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The Tour de France Is a Risky Business in 2021, but Unfortunately That’s History Repeating Itself

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The refrain is one I have heard every July since I first worked on the Tour de France back in 1990. The Tour, it’s always said, is getting more dangerous every year, with more and bigger crashes in the opening week. It would be perfectly reasonable to think exactly that after stage 1 through Brittany today.

By William Fotheringham | Images by Getty Images

Two vast pile-ups caused carnage within the peloton, putting at least three riders out of the race—the overnight medical assessments may rule out more, and the after-effects will probably eliminate others as the race progresses—and fraying pretty much every rider’s nerves. To take just one team, the Ag2R medical bulletin just landed in my inbox: four riders out of eight who fell twice, six out of eight with injuries of varying severity, from seven fallers.

It’s reasonable to think things are getting worse, but a look back over the last 30 years of writing about the Tour suggests that might not be the case. I’d suggest that as the months between each Tour pass, there’s a tendency to gradually gloss over, if not entirely forget, the crashes in the race the year before, let alone the year before that.

It was 1990 when Robert Millar, now Philippa York, told me about the intense stresses of racing through Brittany after the Tour’s Mont Saint Michel stage, explaining how the bike needed new brake blocks after every stage, and how you now needed to learn to swear in several languages. It was 1991 when Millar hit the tarmac somewhere in Normandy and lay there as if dropped from a great height, then spent the rest of the race wearing a neck brace. That same year, we all held our breath as Djamolidin Abduzhaparov flew through the air on the Champs Elysées after hitting a giant cardboard Coke can in the finish sprint.

And so on… I’ve quoted examples from the early 1990s, but you have only to look at the 2003 and 2004 Tours to recall two absolute horror shows in finish sprints, while in 2012 I wrote this after the Boulogne stage… “those who drew the losing tickets included France’s hero of last year Thomas Voeckler, who was seven minutes down at the end after being caught behind a crash with 30km to go that split the field in three and left the Spaniard José-Joaquin Rojas with a broken collarbone. Ireland’s debutant, Daniel Martin, lost more than five minutes while Bradley Wiggins’s Sky lost a useful domestique in Kanstantsin Siutsou, who broke his shin in a mass pile-up 52km from the finish.”

That crash—in similar circumstances to today’s second incident, on a relatively wide and straight, but downhill road, reduced the peloton to around 60; it was caused by a rider removing overshoes in the bunch. That day, there was another pile up on the climb to the finish, where all bar a dozen of the remaining 60 had to stop. Somewhere in my office is a medical bulletin from the Saint Flour stage in 2011, which I kept because I thought the casualty list was improbably long. It wasn’t a one-off unfortunately.

Tour de France 2021 Stage 1 crash
The aftermath of a massive spectator-caused crash on stage 1 of the Tour. Image: Getty Images

Today’s first pile-up was caused by a foolish fan holding a placard up to the television cameras, but sadly, that kind of idiocy is nothing new either. The 1994 Tour finish at Armentières witnessed a similar crash involving a gendarme taking a photograph in the final meters, who had ignored the fact that his viewfinder disguised just how close the riders were. It was 2003 when a fan with a plastic bag caused Lance Armstrong to crash at Luz Ardiden; in 2006 I wrote about Thor Hushovd finishing stage one “as if he’d been knifed in a bar brawl,” after a fan waved a giant cardboard hand over the barriers as the sprint unfolded, catching a vein in the Norwegian’s arm.

It would be nice to suggest that safety measures have changed things. The sport has moved, albeit often reactive rather than proactive. Along the route, you can see where road furniture has been removed. You don’t see those cardboard Coke cans anymore; you rarely if ever see personnel standing within the barriers in the final kilometer; and the giant hands have disappeared, in the finale at least. Warnings to the fans over safety have proliferated in recent years, and rightly so, but clearly some don’t listen. The Tour organizers have said they will take legal action against the person who caused today’s first pile-up, but they will have to be located first.

Tour de France Stage 1 crash Marc Hirschi
Marc Hirschi after crashing into the bushes on stage 1 of the Tour. Image: Getty Images.

Can safety be further improved? Road furniture is a constant bane, but today’s biggest crashes had nothing to do with it. You could argue for an extension of the 3km “incident cut-off” to five or 10 kilometers, because it removes an incentive for the GC teams to fight for position with the sprint teams, but stuff can happen a long way from the finish. Helmet radios are sometimes cited as a factor, but there were big crashes before they were invented. Six teams less in the peloton would mean a drastically smaller number fighting for space, but good luck with that one.

It’s only human to feel uncomfortable at the thought that the injury and heartache such as we saw today are, in a basic sense, the collateral damage of a sport that we take pleasure in, in which some of us are lucky enough to earn a living. It’s hardly surprising that there’s a ready measure of superstition in and around bike races, given the random role persistently played by the finger of fate. And that unavoidable sense that the pile-ups are getting worse every year? Perhaps it’s another coping mechanism, an attempt to project some kind of logic onto a conundrum to which there is no satisfactory answer.

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