As I watched the Stage 4 team time trial unfold earlier this week, the story of Cannondale rider Ted King struck a chord with me. Riding injured and alone, the young American fought his way to the finish line, but arrived seven seconds too late. His finishing time was outside the official 25% time cut (all finishers must finish within 25% of the stage winners’ time to continue after the TTT) and he was not permitted to start the following day. My mind immediately went back to Stage 1b of the 1986 Tour de France.
Back in 1986, the Tour de France still scheduled split stages, and on the first day there was a short road race in the morning and a team time trial in the afternoon. My 7-Eleven teammate Alex Stieda launched a daring attack right from the first mile of the road race and gained enough bonus seconds and points out on the road that he earned every jersey on offer, including the yellow jersey. We were ecstatic and overwhelmed, and Alex was occupied for a long time with podium ceremonies and interviews. We didn’t eat well and didn’t prepare well for the team time trial, and it ended up being a disaster. For a complete description of what transpired over the 56 kilometers of that afternoon’s team time trial, read Geoff Drake’s book “Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World-and Won” http://velopress.competitor.com/cycling_history.php?id=322. To summarize, we crashed through a roundabout, were confused as to whether to wait or keep going, and Doug Shapiro and Alexi Grewal got into a shouting match that ended with Shapiro throwing a water bottle at Grewal. And we dropped the yellow jersey.
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Alex was drained from his effort in the morning and he hadn’t eaten and hydrated well because he was on the podium so long. He was pedaling squares and couldn’t keep up. Our director, Mike Neel, told Jeff Pierce and me to drop back and pace Alex to the finish. I remember asking Mike, “Do we really have to go back?” Jeff and I knew that dropping back to ride with Alex could very well mean all three of us would miss the time cut and be sent home. It was the first day of the Tour de France, and I didn’t want to go home!
I’ll never forget what Mike told me. He said, “You never leave the yellow jersey. You will not leave his side.” That was it. There was no other choice. We had to get Alex to the finish under the time cut or we’d all go home. It was agonizing. He was trying as hard as he could but he was bonking and going slower and slower. We encouraged him as best we could. I remember getting frustrated and yelling at him, too. In the end, we managed to get to the finish line with 38 seconds to spare. To this day, we are the only team to win and lose the yellow jersey in a single day, but the three of us lived to fight another day.
So when I thought about Ted King out there on his own, I could commiserate. But at least in our case there were three of us so we could share the work, share the anxiety, and keep each other motivated. King was dropped in the first kilometer out of 32 and according to the power file he posted on Twitter he managed to average 365 watts and more than 28mph on a standard road bike equipped with aero bars. The reason he was dropped, and the reason he was not on a more aerodynamic time trial bike, was because he was riding with a separated shoulder as a result of a crash during Stage 1. His performance was impressive, gutsy, and exemplified the fighting spirit of professional cycling. But it wasn’t enough. As heartbreaking as it was, his official time was seven seconds too slow and he was out of the race.
Crashes are always part of bike racing, and they are especially plentiful in the first week of the Tour de France because everyone is fresh and motivated to be at the front of the race. There’s a lot of nervousness in the peloton, and a lot of mixed motives. The contenders’ teams are trying to keep their leaders up front and out of trouble. The sprinters’ teams are trying to control the race to set up their speedsters. And the opportunists have fresh legs and dreams of snagging the yellow jersey with a daring move. No one wants to give an inch, and there are only so many inches on the road.
In some cases, the consequences of a crash are immediate and clear. A broken collarbone is game over. But in the majority of cases, riders continue riding to finish the stage and then assess the possibility of starting the following day. Cuts, road rash, and bruising makes sleeping difficult, which hinders a rider’s ability to recover from one day to the next. Wound care is critical, and a lot of time is spent cleaning, dressing, and redressing wounds to prevent scabbing and ward off infection.
While the seeping bandages are the most visible result of crashing, the jarring impact can lead to greater problems in terms of performance. Cycling is a very repetitive sport and riders’ bodies are conditioned to a very specific position on the bike. When a crash limits a rider’s range of motion through the hips or lower back, it can lead to a significant drop in that rider’s power output. Or to think of it in a different way, the rider has to work even harder to produce the power necessary to do his job.
Between the reduced sleep quality, reduced economy on the bike, and increased energy expenditure from trying to heal, crashing at the Tour de France is exhausting as well as painful. However, if a rider can survive the 48 or 72 hours after the crash and stay in the race, he often reaches a tipping point and his condition begins to improve.
It’s important to remember that there are battles happening at all levels of the Tour de France. Outside the battles for jerseys, there are the personal battles each rider must fight. At its most basic level the Tour de France is a battle for survival, a fight for the opportunity to get to the finish line every day and suit up for another stage the following day.