Chris Carmichael Blog: Why the 2012 Tour de France Peloton is a Crash-Prone Environment

As many of you have already guessed, I’m not writing daily Tour de France content this year. It feels a bit strange to watch the race and not write about it each day, but after 12 years writing commentary and analysis, this year I’m more focused on all the great events and opportunities coming up this summer at CTS. I can’t give away much right now, but we have some developments coming up that I’m really excited about! In the meantime, check out the 2013 Cycling Camp Calendar. We just updated the calendar with 2013 Spring Training Camps and 2013 Climbing Camp options for 2013!

Of course, I have been watching the Tour de France, and the biggest stories at the Tour thus far are the crashes and the phenomenal sprinting performances of Peter Sagan. The 22-year-old sprinter from Slovakia is thrilling to watch, and he’s already growing into a major personality. All sports thrive on personalities as much as on athletic performances; you needed Michael Jordan to BE like Mike, not just PLAY like Mike. Peter Sagan is young, super-talented, and it’s clear he’s having fun. His finish-line salutes are expressions of joy, and in my opinion anyone who thinks he’s being arrogant or disrespectful just needs to lighten up. As Garmin-Sharp’s Tour de France veteran rider, David Millar, pointed out in a very tongue-in-cheek tweet a few days ago: “He’s 22, he’s got plenty of time to grow old and dignified.”

And it’s not like Sagan is sprinting against an anemic field of speedsters. I don’t remember any year in recent memory when there were so many legitimate contenders for sprint-stage victories. There’s the World Champion Mark Cavendish, Andre Griepel, Peter Sagan, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar, Mark Renshaw, JJ Haedo, and even sprinting’s elder statesmen Alessandro Petacchi and Oscar Friere (who abandoned after Stage 6 with a broken rib). But just like too much horsepower can make a supercar tricky to handle, this much sprinting firepower may be contributing to the crashes that have plagued the Tour’s first week.


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Crashes are always part of the first week of the Tour. The sprinters don’t have that many opportunities to earn stage wins, so there’s a lot at stake for their teams and for them personally. On top of that, everyone in the race is fresh and eager so the speed is high and no one wants to give an inch. The yellow jersey contenders, too, want to stay out of trouble so they try to keep their teams near the front. But none of that changes the fact that the roads are still narrow and the corners are still sharp.

At one point in the final 10 kilometers of a stage this week, I counted five separate leadout trains side-by-side across the front of the peloton. No one has control of the front of the peloton this year, and without a master chaos reigns. But I don’t think it’s happening because no one is willing to take control; I think the teams are very evenly matched and no one has shown the collective power necessary to establish a pecking order.

In recent years the HTC-Highroad team proved they were the dominant leadout machine, and for that they earned the tactical advantage of controlling the front and at least dictating how the sprint would begin. The other sprinters’ teams ceded that advantage to them, but the entire peloton benefitted from the consistent, predictable, high-speed run-in through the final 20 kilometers.

When a bike race is going its fastest, it’s best for the peloton to be somewhat stretched out. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a single line of riders, but you generally want to see a ‘spearhead’ shape at the front. In contrast, when the front of the peloton is spread all the way across the road, it’s normally a sign that the racers are not going very fast and the pressure is not very high. But… if the riders are shoulder-to-shoulder across the whole road and racing full-tilt, that’s trouble.

The spearhead shape provides some level of safety because it gives riders some room side-to-side to move and react. But when the peloton is taking up the whole width of the road and moving at highway speeds (70-80kph), even a slight bobble in the middle of the group leads to crossed wheels, hooked handlebars, and no room to make a correction. And whereas a crossed wheel in a strung out peloton might take down 3-5 riders while allowing the majority of the peloton to get through unscathed, in a tightly packed peloton riders come down like dominoes and block the whole road. That leads to perhaps the scariest part of these crashes: the pile-up. Imagine you’re thirty riders behind the initial crash. By the time your brain registers that there’s a problem, you’re slamming into a wall of bodies and bikes. And if you were one of the first ones to hit the deck, that wall of bodies and bikes is coming down on you. I’ve been out of the pro peloton since 1989, but to this day the sight of a big crash immediately brings back the most unique and enduring memory of those pileups: the smell of burned rubber and skin.

With the Olympics coming up shortly after the Tour de France, these crashes have added consequences for a lot of riders. American Tyler Farrar has hit the deck something like 4 times in six days. British rider Mark Cavendish crashed hard on Stage 4. Both men are among the favorites for the Olympic Road Race, and they – along with many others – will need to evaluate the costs and benefits of staying in the race and riding through their injuries. If you crash out of the Tour, you could either miss the Olympics altogether or miss out on the tremendous training stimulus that racing the Tour de France will provide to others.

Have a great weekend! Vive le Tour!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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