By Chris Carmichael
What is going on in the Tour de France this year?! Crashes are relatively common in the Tour and every other bike race, but the consequences – and in some cases, the circumstances – of this year’s crashes have been odd and incredible.
The toll of broken bones suffered during the Tour this year is higher than usual, no doubt. Just today, Alexander Vinokourov is suspected of breaking his pelvis, David Zabriskie broke his wrist, Jurgen van den Broeck broke his scapula (shoulder blade), Frederik Willems left the race with a suspected broken collarbone, and two men dropped out the race after breaking their arms in previous stages. Amets Txurruka of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team started the day knowing his arm was broken and eventually dropped out. Juan Manuel Garate rode yesterday’s stage with a broken arm, apparently, and didn’t start today. In all, seven riders who started today’s stage didn’t reach the finish line, and most dropped out due to broken bones.
And that’s not the entire story; Janez Brajkovic left the Tour in Stage 5 due to a broken collarbone and a concussion, and during Stage 7 Tom Boonen dropped out after suffering a concussion two days prior. In that same stage, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins crashed out with a broken collarbone and Radioshack’s Chris Horner broke his nose and hit his head so hard he didn’t know where he was or that he’d finished the stage.
One of the interesting things about this recent spate of crashes is that, for the most part, they have happened at relatively benign places on the course. The riders are doing a great job avoiding the roundabouts and traffic islands, their not even going down in treacherous corners. A lot of these crashes have been happening on relatively straight and clear areas of road, although some have definitely been narrow sections of road.
The big question that the riders, directors, and race organizers need to start thinking about is whether the frequency and seriousness of the crashes is pure coincidence, caused by the course itself, or perhaps caused by the desire to keep the racing interesting in the first week.
Is it coincidence?
Nervousness in the peloton is contagious. When riders are falling all around you and each day you look around and more of your friends are no longer in the pack because they’re in the hospital, you sometimes start to think twice about shooting gaps between riders or trusting that the rider ahead of you is going to stay upright. You start hesitating, and hesitation sometimes leads a rider to grab a handful of brakes when a lighter touch is all that’s needed. That can have a chain reaction through the peloton, someone crosses wheels and there’s another crash. We’ve reached the rest day in the Tour, and as hokey as it might sound, the peloton needs to sit back and take a collective deep breath tomorrow, reset their nerves, and get back to riding the way they know how to.
The weather has also been a big factor in the crashes thus far, and that’ something no one can control. Today’s big crash occurred on a high-speed descent where the road was intermittently wet and dry. That means riders never knew what was waiting for them around the next bend, and on a wet bend the front of the pack overshot the corner. Riders went over the guardrail and down quite a ways into the trees. The wind and wet roads have been blamed for crashes in earlier stages as well.
Is it the course?
For years riders and commentators – myself included – have been talking about the dramatic increase in the number of obstacles in the roads. These “traffic calming” devices, like roundabouts, traffic islands, and posts are problematic because they dramatically reduce the width of the road and are difficult to see if you are approaching them in the middle of the pack. But as I mentioned before, very few of the crashes this year have been caused by these obstacles.
The narrowness of the roads can be partly to blame for the crashes, since the peloton is nearly 200 riders strong (or at least it was at the beginning of the race), but these are the same roads riders compete on all year. Some of these very roads have been used in the Tour de France before, and in the Dauphine Libere and many other races throughout the year. In some places there are wider roads that could be used, but the race traditionally sticks to smaller country roads because racing on three and four lane highways is not very exciting. Perhaps one option for the future is to shift the balance to include more sections of wide roads, because the peloton would then realize they can regroup on the wide road and could therefore spread out a bit more on the narrow areas.
Is it the desire for excitement?
In the end, I think the biggest factor that’s led to more crashes, and more serious crashes, this year is the organizers’ desire to keep the first week of the race interesting. With no long time trial to separate the contenders and a series of stages that have been designed to favor all-arounders instead of the pure sprinters, there’s been a bigger incentive for the peloton to stay together and race all the way to the finish. No one can afford to lose time and more riders than normal are starting each stage with a legitimate chance of winning at the end of the day. This appears to be contributing to the nervousness within the peloton, and no one is giving each other an inch. I realize that race fans get a little bored watching long sprint stages where the peloton rolls along for hours under the control of the sprinters’ teams, but in light of the chaos and injuries we’ve seen this year I think perhaps it’s time to return to a more traditional opening week of the Tour de France next year.
But perhaps the most bizarre and troublesome crashes have been those to Nicki Sorensen, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Johnny Hoogerland. Sorenson was taken out by a motorbike; his handlebars got tangled with the bike, he was thrown off the road and into a ditch, and his bike was dragged up to 200 meters up the road with the bike! And today, a French television car attempted to pass the breakaway at an inopportune moment, swerved back to the left to avoid hitting a tree, and in the process side-swiped Juan Antonio Flecha. The Spanish rider hit the deck very hard, but it was Johnny Hoogerland behind him that got the worst of it. Hoogerland somersaulted into a barbed wire fence at around 30mph, tearing his shorts completely off his body and seriously cutting up his legs. Both men managed to remount their bikes and finish the stage, but Hoogerland did so with both legs streaming with blood.
Collisions with race vehicles are not unheard of in professional racing. Back in my day, Davis Phinney crashed through the back window of the 7-Eleven team car, and several years ago Jan Ullrich suffered the same fate while training a few days before the Tour de France. Occasionally a rider will also fall while retrieving bottles or gear from the team car. But the two questions that have to be asked at this point are: Are there too many vehicles in the caravan; and are the drivers of these vehicles qualified to be there?
I don’t know if there are actually more vehicles (team cars, press cars, VIP cars, and motorbikes) in the race compared to previous years. Riders are certainly accustomed to their presence, but the race organizers should probably revisit both the number of vehicles they allow on the course and the policies about how and when the vehicles can interact with the riders.
Driving a vehicle in a bike race is a very stressful task that requires constant attention. The rule of thumb is that you always give the riders priority, and the riders trust that you will do just that. They take the best racing line they can, and the drivers have to adjust accordingly. For instance, when approaching a corner as a driver, you have to determine where the riders are and make sure they have a clear path through the corner. If you’re going to have to slow down, you make sure you slow or stop before the corner on the inside so the riders can pass and set up for the turn on the outside of the road. If you can’t stop there, you move to the very outside of the corner and stop or roll through the outside of the corner so the riders can cut to the inside of the turn. You never stop in the apex or on the outside of the road in the exit of the turn. And when you’re passing a line or riders, it’s your responsibility to make sure there’s enough room on the side of the road to get past.
Just like the riders in the Tour de France represent the best of the professional peloton, the drivers in the cars and on the motorbikes should represent the best in their line of work. The Tour de France is no place to learn how drive in the caravan, and the best drivers are often former racers. They understand the lines that the riders will want to take and are more apt to make good decisions about where to stop, when to slow down, and when to pass. That’s why the vast majority of the team cars are piloted by retired professional riders.
Professional cycling is and has always been a dangerous sport, but the injury rate in this year’s Tour de France has been astounding. I’m sure there will plenty of discussion among the teams and the race organization tomorrow during the rest day in an effort to improve rider safety for the rest of the race, but in the end it will likely be the upcoming mountain stages that lead to a reduction in the injury rate. The mountains will create time gaps between the riders and reduce the incentive for all the teams to keep their riders at the front of the pack. It will also split the group so we have smaller groups of riders together on narrow roads, and as a result the cars and motorbikes will also be more spread out. But all of that comes too late for more than a dozen riders who are out of the Tour de France with broken bones, including four potential top-ten or podium contenders: Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner, Bradley Wiggins, and Jurgen van den Broeck.
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.