Professional cycling is brutal and beautiful. It cannot be one without the other – Anonymous
“OUCH!!!” tweeted HTC-Highroad’s Matthew Goss after Sunday’s stage 9, and that in the simplest of terms summed up the day. The 2011 Tour has already vilified for the toll it has taken on the riders, particularly the spate of crashes that have wrecked havoc among the peloton. Stage 5 brought carnage causing four riders to literally “fall out” of the Tour after the day’s events.
But worse was to come on Sunday. With no less than eight confirmed withdrawals, and a couple more riders assessing their injuries on the rest day – not all of whom might make it to the start of stage 10 – it proved to be one of the most horrifying days in the recent history of the event. While thankfully there was no loss of life – like in the Giro recently – few crashes were pretty close to causing a major set back for the peloton.
It all started with an innocuous looking tumble by defending champion Alberto Contador. Considering he was not injured it seemed a little comic to see a professional rider go down in such a lame manner, but on closer inspection there seemed to be a nasty knock by Vladimir Karpets. No one is hinting at any malicious intentions here, however the Katusha rider should have been more careful. It so happened that later events would far undermine this little careless manoeuvre.
But long before the main controversy of the day came a huge pile up that seems to have knocked half the top ten hopefuls in one tragic sweep. With the peloton charging down the descent at 102km mark, Alexandre Vinokourov flew off the right side and into the forest below the road. As the Kazakh was untangled from the branches by his team-mates, the road was littered with horrifying images of riders strewn in agony and torn jerseys. The toll read as follows:
Alexandre Vinokourov – fractured femur (possible broken hip) – WITHDREW
Jurgen Van den Broeck – spinal injury – WITHDREW
Frederik Willems – fractured collar-bone – WITHDREW
Dave Zabriskie – fractured wrist – WITHDREW
Vino’s injury in particular could have been life threatening and it was a relief to see him board the ambulance in his senses. The carnage shook every rider on the Tour and Cadel Evans later tweeted, “Sorry to repeat, but today was nuts. Terrifying seeing Willems laying on the road. BB down too-but ok. Tough day; boys great.”
But even in this moment of despair and chaos, it was the true character of professional cyclists that shone brightest. That man Fabian Cancellara who had imposed a “speed limit” last year when things got too dangerous, came to the fore again. He and his Leopard Trek team moved to the front and discussed matters with Hushovd and Gilbert, reaching an agreement to slow the pace for the remainder of the descent to allow the survivors to catch up.
This in a professional event with money and reputation at stake! At the very least Hushovd knew that with every passing second his yellow jersey was flying away from him with Thomas Voeckler charging ahead in the breakaway, supposedly unaware of the destruction behind him. Unlike in any other sport today, these men risk not only career threatening, but life threatening injuries on a daily basis. Hence their camaraderie can be compared to that of an elite infantry unit, watching eachothers back in the heat of battle – sometimes at the cost of their own.
While all this could be gulped as bitter medicine – read hazards of the sport – what happened next borders on the eccentric. The breakaway of five were doing their best to hold the peloton at bay with 35km to go, and out of nowhere a French TV car, in a bid to overtake the group (presumably for better fotagge), clipped Juan Antonia Flecha’s bike. Doing about 60km/h, the Spaniard fell hard, but behind him Johnny Hoogerland went flying into the fencing on the side of the road.
If the video above does not bring out the horror of the crash, then please watch the gallery at the end of the post.
At such speeds the reaction times are measured in milli-seconds, and once you lose control gravity takes over, with results often being painful. Hoogerland came out in a stream of blood and it took a while for him to be patched up and remount. As he continued receiving treatment on the go from a motorbike doctor, one could not escape the irony of the damage being repaired by a motorised support crew, similar to the one that had caused it.
Sadly this was not the first time such a thing happened this year. We all remember the Getty Images biker who dragged Nicki Sorenson along a few days ago. No doubt then Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s director called it a “scandal” while the official communiqué from the race organisers considered the event to be “intolerable.”
Johnny Hoogerland yet again showed how tough these men are as he finished the stage to earn the polka dot jersey on the day. It was bitter-sweet emotion on display as the Vacansoleil-DCM rider could hardly stand on the podium, and definitely not control tears. Pain showed on his face and gait, but despite all the suffering he refused to lay blame on any person.
“We can still be happy that we’re alive. It’s horrible. I can blame everyone but I don’t think anyone does this sort of thing on purpose,” he said. “I have three cuts that are about seven centimeters long and quite deep too. I’ll go to the hospital now and I think I’ll need about 30 stitches at least….I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, ‘Is this what cycling is about?’ I have the polka-dot jersey but I’m going to spend the rest day in a lot of pain.”
After all of this, it seems almost immaterial to report that Luis-Leon Sanchez won the stage from Thomas Voeckler and Sandy Casar. Voeckler, that indomitable fighter moves into yellow with a lead of 1’49” over Sanchez and 2’26” over Cadel Evans. As the competition heats up there definitely would be an atmosphere of gloom in most teams, after all few were spared damage in the first week.
Stage 10 is again a rolling route, that coupled with the heat will sap muscles of every last ounce of energy. A breakaway can again win the honours on the day but a mass sprint cannot be ruled out. Voeckler though should not have any fear of losing his maillot jaune for a few days. Overall based on these events, I can only say that if men on bikes going up and down while in quite a bit of pain is your thing then it should be a bit of a treat.
Tomorrow is a rest day for the peloton to recuperate and for the injured to lick their wounds. How much that would help the likes of Flecha and Hoogerland am not sure. What is certain is if they have even a remote chance of competing, we will see them on Tuesday. So till tomorrow then…
Disclaimer: The images below might seem disturbing to a few, but I intend to bring them out as the power of human will and suffering that, if used for the good, can inspire people like nothing else.
Jersey holders: General Classification:
Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 38h 35’ 11” Maillot Vert – Philippe Gilbert Luis-Leon Sanchez – 38h 37’ 00” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Johnny Hoogerland Cadel Evans – 38h 37’ 37” Maillot Blanc – Robert Gesink
ps: The official damage list at the end of stage 9 (source: www.letour.fr)
|207||POELS Wouter (NED)||VACANSOLEIL-DCM||withdrawls|
|192||BRUTT Pavel (RUS)||KATUSHA TEAM||withdrawls|
|61||VINOKOUROV Alexandre (KAZ)||PRO TEAM ASTANA||withdrawls|
|59||ZABRISKIE David (USA)||TEAM GARMIN – CERVELO||withdrawls|
|44||GARATE Juan Manuel (ESP)||RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM||non-starter|
|39||WILLEMS Frederik (BEL)||OMEGA PHARMA – LOTTO||withdrawls|
|31||VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen (BEL)||OMEGA PHARMA – LOTTO||withdrawls|
|26||TXURRUKA Amets (ESP)||EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI||withdrawls|