This year’s Tour de France is starting to look more like a bumper-car rink gone wrong than a bike race. Of the four riders who have worn the maillot jaune during the first seven days of the 2015 Tour, two of them have crashed out of the race.
On Stage 6, time trial World Champion Tony Martin went down after a touch of wheels with a Europcar racer in the final run-in to Le Havre. Though Martin was able to remount his bike and finish the stage, his collarbone was shattered into such a jigsaw of pieces that he had no choice but to withdraw and head home to Germany for surgery. Also brought down in the melee were overall contenders Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, and Tejay van Garderen, though all three avoided major injury.
Three days prior, Fabian Cancellara relinquished race leadership after a horrifying 20-man pile-up that looked like a game of pick-up sticks hit by a tornado. The Swiss strongman lived up to his nickname, Spartacus, by riding another 65 kilometers to the finish, but threw in the jersey after X-rays revealed fractures to two vertebrae in his low back. The crash forced five other racers, including Best Young Rider Tom Dumoulin, out of the race with injuries. And a second, resulting crash just 500 meters later caused even more chaos.
It’s not only the leaders who are tumbling like bowling pins. Stage 5, a wet and windy affair from Arras to Amiens, made whole sections of the best pros in the world look like toddlers pedaling on a Slip’N Slide. Among the wounded was Cofidis sprinter and French National Champ Nacer Bouhani, who abandoned the Tour after an early fall left him with broken ribs, and Cannondale-Garmin’s Kiwi Jack Bauer, who fractured his femur in a separate fall. In total, 12 riders have so far retired from the Tour because of injuries, while the rest of the peloton is more bandaged and bloodied than the cast on Walking Dead.
So what’s with all the crashes this year?
“It's getting worse every year. But that’s been the trend,” says Jonathan Vaughters, sport director at Cannondale-Garmin. He says the ever-increasing stakes at the Tour, with more and more riders targeting the GC, is largely to blame. “The primary cause is just higher and higher pressure on the riders to perform at the Tour. No one uses their brakes, even in dangerous situations.”
This year, four favorites are battling it out for the overall: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, and Nairo Quintana. And a host of secondary contenders, including Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky and BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, are also in the mix. According to Quintana, no fewer than 10 racers could take the win in Paris. And that means that every team with an aspiring winner is trying to place themselves and their team leader at the front of the peloton. Given the winding, narrow roads, there’s simply not enough room for everyone at the front. Add in the wind and rain that have lashed the course on several stages, and you have a recipe for mass crashes.
Tour organizers have also exacerbated the issue by shortening early stages and adding in Classics-style courses, including passages of cobbles on Stage 4 and Stage 3’s sharp finishing climb up the Mur de Huy, which features at the finish of La Flèche Wallonne every spring. The idea is to add drama for TV viewers and hopefully prevent one team from putting on the maillot jaune and controlling the race for the entirety of the three weeks.
And according to Team Sky director David Brailsord, it’s working. “'It's exactly what the organizers wanted and the weather turned up on cue and created the suspense and excitement that they were hoping for and I'm sure it's pretty exciting to watch but a bit nervous for us,” he told the DailyMail.
Racers should hopefully get some reprieve from all the jockeying after Sunday’s team time trial, which will likely thin the pack of GC contenders. Once there are only a few favorites left, there will be less pressure at the head of the race. In the mean time, everyone will be hoping to keep their riders upright through the next two stages and healthy into Monday’s first rest day.
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