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It’s Time To Stop Calling for Blood at the Tour de France

By Sophie Smith 

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Our great sport really doesn’t help itself sometimes.

The peloton is battered, bruised and missing some of its biggest names after only the first week of the Tour de France, which has been marred by blame-game industry politics and well-documented crashes. 

Top-billed sprinter Caleb Ewan got a few days in before being forced to abandon, and injured title contenders Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas are fighting to get through the pain simply sitting on their bikes is causing, over the yellow jersey.

This week I’ve constantly been asked to report on or speak about crashes and specifically the one caused by a spectator during the Grand Départ. A radio producer said to me that crash was the biggest story to come out of the Tour so far, which I admonished until I saw that even American rapper 50 Cent had weighed in on it over Twitter.

When a journalist in the press room said race organizer ASO had flagged suing the woman I thought it was too preposterous to be true.

Yet the organization, until withdrawing its complaint a day after she was taken into police custody, did contribute to a witch hunt that wasn’t as interested in the devastating pileups that followed, none of which, FYI, were caused by fans.

Crashes on stage 1 drew blood from many riders. Image: Getty Images.

No one is threatening to sue the teams or riders who through a touch of wheels, or taking too many risks, have come down this week. No one has ventured to say ASO, or the UCI should be publicly vilified and prodded with metaphorical pitchforks for creating and condoning parcours that riders—too little and too late—have raised safety concerns over. The course came out on November 1 and, even if you can’t change it, the peloton can manage how it is tackled. Why didn’t riders on stage 3, having apparently voiced at the start that the approach to finish was dangerous, neutralize proceedings on the areas they deemed too much?  Ewan, Thomas and Roglic all came down in separate incidents that day.

“It was quite a big crash,” Thomas said after stage 7. “It’s easy to talk myself into it, ‘I’m ok blah, blah, blah.’ But it still takes a lot out of you, as you can see with Roglic as well. I’m suffering.”

The Welshman and Roglic have not hidden how much pain they are in, and it was evident on stage 8, the first foray into the mountains and their territory, when they fell back to the last group on the road.

Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team has been focused on recovery for days now.

“[Defending Tour champion Tadej] Pogacar was already the favorite but for now it’s enormous, his position,” admitted Jumbo-Visma sports director Merijn Zeeman before stage 6. “I would say there is only one top favorite left. Teams will make their tactics and see if they can come back to him. But also, regarding the last TT in Saint-Émilion, it’s clear everyone needs at least one minute on him before we are there, and I think that’s how it looks now and for us. For now, we only recover, and we don’t want to think too much about what will come or what we can do. We just need to recover from all the crashes now.”

The go-slow protest at the beginning of stage 4 dominated pre-race interviews, but it was meek at best. Not all teams agreed with it and even figureheads of the sport, like Peter Sagan, were resigned.

“What is going to change?” said Sagan. “The riders we have to change our mind otherwise it’s going to get only worse. Nothing is going to change anyway. The last 10 years it’s only worse and worse.”

Fans cause crashes, sometimes with no intent, as was the case with the woman with the cardboard sign, and sometimes through incredibly bad, dare I say idiotic, judgement.

But the fact the industry is so quick to judge them and then point fingers and avoid accountability when it is at fault for dangerous spills and cheap thrills is an embarrassment.

This week I should have been reporting on Mathieu van der Poel’s family lineage that made his tenure in the yellow jersey so special. I should have been talking about the workings behind Mark Cavendish’s comeback from the bin, or young Pogacar’s command.

The politics and lack of unity between industry parties, even between riders, is as much to blame for the broken bones, horrifying carnage, skinned backsides and concussions suffered this week.

“Nothing will change unless they change the rules,” said BikeExchange sports director Matt White. “It’s as simple as that. This is the biggest event of the year and people are all just looking out for themselves. Talking to our guys in the bus as well, there is a general lack of respect for each other in the peloton. There are guys who are taking a lot of risks. You hear stories from the guys of people pushing each other out of the way, grabbing each other. That didn’t fly that long ago.”

The way the Tour is romanticized doesn’t help. Slandering people who cause crashes and then celebrating the portrayal of riders as hard nut gladiators with a tough, ride-or-die attitude seems counterintuitive. They’re people. And broken bones can quickly turn into broken minds, which even riders sometimes seem to forget.

Movistar in a press release following that stage 1 crash in which Marc Soler suffered multiple arm fractures opened its communication of the incident saying, “the Tour de France honored its macabre legend in the opening week.”

That’s open to translation and interpretation, but romanticizing a crash in which one of your riders was badly injured, and then more so putting said mangled rider back on his bike achieves what exactly? Macabre, yes. Legendary? No.

Soler finished the stage despite not being able to later take his own jersey off.

“The fall happened at a point in the race where the road narrowed, and we were trying to be well-placed… The mechanic pulled me up by my armpits, and I sat on the side of the road, I was really dizzy. There were still 50 kilometers to go,” he told La Vanguardia. “[Movistar] told me to try to go on but I don’t know how I did. I couldn’t change gear or brake. When I got to the finish, I was worried about the time limit, but I couldn’t even get my clothes off in the bus, they had to cut them off with scissors. Then when we got to the medical truck, they confirmed my injuries.”

Why didn’t Soler stop? Why did his team even entertain the idea of putting him back on his bike? Where were the UCI medical protocols that should have forbid it?

Blood doesn’t need to be spilt for the Tour to be entertaining or gripping.

Fans need to be educated about the dangers of standing too close to the peloton and the importance of giving it space, especially at an event as significant and crucial to the careers of riders and the financial underpinning of the sport. But cycling, equally, needs to get a grip. Stop celebrating brutality over common sense. Fans cause crashes, but so too do riders, so too do stakeholders by the extension of course design, and so too does the UCI for the rules that affect how the Tour is raced. Why is it so hard for our divided sport to unify?

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