Comment: war de France

Stage six to Metz saw crashes wreak havoc on an already battered peloton. Richard Moore was at the finish to see the reaction

Words by Richard Moore in Metz

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Friday July 6, 2012

Historically, the city of Metz is no stranger to conflict – it spent months under heavy siege during the Franco-Prussian War. It resembled a war zone again as the bruised and wounded riders of the Tour filtered into the finish.

As in warfare, the TV pictures failed to do justice to the horrors unfolding in the theatre of battle – also known as the Tour de France – but to stand by the team buses, and to witness the return of the survivors, was to appreciate just how bad it had been.

I don’t want to labour the war analogy (thought it might be too late for that), because it is crass to compare sport to war. But seriously, people were very seriously hurt out there. Several looked traumatised at the finish. ‘Horror’ is not an exaggeration.

David Millar put it best. He, along with three or possibly four Garmin-Sharp teammates, came down in the pile-up with 25km to go. “It was the scariest crash I’ve ever been in. Once it started happening we didn’t have a chance to brake so we were flying into each other at 60, 70kph. I was lucky. I was in the third wave so I started landing on guys. But there were chainrings and bikes flying, getting tangled up in bodies.”

Twisting his arm to inspect his bloody elbow, Millar added: “I was pretty lucky,”

Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal didn’t even make it back to the bus. It seemed a miracle that Johan Vansummeren did. His shorts were in ribbons, his modesty only preserved by the blood from his various wounds congealing and acting as an adhesive.

Not that he cared whether his buttocks were on display. Vansummeren looked on the verge of tears as he entered the bus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a hospital — this was the description offered by one Garmin staff member.

What causes crashes, particularly crashes as nasty as this one? The debate raged last year, when the narrow roads of Brittany, made more treacherous by rain, were held to be responsible. There were also incidents involving motorbikes and cars, of course, which put safety at the top of the agenda in the first week — as, in truth, it is almost every year.

But this year, as Chris Boardman noted in Metz, the most serious crashes have happened on wide, straight roads. No rain, no road furniture.

The 25km-to-go crash on stage six was perhaps as major a pile-up, in terms of numbers, as the Tour has witnessed. It was as though a bomb had exploded in the middle of the peloton, and a section of the road just disappeared.

Not that it was necessarily random. This might have been a particular pinch point, or a moment of transition in the day’s racing, when sprinters’ teams were moving forward, and general classification riders and their teams were also trying to be up near the front. It explains why so many Garmin riders went down: they would have been surrounding Hesjedal, trying to keep him safe. The irony will be lost.

Allan Peiper, the Garmin directeur sportif who called it the worst day he had seen in his 30-plus years in the sport, talked about the stress of “keeping leaders at the front, and the sprinters setting up, and the wind.” He also noted that, at this stage of the race, before the mountains, “everyone’s fresh.”

Stuart O’Grady, the veteran on the Orica-GreenEdge team, didn’t come down, mainly because it was his team driving the peloton when the crash happened. That was surely no coincidence: as they massed at the front and stepped on the gas, it would act like a klaxxon or bugle going off, signalling to everyone else that the race was now on. Time to move up. Time to panic. There were reports that the cause might have been one rider attempting to remove an overshoe: there will always be riders trying to remove clothing as the race heats up.

“It’s been a mad Tour,” said O’Grady, “there are a lot of young kids out there, and they don’t know how to ride their bikes. There’s a lot of inexperience, a lot of desperation, a lot of nerves. I think everyone needs to chill.”

Friday’s crash was particularly nasty, but tumbles in the first week of the Tour are as inevitable as a Fabian Cancellara yellow jersey, and as predictable as veteran riders blaming the young ones.

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