I imagine you’ll have seen the crash that took down Julian Alaphilippe, along with a vast array of other riders, at Strade Bianche earlier this year (and, then the one at Liège, which he has thankfully now recovered from). If you haven’t, I can’t imagine you’re for a second the sort of ghoul who’d go looking for it, so I suppose now you never will.
But you can take it from me that it was both strange and spectacular. It started with a sudden blast of crosswind whipping across a gravel road, and finished with what seemed like about thirty riders wandering around in a field like metal-detectorists, trying to find bits of bike.
In the middle of the chaos, Alaphilippe was launched into the air, as if someone had asked a special effects studio to do a bike race crash, and they’d pushed it a bit too far. You can tell you’ve had a big one when the walk back to collect your bike is long enough to eat an energy bar. No one was badly hurt.
Alaphilippe’s reaction afterwards was simply, “Crashing is part of cycling.” To which I say, it’s easy to be philosophical when you land on something soft, Julian. This is a maxim for life, by the way, not just cycling.
I have to say that I’ve never once lain on my back in a ditch watching my bike flying overhead, silhouetted against the sun and thought, “Oh well. I guess that’s what I signed up for.” But I do know what he means. The process of crashing, getting up, triaging yourself and chasing the race is part of the show. Because the race never stops. Every minute you’re stationary, the race gets a minute further away from you. Every minute you spend counting your collarbones might take you seven or eight or more to get back, if you ever do. This is a unique, critical inconvenience of road racing.
It's the reason bike riders look so brave in the face of injury. “You think you’ve broken your collarbone? Well, get back in the race then we’ll talk about it.”
It’s this that allows us to draw comparisons, in our favour naturally, with football. In football, players fall over under pretty minimal pressure, and then make the absolute most of it. And we, bloodied and unbowed, mock them. But it’s just an accident of history.
Now, a little backstory. Football used to be like cycling. When it started, it was a wild, feral sport. The two goals were several miles apart, usually in opposing towns or villages. The game could involve up to a thousand players, and lasted until everyone was exhausted or dead.
It was allowed (hell, it was actively encouraged) to kick other players as hard as you liked even if the ball was literally miles away. If you fell over one of two things would happen. Either you’d get trampled to death and probably eaten, or the game would make like a bike-race and vanish up the road.
Clearly the biggest mistake football has made is to ban maiming and play on a very small pitch. If Manchester City vs Chelsea still consisted of 1000 people kicking each other all the way up and down the M6, we’d have a lot less to sneer at.
The truth is that we’re not intrinsically tougher people, it’s just that in cycling sympathy is in much shorter supply. Once you’re lying in a ditch and covered in road rash, the race forgets you were ever even part of it. Riders are rarely penalised for a crash outside of a sprint; there’s no attempt to compensate those who get brought down by someone else’s mistake. There’s no equivalent of a free kick to perform for. And if there was, well, it’s not like cycling has a spotless record of moral probity.
We’re just lucky to have a sport that’s never been domesticated. It’s still the brutal, unrefined punch-up that it’s always been. And, yes crashing is certainly part of that.
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