A brief history of crashes at the Tour de France
With the news that Cadel Evans had lost the yellow jersey on the Col de la Madeline stage of the Tour de France, Australians could be forgiven for thinking that this has been the most crash-prone edition of the Grande Boucle. Nursing a broken bone in his elbow from a crash two days before, Evans surrendered eight minutes to the leading riders.
His crash followed the elimination of two other Australians, Adam Hansen, and Simon Gerrans, who had suffered a series of tumbles before a broken arm finally ended his tour hopes.
Frank Schleck, Vladimir Karpets and Christian Vande Velde have all ended their Tour on the bitumen, while the sprinters Robbie McEwen and Tyler Farrer survived high speed collisions to ride another day.
Even Lance Armstrong has suffered a series of falls in the nervous first week of the race, effectively ending his chance of a podium finish in his last Tour.
Crashes have been a part of the Tour from the outset.
Television coverage of the fast, steady pedaling of cycling’s elite as they charge through the scenic French countryside disguises the physical demands and danger of the event. Over the years, many riders have crashed, and, tragically, a few have died.
Racing at average speeds of 40 – 50 kph, within millimeters of each other to draft and conserve energy, the slightest mistake or miscalculation by a rider can be tragic. Add the unpredictability of wet roads, cobblestones, stray animals, exhausted riders and overenthusiastic spectators, there is a constant recipe for disaster.
As every weekend racer knows, even at the modest speed of 35 kph, a touch of wheels can leave you nursing grazed limbs or a broken collarbone in a split second. Young competitive cyclists are taught to ride through corners without braking, as a touch of the brakes in a tight peleton risks riders on the ground.
The dangers are magnified in the Tour, as 190 riders jostle through a tunnel of cheering fans up and down mountainsides, or along the fast, flat roads of France.
Overzealous spectators have been the cause of unfortunate crashes. “Look at that stupid, stupid man,” a television commentator yelled as a spectator took photos in the path of stage leader, Beppe Guerini, on the Alpe D’Huez in 1999. Luckily, Guerini was able to remount and win the stage after crashing into him.
Five years earlier, a gendarme stepped into the path of the riders to take a snap as they sprinted to the finish in Armentieres. He was hit by Wilfried Nielson and Laurant Jalabert, leaving the latter bloodied and shaken, his Tour over.
In 2003, Lance Amstrong’s handlebar snagged the musette bag of a spectator as he dueled with Iban Mayo and Jan Ullrich on the climb to Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees. Following the unwritten rule of cycling, Ulrich waited while Armstrong and Mayo picked themselves up from the road. Two year’s earlier, Armstrong had waited when Ullrich had crashed down a mountain side during the 2001 Tour.
The great Italian cyclist of the era, Gino Bartali, was assaulted by French fans as the Tour traversed the Pyrenees in 1950. After being knocked off his bike, Bartali led a walkout by the Italian team. Poetic justice reigned as a Swiss rider, Ferdi Kubler, eventually defeated the French in their own race.
Spectators are not immune from disaster. Last year a woman was killed when hit by a police motorbike in the entourage.
Animals have also been a cause for consternation in the peleton, as we witnessed again this year. In 2007, Markus Burghardt was felled by a stray canine. Sandy Casar, who won the Col de la Madeline stage this week, was brought down by a dog that year. But that wasn’t as bad as the fate which befell Napoleon Paoli, who collided with a donkey on a narrow descent in 1920. Paoli landed on the back of the frightened animal, which charged along the mountain for a kilometre before the Italian could get off and return to his bike! He was subsequently struck on the head by a rock, and had to withdraw from the Tour.
Lucien Petit-Breton, the 1908 winner, abandoned the race after hitting a cow in 1912. The year before, he collided with a drunken sailor in Boulogne.
Crashes have changed the outcome of the Tour. Who can forget the sickening sight when Joseba Beloki’s tyre skidded on the liquefied summer tarmac, burning the rubber from the rim? Lance Armstrong’s bike slid onto the grass as he narrowly avoided the Spaniard, forcing the Texan on a rough cross-country trip to rejoin the event the other side of the corner. Armstrong went on to win the Tour. Beloki was not so lucky, breaking multiple bones, and never recovering to the form he once displayed.
Two decades earlier, another Spaniard, Luis Ocana, crashed on a slippery corner, only to have the Dutch rider, Joop Zoetemelk, smash into him, ending his chances. Ocana had been challenging the legendary Eddy Merckx for the overall lead at the time.
Two years later, Ocana crashed into a car blocking the road when chasing Merckx again. The Spaniard abandoned the race, leaving the ‘Cannibal’, as Merckx was known, to claim the third of his five Tour victories.
Wim van Est crashed down a ravine on the Col d’Aubisque twice when leading the 1951 Tour. Armstrong’s directeur sportiff, Johan Bruyneel, also survived a nasty spill over a roadside cliff when he was a competitor.
Tragically, riders have also died. The first was Francesco Cepeda, who, in 1935, misjudged his line through a hairpin bend and plunged into the gully below. Most recently, Olympic champion, Fabio Casartelli, was propelled headfirst into a granite block as he raced down the Portet d’Aspet pass. His death in 1995 resulted in helmets being made compulsory for Tour riders.
Drugs also have been involved. Roger Riviere later admitted that drugs he had been taking played a part in his back-breaking plunge into a ravine in the 1960 Tour. Seven years later, Tom Simpson, the first English-speaker to wear the maillot jaune, succumb to a cocktail of drugs as he dragged himself up Mont Ventoux in 50 degree heat.
The sprinters are often millimeters away from crashing in their wild, weaving charge to the finish line. This year’s race is no exception. One of the most spectacular finishes was in 1991, when the Tashkent star, Djamolidine Abdujaporov – known simply by most as Abdu – hit the safety barriers in the mad dash to the finish line on the Champs Elysees. Australian cycling fans recall the physical clash between Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen in 2003 although they didn’t fall, and Robbie’s run-in with Stuart O’Grady on another occasion. In 2003, Rene Haselbacher finished a stage with his shorts almost torn-off after another nasty incident.
Bicycle racing is a magnificent sport and an enthralling spectacle. Sadly it can also be dangerous, as we have seen again this year.
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