Watching the Grand Tours such as the Giro de Italia, the Tour de France or the Vuelta a Espana is an annual ritual for many cycling fans. But it hasn’t been an easy journey in many respects. With performance-enhancing drugs such an issue in cycling, many heroes have succumbed to penalties and even bans from the sport of cycling.
But it’s not just drugs that vex the sport. It’s the crashes too. People simply don’t appreciate how fast pro cyclists can go. But it’s the cyclists who so often pay the price.
During this year’s Tour de France, cyclist Taylor Phinney was featured in a series of video vignettes in which he gave insights from within the race and on the team bus. His laconic personality appealed to a younger audience, but Taylor also had a dark secret to share. He nearly lost his legs to cycling a few years back.
It happened with a high-speed crash. Bones were fractured. Surgeries were required. Yet Phinney crawled his way back to the top level of cycling. To celebrate his return, he led the entire first stage of the Tour before getting caught by the sprinters with several hundred meters to go.
Such is the nature of pro cycling. There are no gifts in the sport. Which is why so many riders risk their careers and reputations trying to take what they can by any means.
That’s where the sport has some accounting to do. There are so many crashes in major stage races the sport is nearly as causally dangerous as the NFL. This past week during the Vuelta, the peloton compressed on a narrow road bordered on both sides by stone walls. Somewhere in the bunch, a rider got flipped onto his side and broke his pelvis.
The cameras lingered on the fallen rider. His body was twisted in a strange way. But it was the moans he made that rang so familiar to me. I happened upon a cyclist a few years back that had been knocked from his bike by a large dog. The dog ran away, but the cyclist lay on the ground alternately gritting his teeth and screaming in pain. He made the same moans that the Vuelta cyclist did while lying on the ground. I helped him get to the hospital and visited later that week. But it was his voice that day that sticks with me every time I ride, see a dog, and realize it could very well happen to me.
A violent crash of some sort happens in every Grand Tour. Sprinter Mark Cavendish got blasted into the barriers by an intentional/unintentional elbow from Peter Sagan. Cavendish was all busted up and Sagan got banned from the Tour the remainder of the race.
Some thought the penalty too severe. But to cycling’s credit, it tried to draw the line somewhere. Watching the video of Sagan sticking an elbow up sure gave the impression that he was not playing fair. But neither was Cavendish, who tried to squeeze through a space that did not really exist. In essence, Sagan’s suspension was a message to Cavendish as well. Hold your line, fellas, or get knocked out of the race.
Which is probably good. This is cycling’s version of pro football’s ban on spearing opponents with a helmet. That practice was bad in many ways. But now the sport of football has discovered that it is actions like the spear that actually put players engaged in that practice at even greater risk of concussion and CTE. Protecting players in one respect wound up protecting them in others.
Thus at some level, the sport of cycling has to protect the participants from themselves. Competitive fury at the level of world class cycling is hard to contain. Sprinters reportedly “have no fear” and do not think about crashing in the race for the finish line. The rules clearly state that a rider cannot veer off their line. Yet riders still do, engaging in just about anything to cut a competitor’s path to the finish. There are body slams and elbows and harsh words on the way to the finish line.
But like hockey, where fighting was once an accepted part of the game, it may be time for pro cycling to cut down on the greater part of its violence. Yet the hardest part of governance in pro cycling comes, not with the mad rush of sprinters, but with open road crashes. Out there on the roads where wheels touch and riders lose concentration for a moment, they wind up crashing. Sometimes that where real damage can happen as well.
The risks come from all sources. This year’s Vuelta featured some crazy riding by the motorbikes on which cameraman and officials tool through the race like barracuda through schools of cycling fish. Commentators Bob Roll and Paul Sherwen repeatedly complained the bikes were too close to the riders. On a couple occasions, motorbikes tumbled into the barriers creating a logistical mess as dozens of riders came peeling past.
One of the wonders of pro cycling is the fact that the roads are not blocked to the sporting public. Fans can get close to the racers, sometimes too close. The crowds pressing in on climbs sometimes interfere with the racers. A few years back cyclist Alberto Contador threw a hard jab that caught a fan in the face. That was a well-deserved shot to keep the integrity of the race alive.
So the chaos of Grand Tours and other stage races is both part of the race and a big problem always waiting to happen. No one can forget the sight of Johnny Hoogerland flying off his bike after being struck by a motorbike at high speed in the Tour de France. He wound up tangling with barbed wire on a roadside fence, his kit torn and his buttocks bared and scarred by massive bloody wounds.
Too much pressure?
Some riders have blamed Grand Tour organizers for recruiting too many teams and putting too many riders on small roads. The pressure to stay in the front bunch is so great that riders are forced to fight for every square inch around them. During a 2000+ mile bike race, the odds that something bad is going to happen are too great. No one can concentrate 100% of the time.
One wonders whether the health risks to cyclists has gotten more serious than ever. There have always been crashes in bike races, but is cycling taking its risks seriously enough to cut these risks in any substantial way?
The sight of Richie Porte careening across the road to smack into a stone rock face was horrific in the Tour de France. Likewise the sight of that contorted rider with a broken pelvis in the Vuelta this year was hard to take. These are human beings before they are racers. And while we all admire their courage and the ability to “come back” to racing after such violent crashes, it also says something about the world that we all pay witness to such tragedy and call it entertainment.
Perhaps that’s the human condition. Perhaps the concussions in pro football are part of the price of admission for those involved and those who pay. A few cyclists have actually died from their injuries, but not many. So the sport senses the risks in some respects.
But there have been times when the riders themselves have protested the conditions and even refused to race when the weather or the course or the insanity of the organizers and motorbikes and fans and sponsor demands are just too much to take.
Because it is, after all, supposed to be a sport. And that is all.