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Tour de France

Loss of big stars a reminder of human side of Tour de France

The 2014 Tour de France has been a cruel edition of the race, one that has seen dreams broken, almost daily

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Alberto Contador was in tears. The rider known as “El Pistolero,” the man who has overcome a brain aneurysm, defeated Lance Armstrong, and been at the center of a controversial doping suspension, had, for the first time in his career, abandoned a grand tour, brought down by a violent crash early on stage 10 of the Tour de France.

Though he’d attempted to continue on, the pain of what would later prove to be a fractured tibia was too much for the Spaniard. He chased for about 30 minutes, surrounded by his teammates, but was losing time to the overall race favorites. And then, with a hug to teammate Michael Rogers, Contador pulled over, dismounted his bike, and climbed out of the fog and into his team car. His head was in his hand, doing little to mask the tears, the pain, and the bitter disappointment of a lost opportunity.

“Mentally he’s destroyed,” said TInkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis. “He was in the shape of his life. This was his Tour. It’s a mess. We were here to win the Tour de France. He’s in super good condition, never better. It’s a big, big pity.”

Earlier in the stage, Tiago Machado (NetApp-Endura) had crashed, with race radio reporting that he’d climbed into an ambulance. Not so. Machado had insisted that he continue. He finished the stage in last place, 43 minutes off the winning pace, just inside the time cut, and dropped from third overall to 47th.

Contador’s exit made him the second five-star GC favorite to leave this Tour before it reached its first rest day, leaving Vincenzo Nibali in the yellow jersey — and in prime position to become a winner of all three grand tours.

On stage 5, defending champion Chris Froome climbed into a Team Sky car after a third crash in two days; MRIs would later reveal fractures to his left wrist and right hand. Froome showed less emotion than Contador during his very personal, very public moment of defeat, shaking his head, a raw scratch below his eye, resigned to the fact that he was unable to continue. He would not defend his title; he would not even reach the high mountains, his preferred playground.

The 2014 Tour de France has been a cruel edition of the race, one that has seen dreams broken, almost daily.

Star sprinter Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had said for months that his 2014 season hinged around the stage 1 sprint finish in Harrogate, where a victory would bring the yellow jersey — something that has eluded him throughout his successful career — on British soil, in the hometown of his mother.

Instead, Cavendish took a massive risk in the final 200 meters, trying to create a gap that didn’t exist, and instead saw his hopes, along with his body, come crashing to earth. In an instant, his dream, and his race, had ended, and the remainder of his season was in question.

“When I got on my bike after my crash, it wasn’t possible to hold my handlebars,” Cavendish said upon withdrawing from the race. “I saw there was something wrong with my shoulder. It was sticking out a bit like it shouldn’t…. I’m gutted, I’m majorly disappointed, but it could be worse… I’ve got friends who were in Afghanistan who’ve got no legs and one arm, and I think when you put that into perspective, I don’t think I’m too bad. I think I’m back in a few weeks. I’m disappointed, but things could definitely be worse.”

Before the race had even made it onto French soil, another former Tour winner, Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), was also forced to abandon, after a stage 3 crash ravaged his right knee on the road to London, leaving partial ruptures in the collateral and cruciate ligaments, torn meniscus, and, most painfully, an injury to the articular cartilage. Like Cavendish, and Contador, his injuries also required surgery.

“I’m feeling pretty bad, to understate it,” Schleck said. “I’m gutted. My knee looks like there’s been an explosion inside. I’ll be on crutches for at least two weeks and from there on we will see. I cannot ask for a detailed time line right now, and that is hard to deal with. There’s nothing else I can do. Acceptance is the first step of my rehab and I’m working on that now.”

And it wasn’t only the biggest stars of the sport that have seen their Tours end abruptly, and painfully.

On stage 4, Andre Greipel’s leadout man, Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol) went down in a roundabout along with several of his teammates. Henderson immediately threw a hand in the air, remaining on the ground; a knee injury that had troubled him all during the offseason was again in jeopardy. That evening, on Facebook, Henderson posted his raw emotion over leaving the Tour with such an injury.

“I can’t express how upset I am right now,” he wrote. “Nothing to say but my knee exploded and I had to hold it together until I could get to the ambulance. At the TDF clinic they didn’t have the correct equipment to drain and stitch, so I’m off for surgery… Was a dirty, disgusting looking wound. I now know what a kneecap looks like minus skin. Thanks to everyone for your kind words. I’m pretty emotional right now but I will try remain positive.”

On stage 7, in a crash at 16km to go that took down his teammate Tejay van Garderen, BMC Racing’s Darwin Atapuma fractured his distal femur. The Colombian’s Tour de France debut ended in surgery. Van Garderen, who sits seventh overall, has crashed four times thus far.

Fifteen minutes after Atapuma’s crash, IAM Cycling’s GC leader Mathias Frank crashed heavily with 800 meters to go, fracturing his femur. Though he was able to ride across the finish line, Frank quickly underwent surgery at the University Hospital of Geneva.

Other GC riders, such as Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), have both crashed heavily, and repeatedly. Both men remain in the race, but have been forced to recalibrate their ambitions.

The causes of these crashes are not a mystery: First-week tensions. Rain. Narrow roads. Overlapping wheels. Overzealous fans. Contador’s crash appears to have been a bizarre scenario of him hitting a pothole, at speed, while eating on a descent.

Of course this Tour hasn’t been all doom and gloom. By design, racing always produces winners, and several riders have had a glorious run at this Tour de France. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) has won three stages, worn yellow, and confirmed his status as the sport’s most powerful sprinter. Nibali has won two hilly stages, and spent a week in the yellow jersey, which we will now look to defend until Paris. France has celebrated a solo stage win from Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol) spending Bastille Day in the maillot jaune.

But those successes haven’t been without a cost: Contador. Froome. Cavendish. Henderson. Schleck. Frank. Atapuma. All athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport, who have spent months preparing for its biggest event — training, dieting, traveling, racing, resting, planning — only to leave their hopes shredded along the tarmac.

And the list goes on. After 10 stages, 18 of the 198 starters, or 9 percent of the peloton, has abandoned.

“Crashes are part of the sport. I’ve crashed myself many times in the past as well,” Nibali said after Contador’s dramatic exit. “It’s a pity that the Tour has lost two major protagonists. I hope it’s not too bad for Alberto. I wish him the best.”

Without question, this year’s Tour de France has been filled with drama. Sadly, many gladiators of the road have already been sacrificed on the way to Paris.