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Last man standing: did crashes decide the Tour?

2 Sep 2021

Did crashes decide the outcome of this year’s Tour de France as much as strength and skill? Cyclist examines the evidence

Words: Richard Moore Photo: Chris Auld Illustration: Bill McConkey

Some will point to his time-trial win in Laval on Stage 5. Or perhaps his performance on Stage 8 in the Alps to Le Grand-Bornand. Or the following day to Tignes, where although he didn’t win either stage, he claimed large amounts of time and chipped even bigger chunks from the morale of his opponents.

Or maybe his back-to-back stage wins in the Pyrenees, although by then the Tour de France was all but done and dusted.

However, arguably the most significant thing that Tadej Pogačar did in the course of winning his second successive Tour was actually something that he did not do. He didn’t fall off and seriously injure himself in any of the huge crashes that marred the early few stages of this year’s race.

School of hard knocks

So swiftly does the narrative of the Tour move on that by the time we reached the Alps it had almost been forgotten that so many of the pre-race favourites were injured and either out of the race or struggling.

This was all to the defending champion’s considerable advantage. It’s not often that a rider who has crashed heavily at any point in the three weeks wins the Tour.

At the start of Stage 4, with so many riders bashed up and bandaged, the peloton attempted to articulate its unhappiness in the only way it really knows how, by stopping. It was only for a minute or so, just after the neutralised section, following which they remounted their bikes and dawdled for 10km before resuming racing with the bloodcurdling ferocity that characterised every stage of this year’s race.

In their brief protest the riders were led by André Greipel, the German veteran in his last Tour, but it wasn’t entirely clear what they were protesting about. The riders’ union, the CPA, said in a statement that its members wished ‘to show their dissatisfaction with safety measures and demand their concerns are taken seriously’.

In practical terms what the riders wanted, the CPA went on to say, was for the UCI ‘to set up discussions with all race stakeholders to adapt the 3km rule [whereby riders who crash or have a mechanical problem in the final 3km are given the same time as the group they were in] during stage races’.

It emerged the riders had requested the ‘safe zone’ for Stage 3 be extended from 3km to 8km – a request apparently agreed in principle by ASO, the Tour organiser, but declined by the UCI’s commissaires on the ground.

This decision, you could argue, had devastating consequences for Jack Haig, who had made an impressively strong start to his first Tour as a team leader with Bahrain Victorious. The Australian was fourth on Stage 1, tenth on Stage 3 and sat sixth overall when he fell heavily, breaking his collarbone – his Tour and Olympic dreams dashed on a tight corner on a narrow road close to the finish of a sprint stage, with the peloton travelling at high speed.

Surveying the carnage, Marc Madiot, the sometimes histrionic boss of the Groupama-FDJ team, concluded that a tipping point had been reached. Speaking on the morning of Stage 4, with Haig, Caleb Ewan, Robert Gesink and others all out, and Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas seriously hurt after their crashes the previous day, he said, ‘Quite apart from my own riders, I’m a father and many fathers watch the Tour, so do mothers and their children, and right now I could understand if those parents did not want their children to be cyclists. We’ve been talking about this for years and we need to find solutions. We can’t just go on like that.’

As well as the narrow roads and dangerous bend that took out Haig, Madiot said the finish of the stage – where Ewan crashed and broke his collarbone – was also dangerous.

‘We have to do something,’ he said, ‘or there will end up being deaths. And I don’t want to have to call up one of my rider’s families to tell them what has happened. This can’t go on. It’s not bike racing.’

Madiot admitted that there wasn’t a simple cause, and suggested that there were a number of people who had a responsibility to make the sport safer: ‘It’s not just the route, not just the organisers, but also the riders, and the international authorities who do not pay attention to what former riders have to say.’

No safety in numbers

What about the riders themselves? It never seems appropriate to point the finger of blame at an injured rider, but it did seem that some of the crashes on Stage 3 had more to do with rider error than course design. Roglič appeared to be trying to squeeze through a gap that wasn’t there when he was nudged by Sonny Colbrelli. Ewan touched Tim Merlier’s back wheel while trying to come around him in the sprint, taking out Peter Sagan as well.

Mitch Docker, the EF Education-Nippo rider who will retire after Paris-Roubaix, offered an opinion after those first three days of crashes that you don’t hear from many professionals. He wasn’t blaming individual riders, but noting a wider trend that he thinks has had an impact on safety.

With teams more interested in riders’ performance data than their skills in the bunch, or their pedigree as juniors, there are different pathways into professional cycling that their didn’t used to be.

‘The peloton is changing,’ said Docker. ‘The feeling I used to have is that people came into the WorldTour peloton because they were winners. And they’d become winners through the junior ranks and by working their way up through amateur racing. Now riders can be judged, and get a contract with a team, through their performance data: basically, whether they have a big engine.

‘A few years ago, if you could win a race and had poor data it didn’t matter. No one knew about the data. You learned race skills, learned race craft and how to win, so when you entered the WorldTour you knew how to race and how to handle yourself in the bunch.

‘What’s happening now is that through having access to data people are finding these huge engines. Roglič has been in the peloton since 2013 and the WorldTour since 2016 but he didn’t grow up as a cyclist. He didn’t learn his skills as a junior. When you put a whole bunch together now, there could be as many as 50% who haven’t raced as much as some of the guys who started as juniors.

‘They’re certainly strong enough, but that’s not the issue,’ Docker adds. ‘They have the power but not necessarily the skill. Meanwhile the racing has got faster, there’s more stress, but some of the riders don’t have the skill.

‘It’s a part of racing that’s overlooked in my opinion because there’s an assumption that the guys with big engines and lots of power can learn the skills later. But I’m not sure they always can.’

What if?

The absence of a single or overriding cause of the crashes is a big problem when it comes to addressing an issue that is not only harmful for the riders involved in the crashes, but also for the integrity of the competition.

Madiot, after all, said that the GC battle was ‘ruined because of the crashes’. It’s a bold claim but one worth dwelling on. Pogačar was a deserving and convincing winner, and it’s difficult to imagine that any rider would have been able to challenge him in the 2021 race, but how do we know that Roglič, who started the race as well as if not better than his countryman, would not have been that rider?

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Or what if Ineos Grenadiers’ four theoretical leaders – Thomas, Richard Carapaz, Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart – had all remained upright, with their team able to play four strong cards instead of just Carapaz, who ended up on the podium in third?

Or perhaps Haig would have – as his team boss, Rolf Aldag, believed – emerged as a genuine contender. That would have seemed less unlikely at the start of the Tour than Jonas Vingegaard finishing on the podium. After all, the young Dane went into the race as the third or fourth best rider in his own team but moved into the space left by Roglič to end up second to Pogačar in Paris.

And never mind the GC. Mark Cavendish’s return to form, with four stage wins and the green jersey, is one of the great comeback tales in the 118-year history of the Tour. But what if Ewan, trying to win stages in all three Grand Tours, had not crashed out?

Crashes do seem more frequent, with more serious consequences, than in the past. But as Madiot said, there are numerous reasons for this, from more road furniture to faster pelotons (faster bikes, faster clothing, faster riders), to sports directors all instructing their riders to move up ahead of a dangerous section of road, to teams insisting on riding as units and riders packing ever more tightly together. And perhaps Docker’s claim, that the emphasis on physiology is to the detriment of skill, is also a factor.

But luck comes into it too. When Tony Martin, leading the Jumbo-Visma line on the right of the bunch, collided with a fan’s homemade banner on Stage 1, he took out most of his team. Pogačar and his teammates just happened to be on the other side of the road.

The future is not written

For most of the first week this was the dominant story. Then the Tour moved on from the early chaos and danger and a different story was written, with the what-ifs discarded like the fan’s banner. It is a story that will describe Pogačar as one of the most convincing winners of the past two decades, with Cavendish one of the greatest comeback tales.

It was, as Dan Martin said at the end of the penultimate stage, a Tour that was run off in unusual circumstances. Many compared it to 2014, when Vincenzo Nibali had a relatively clear run after defending champion Chris Froome crashed out early.

‘Seeing those huge crashes, you never want to see that,’ said Martin. ‘It was like a bomb had gone off. It was horrific to see so many people hurt.’

Martin agreed with Madiot that the crashes had distorted the battle for the yellow jersey, and warned against the assumption that we are now set for a prolonged period of Pogačar domination.

‘Two years ago we said we were at the start of the Bernal era,’ he said. ‘There are lots of young riders emerging and hopefully we can get them all together. It’s an exciting time for cycling.

‘I think Tadej’s dominance here this year was down to the circumstances,’ Martin continued. ‘Partly it was the race starting a week early [in the last week of June rather than the first week of July]. I checked the weather forecast for next week and it will be really hot in the Pyrenees.’

The weather for much of the Tour was unusually cold. On the one hot day in the mountains, when the peloton tackled Mont Ventoux twice, Pogačar showed the first – and as it turned out, only – sign of weakness when Vingegaard dropped him towards the top of the second ascent.

‘We saw on Ventoux how Tadej suffered in the heat and I think if it had been typical 35°C Pyrenean days it might have been a different race,’ said Martin. ‘Same in the Alps – we’ve never seen weather like that in the Tour. Having been teammates with Tadej [at UAE-Team Emirates in 2019], that’s the weather he thrives in.

‘I said at the start of this race, when I was asked what could stop him winning: the weather. Hopefully next year we get a more normal Tour with fewer crashes and normal weather, and we’ll see what Tadej can do.’

Safety first?

Is the UCI doing enough to prevent crashes in the peloton? Here are some of the measures it has put in place

After the brief protest on Stage 4, the CPA (Cyclistes Professionnels Associés) and the riders of the Tour de France won a small but perhaps significant victory on Stage 13 to Carcassonne. Their request to extend the 3km rule, whereby riders who crash or suffer a mechanical issue are given the same time as the group they were in, was granted by the UCI. It meant that on the run-in to Carcassonne the ‘safe zone’ was 4.5km.

There are numerous safety measures being rolled out by the UCI this year and next, from improved and standardised safety barriers, which are set to become mandatory in 2022 (though the UCI has left itself some wriggle room here) to the appointment of Event Safety Managers.

Given the crashes in the early days of this year’s Tour, the governing body’s development of a database of incidents and accidents over the last five years could also prove significant and answer some of the key questions around the reasons for the number and also the severity of so many of the crashes.