It was the scream heard around the peloton.
Joseba Beloki yelped in agony after crushing his hip in a high-side crash in gooey tarmac on a hairpin corner in the 2003 Tour de France. It was one of the most horrific crashes and remarkable recoveries in recent Tour history. Beloki was out of the Tour, while Lance Armstrong tucked and weaved his way across a field and jumped over a ditch to avoid disaster and regain contact with the pack.
It was a stinking hot day in stage 9, some 17 years ago today. So hot, in fact, that race officials were watering down road surfaces because some of the tar on the roadway was actually softening up and melting due to the bleating sun.
Beloki and Armstrong were chasing an attacking group coming off the Cote de la Rochette on a twisting, technical descent just outside the finish line in Gap. Beloki came into the corner too fast, locked up his brakes on the sticky road surface, and skidded left before slamming hard on his right side. The Basque rider was injured so terribly he missed the next year’s Tour as well.
Armstrong didn’t flinch, avoided crashing, and rode across a hay field, jumped a ditch, and rejoined the chasing riders to defend yellow, which, as everyone knows, was later disqualified as part of the Texan’s lifetime racing ban.
Like everyone else watching on TV, the media packed into the pressroom gasped as the unfolding scene.
Later that evening over dinner, one of our colleagues suggested we return to the scene of the crash the next morning. We woke up early, and back-tracked to the fateful corner. Other than a few bits of trash, there was no indication that 12 hours earlier the switchback was the scene of an episode that still resonates today.
As we approached the eerily quiet scene, my colleague yells out, “Look!” And on the asphalt we could clearly see the distinct lines of Beloki’s skid marks as he struggled to control his bike. Using the markers, we could reconstruct the speed and horror of the moment as the skids served as witness of what happened in a blink of an eye. “Look here!” and sure enough, we could see the impact point where a chunk of tar was ripped up by Beloki’s bike.
Only by returning to the scene of the crash that morning could we fully realize the incredible luck and skill that Armstrong displayed that day. When Armstrong went straight into the field, it was by a stroke of luck that he didn’t crash. There was a drainage ditch along the upper side of the switchback, but at the precise point that Armstrong swerved clear of Beloki, there was a narrow, concrete entryway to allow tractors access to the field. A foot wider on either side, and Armstrong would have toppled into the ditch. There was also a police officer standing there who stepped back to avoid the oncoming rush of the yellow jersey.
“Look! Look!” my colleague chirped again. We could see Armstrong’s tire marks as he drove onto the field. Based on how fast Armstrong rode across the slope, it appeared that it was a relatively smooth field. On closer inspection, however, the off-camber field was packed with loose rocks and littered with dried out, recently cut hay that were standing like spikes 10 inches off the ground.
“Look! Look! Look here!” — my colleague was like a forensics specialist returning to the scene of a crime. We could trace Armstrong’s trajectory, with clear wheel marks lining up across the sun-parched soil of the field, much steeper than it appeared on TV. At the bottom, my colleague climbed into the ditch that Armstrong jumped over with his bike on his shoulder. He stood chest deep as he looked up to use on the upper bench. We could see the footprints in the dirt from his cleats where Armstrong jumped across the six-foot-wide ditch.
From there, Armstrong clipped back into his pedals, rejoined the race, and ended up fourth on the stage. It all happened in an instant.
That day would have implications that played out for the next few years. Though he’d race again, the crash all but ended Beloki’s grand tour career. And for Armstrong? Well, he went on to win that year’s Tour, and two more, before the house of cards eventually came crashing down.