Jumbo-Visma will start the race without Steven Kruijswijk, and the squad’s GC leader, Primož Roglič, is adorned in bandages. Egan Bernal of Team Ineos Grenadiers is nursing a back injury. German team Bora-Hansgrohe is managing too many injuries to keep track of: Emanuel Buchmann’s cuts and bruises; Maximillian Schachman’s broken collarbone; and Gregor Muhlberger’s banged-up wrist.
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While much attention has been paid to the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, riders at this year’s Tour de France face another pressing hazard: Crashes and injuries caused by the five-month break from racing.
Multiple sources have told VeloNews that, since the return to racing in August, the professional peloton has been more stressful and dangerous than normal. Riders are incredibly fit after training for months at home. They feel pressure to perform, knowing that the season could be called off at any point due to the pandemic.
Thus, they are more willing to take chances.
“Our riders reported a lot of stress in the peloton, and all of the guys like to show his best performance in a very short time,” said Enrico Poitschke, head sport director for Bora-Hansgrohe. “All of the guys are on the highest level… in that you can see it is a lot of pressure on the riders and all guys like to give his best, and that is not easy in a short time.”
Unfortunately, the five-month break from day-in, day-out racing may have also dulled their lightning-quick reactions to hazards and shifts in the peloton. And, the quick return to top-end racing may have led some riders to push muscles and ligaments to their limit in a short amount of time.
The combination of stress, speed, and rusty bike handling could be a recipe for disaster throughout the Tour.
“We have weeks and months without racing, and when you come back to the races it is completely different to training,” Poitschke said. “You are in good shape and motivated, but you need the practice in the races to feel safe and to handle the bike and all of that.”
Indeed, this dangerous dynamic was on display at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, where crashes and nerves produced numerous pileups. Kruijswijk hit the tarmac on a twisting descent, and Roglič tumbled on a seemingly innocuous stretch of road. Both men left the race.
Buchmann and Muhlberger were two of the strongest riders in the race, and both men exited with bruises and cuts after crashing.
“You could feel sometimes that everybody was a bit more nervous before some key points, or everybody was a bit maybe too motivated, too fresh,” Buchmann said about the Dauphiné.
Meanwhile, Bernal pushed himself for four stages to follow Roglič’s stunning pace only to exit on the penultimate day with an injured back. Another early exit was Nairo Quintana. Like Bernal, Quintana pushed himself to follow the top climbers on the mountainous route only to be felled by an injury. Quintana abandoned early with a sore knee.
Bernard Thevenet, a two-time Tour de France champion and the race director of the Critérium du Dauphiné, said he anticipated the carnage in the return to racing. After all, the four-month break from racing due to the COVID-19 pandemic is the longest that many riders have had in their respective pro careers. These days, the offseason gives riders just a few months break from the action.
“I was really worried about crashing with the return to racing because this is the first time when the riders have gone for nearly [five] months without racing,” Thevenet said. “In a traditional early season, riders only go maybe two or three months without racing, and they have time to ease into it. But not this year. I think a lot of riders are missing a little something in their synchronization.”
So, how may this dynamic play out in the Tour?
Crashes are already a regular hazard during the Tour’s opening week, as rested and motivated riders jostle for position on the narrow French roads. This year the GC battle begins early — the first hilltop finish comes on stage 2 — which could ease some pressure off, especially if some top contenders fall out of the GC hunt early.
“I think in the Tour in the first week it is a bit nervous, and it will be the same this year,” Buchmann said.
But the riders and directors are expecting a nervous and frantic Tour de France, and everyone is praying for the riders to safely arrive each day.