Worst day in the world
Dramatic title huh? Well it was a dramatic day, Stage 5: one that left me and just about everyone else here feeling sick to the stomach, and, I have to admit, wondering for more than just a moment just why I am in this mad sport.
The stage began under blue skies with an moderate temperature that had everyone in a cheery mood after the preceding day of rain. But the calm was shattered in the neutral when a moto rider rammed straight into the back of veteran Jaan Kirsipuu of Champion Systems. I heard an almighty noise and turned to see a big black motorcycle sliding along the road with Jaan tumbling alongside it.
I stopped and headed back immediately to find Jaan standing but completely dazed, next to his mangled bicycle with the moto rider comforting two elderly women whom he’d also hit with his bike. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt. I heard later that the moto rider had been taking his photographer passenger along the peloton to get a photo but swerved into Jaan to miss a parked car. Unbelievable! And it was lucky that we were only doing about 25kph.
That drama over, we set off again and got no more than one kilometer when we had a 90 degree turn. As the bunch cornered there was a family crossing the road that just missed getting mown down by the slimmest margin. Had there not been a policeman there to drag them over the road it could have been another bad incident.
The Chief Commissaire called us all to a stop a few hundred meters later as we waited for Kirsipuu, I think. The UCI Commissaire took this opportunity to address us and say that our safety was important to her, and then she proceeded to tell us about the hazards on the route: a bad corner after the descent, some standing water on another, and a bad road along the way. All of this prompted me to wonder why the heck she hadn’t bothered to tell us that at the start. Guess a rider getting slammed by an 800 pound motorbike from behind awoke her caring instincts…
Then, well, we raced. The ins and outs of the actual racing I can barely remember, because at about the 130km mark guess what happened – again – yep, that’s right, another motorbike rammed right into a rider. Suddenly there was a huge Harley down on the road; a confused photographer sat next to it holding onto his camera and looking like he had no idea where he was; the moto rider lay on his back convulsing; and a Lampre-ISD Conti rider was just about standing but checking his body for damage.
The Harley driver had been trying to pass the pack when he clipped the rider. The rider went into the barrier then onto the road. The driver flew over the bars and tumbled and the bike itself fell onto the photographer.
It was a scene you never want to see, and it was the second time on this crappiest of days that we had to see it.
First of all, a Harley? In a bike race? Are you kidding me? And inexperienced outriders? Like this sport isn’t dangerous enough… We need some extra spice by having weekend warriors on mechanized rhinos taking chunks out of us.
Thanks a lot, Tour de Korea organizers, real bright thinking there.
Someone shouted “Ok neutral to the finish!” which was the smartest thing I’d heard all week, but then the Chief Comm comes over and said, “Your safety… blah, blah, blah… and you will compete for the sprint point in 5km and the finish in 30km. OK?”
I was flabbergasted. At a Loss for words. Candelario said no to the sprint, spoke to the Comm and some riders and we didn’t compete it, but there was still the problem that you had 110 guys who suddenly thought they could win the stage. And it was a tough stage that was about to break up before Judge Dredd on that Harley took out our fellow rider (who finished the stage, by the way): one with a narrow finish that was ok for a group of 15 or 20 but with enough bumps and lumps on the road to make it very dangerous for a bunch sprint.
The Chief Comm knew this; she had to. We though, we’re just cyclists. Tell us to do something that normal people would call you mad to even ask and we’ll do it. And do it twice just to prove how damn hard we are.
As racing cyclists we put ourselves through a lot, and sometimes I feel we are taken advantage of, with ill-thought-out descents, bad corners and narrow finishes. And this was a day that us being taken for idiots was in evidence, in spades.
3km before the finish there’s another crash. No big deal, it could have happened anytime, But then in the last 200m, where the finish, on this 4-lane road, for some unknown reason gets funneled down to one lane just about 7-meters wide, there’s another crash. A bad one. I see my teammate Dave McCann standing but holding his thumb. I get off my bike to see if he’s ok.
“I’ve lost my thumb,” he says. “I’ve lost my thumb.”
And he shows me a piece of meat sliced through beyond the bone and through the tendon, an inch-long flap of raw and bloody flesh that is hanging on by nothing other than the merest bit of skin at the other side.
“DOCTOR!” I shout immediately. A car pulls up: It says ‘Doctor’ on the window but nothing seems to be right; the guy sat in the passenger seat has a badge with ‘Doctor’ written on it but he isn’t jumping from the car. In fact, he looks pissed off at having to get out. He finally does after what seems an eternity and walks past Dave to a guy behind that I hadn’t even noticed.
The guy is the yellow jersey and his whole body is shaking and he has foam coming from his lips. His teammate is screaming into his face, something in Korean that I can’t understand but that my mind translates as “Do not fucking die.” It is that heavy.
And what does the ‘doctor’ do? Gets out a bottle of saline and sprays it in the guy’s face. I am not joking. He then stands back and the guy’s teammate continues to scream in Yellow’s face. I go back to Dave and give him my mitt to help stem the blood. He is remarkably calm. I turn back to Yellow and see the ‘doctor’ standing back with his hands on his hips. I shout at him, telling him to get to work. He looks through me. I grab his badge and shove it in his face. He does not react at all.
I go to his car to get the first aid kit. The driver, a woman, shouts ‘NO!’ at me as I open the back door. There is no medical kit. Just a suitcase with clothes in it on the seat.
Then, inexplicably, I see Yellow’s teammates getting him up, with the help of an experienced UCI Commissaire, and putting him back on his bike! I cannot believe what I am seeing. The Commissaire then pushes Yellow along for 5 meters before leaving him to zig-zag to the line. Me and my RTS teammates stand in silence and watch.
David went to our bus, wrapped his thumb in a towel and electrical tape, and got a police car to take him to the hospital. He had an operation last night. Best case scenario is the operation to re-attach the nerve endings is successful and he will be out in a week. Worst case is they will have to amputate.
Yellow collapsed again at the finish and the medics who appeared from the ambulance did not put him in the recovery position, did not check his pulse or his breathing, did not cushion his head or check for broken bones, did not get him in a blanket, and quite obviously did not have the slightest clue what to do.
Incredibly. He did somehow start the next day.
David called us next morning, high on morphine, to advise us on team tactics. That is one hard dude.
The UCI, the race organizers, makes a heck of a lot of money out of us guys who fight it out for what seem like big money prizes of $3,000 or $4,000 finishes (which, in the world of pro sports, is peanuts). The least we ask is that we are taken care of, protected, and provided with experienced medical staff just in case someone does have their limb sliced off or ends up foaming at the mouth.
The Commissaire told me next day that two extra ambulances had been called in. With staff that have experience of bike races. Why were they not here in the first place? She also told me she didn’t check to see if the doctor was an actual doctor or if he had a first aid kit in his car. I’m not saying it’s the Chief Comm’s responsibility but someone has to be checking this stuff.
Later at dinner we heard there had been another crash, two moto riders on Harleys after 30km. No news on any of the moto riders’ status.
This was a black day. A really black day.
Oh yeah, stage 6, someone won.