was that you stayed attached to the bike during a crash. Then Look, a company more known for ski bindings, introduced a pedal based on quick-release ski binding technology. You stepped down on the pedal to secure a cleat – which was attached to your shoe – to the pedal. To release you just kicked your heel out to the side. Referred to as “clipless” pedals, the technology is now ubiquitous within cycling, and during a crash these pedals allow the rider to disengage from the bike. Just think how different Nicki Sorenson’s crash could have been if he had been literally tied to his pedals today!
Race radios are a controversial innovation in professional cycling, but on that I believe makes the riders safer. Riders where earpieces and receive information from their team cars. Many times the information refers to upcoming obstacles, like roundabouts and lane dividers, so riders can prepare for them before they can see them. The radios are controversial, however, because riders also receive information about time splits to the breakaway or rivals who have lost contact with the back of the peloton. This has definitely changed the way races unfold, and some people want to ban race radios in order to bring more spontaneity back to racing. Personally, I believe the increase in rider safety is more important and that race radios should be allowed in at least top-tier races.
Fortunately, most crashes in cycling yield relatively minor injuries. Following abrasions, broken collarbones are the most frequent injury suffered by a cyclist (there was at least one broken collarbone today). Unfortunately, there are occasionally fatal accidents in bike races. In the Tour of Italy in May, Wouter Weylandt crashed on a descent and died of head injuries. Several years ago Andrei Kivilev died of head injuries in a crash in the Paris-Nice race, and back in 1995 Fabio Casartelli died when he crashed on a descent in the Tour de France.
A variety of factors led Stage 5 to be the scene of an inordinately high number of crashes, and unfortunately it’s likely that more than just Janez Brajkovic will be unable to continue. But for the rest of the peloton, tomorrow will be another day to stay vigilant and try to keep the rubber side down.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.