Why were there so many crashes in the first week of the Tour de France? As we all know, going down on a bike is brutal. As EF Education First CEO Jonathan Vaughters described it, “crashing is like jumping out of a car at 30 mph in your underwear.” And nobody wants to do that.
Yet, in any bike race, the high speeds, the tight proximity to other riders in the peloton, and the mind-numbing intensity make it a miracle that riders aren’t constantly flying onto the asphalt in their underwear. The skill that professional cyclists have with “driving” the bike is on par with any professional motorsport racer.
A number of factors make the Tour de France unique and even more crash prone than other races, especially in the opening week. Here are ten:
- Pressure & Nerves – The Tour de France is the biggest race of the year. For most of the world, it’s the only race of the year. This isn’t lost on the riders. As Alex Howes, the newly crowned US Pro Road Champion puts it, “every rider knows that every move they make will be seen and scrutinized by the world.” Add to that their own expectations along with the expectations of their team and you’ve got an entire peloton of nervous riders.
- Speed & Fitness – Simon Clarke, EF Education First Cycling Team captain, told me the Tour has more crashes for a simple reason: “The speeds at the Tour are the fastest of the year.” This increase in speed leaves less room for mistakes and makes it harder to manage oneself within the pack.
- Avoiding Crashes – The irony is that riders expect crashes and know they need to stay at the head of the pack to have a better chance of avoiding them. Levi Leipheimer, a veteran of the Tour, explained to me that “there are 180 riders fighting to be in the space of 30 to avoid crashing, which makes more crashes. It’s a vicious cycle.”
- Team Radios – Every rider has radio communication with their directors. And at the Tour, unlike most races, most teams use scouts who drive ahead of the race to assess wind and road conditions, relaying that information back to the race directors who are then relaying that information back to the riders. The goal is to keep the riders safe and to give them a competitive advantage. But, when almost all of the riders in the pack are getting the same information at the same time and then being asked to act on it, what ensues is often a mad rush through a very small gate. I asked a number of riders if they thought that there would be less crashes if there were no radios and everyone answered, “yes.”
- Road Furniture – The higher number of crashes at the Tour de France isn’t a recent thing. When I asked legendary rider and stage winner of the Tour de France, Davis Phinney, why he thought there were more crashes at the Tour, he smiled at me and said, “road furniture” – a polite synonym for all of the traffic calming infrastructure designed to slow cars transitioning from rural to urban roads. Sean Co, the director of special projects for Street Light Data that provides big data to cities to plan for better infrastructure, pointed out to me that “many traffic calming features are actually designed to make bicycle commuting safer, but the same obstacles that slow cars and protect cyclists also make bicycle racing more dangerous.” For a country like France that respects cycling as a mode of transportation, the irony is that high speed finishes that start on rural roads but finish in city centers wreak havoc on the peloton.
- Extreme Fans – Don’t take a selfie when the peloton is approaching you at 36 mph. Also, don’t try and run in the middle of a line of riders wearing a dinosaur costume. Your tail is going to get in the way. The Tour, like no other race, brings out the selfies, the dinosaurs, and all other manner of extreme love and madness for the riders.
- Disparity in Brakes – This is something I use to hear Lance Armstrong complain about – the fact that with the appearance of carbon rims, the modulation of braking across the peloton was no longer consistent. This is more pronounced now that there’s a mixture of rim and disc brakes within the peloton, especially if it’s wet. The result is that when there’s a need to suddenly brake, like coming into a corner or to avoid a crash, the disparity in braking modulation causes some riders to slow down faster than others, which means you’re more likely to bump into someone.
- A Huge Race Caravan – There’s so much extra at the Tour. From the publicity caravan ahead of the race, to extra VIP vehicles, media vehicles, camera motor bikes, and neutral support vehicles. This all adds up to extra chaos and extra distraction. Which dovetails to the next point.
- External Stimuli & Lapses in Focus – While visually it’s easy to see all of the external stimuli that the riders are challenged with, what isn’t easy to hear is all of the noise. Describing what it’s like to race in the Tour compared to other races, Taylor Phinney said that, “the energy from the crowds is super intense and unrelenting, making it super loud all day. That noise begins to wear on you. It’s inescapable at times.” The net result of all of that external stimuli is that combined with fatigue and the intensity of racing, lapses in focus happen. Those lapses result in crashes.
- It’s the Tour de France – Just saying ‘Tour de France’ feels elevated and bigger than life. More than any other event in cycling, everything – good and bad – is exaggerated at the Tour. Crashing is just something that happens if you ride or race bikes. Add the title, “Tour de France” and unfortunately there will be more.
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