CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER

Cyclist - - Cyclist - Words FELIX LOWE Pho­tog­ra­phy DANNY BIRD

Is the Tour de France more dan­ger­ous than in the past? And can it be made safer with­out de­tract­ing from the spec­ta­cle?

The grim af­ter­math of the high­speed crash was cap­tured on the Go­pro of a team me­chanic. It wasn’t merely the sight of dazed rid­ers writhing in pain along­side a heap of twisted car­bon that made the scene so grotesque. It was the sounds of their moan­ing amid a con­fused med­ley of shouts, car horns and the he­li­copters over­head. That and the smell of burn­ing rub­ber, ap­par­ently.

Caused when French­man Wil­liam Bon­net touched a wheel in a pelo­ton ram­pag­ing along at high speed, the bomb blast of a crash that marred Stage 3 of last year’s Tour de France was so se­vere that the com­mis­saires took the rare step of neu­tral­is­ing the race. A wise move, given that the Tour’s four am­bu­lances and two med­i­cal cars were all tend­ing to the in­jured.

Suf­fer­ing from a ‘hang­man’s frac­ture’ of the neck and wounds all over his body, the blood­ied Bon­net was one of six rid­ers to aban­don that day, along­side the mail­lot jaune Fabian Can­cel­lara, who had frac­tured his spine. Three days later Tony Mar­tin – also in yel­low – shat­tered his col­lar­bone. It was the first time in his­tory that two yel­low jer­seys had aban­doned the same Tour, let alone its open­ing week.

Com­men­ta­tors talked of the ‘Tour de Car­nage’ af­ter 12 rid­ers had with­drawn by Stage 7. But al­though al­most 20% of the pelo­ton didn’t make it to Paris, there have been fewer with­drawals per year in the past five Tours than the av­er­age since the turn of the cen­tury. If pro cy­cling is get­ting more per­ilous, it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily borne out by the fig­ures.

Treach­er­ous tac­tics

‘The Tour is not more dan­ger­ous than in the past,’ race di­rec­tor Chris­tian Prud­homme as­sures Cy­clist, stress­ing last year’s yel­low knock­out was an ‘un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence’. Prud­homme blames ‘race tac­tics and the way teams ride to­gether in the pelo­ton. All the rid­ers of one team now gather around their leader and fight to be on the front of the pack. Im­ages from above show four or five teams oc­cu­py­ing the first 30-odd places. If you’re stuck be­hind, in the words of Marc Ma­diot [Bon­net’s man­ager at FDJ], “You’re in the drum of the wash­ing ma­chine.” You have to roll with the punches.’

Cy­cling has never been more pro­fes­sional. Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, in­ten­sive train­ing and the cul­ture of mar­ginal gains have lev­elled the play­ing field to the ex­tent that, ac­cord­ing to

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