Tour de France

Tour de France daily digest: The Tour will break your heart

The 2021 Tour de France has opened with carnage and heartbreak. So, is there anything the race can do to limit crashes?

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Newsflash: The Tour de France will break your heart.

The race will also shatter your bicycle, shred your colorful kit, and take a cheese grater to the tender skin on your butt cheeks. Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas, and half of the peloton can already attest to this.

Also read: Tour de France unsung heroes: Lukas Pöstlberger – big beats, pizza in the grupetto

After three stages of the 2021 Tour de France, the biggest story of the race is the near-constant disruption caused by crashes. Nearly every element of this year’s race — from the current GC standings to the winners of each stage — have been impacted by wrecks.

The Tour de France has blasted onto the front pages of mainstream media not for the heroics of Mathieu van der Poel or Julian Alaphilippe, but rather due to some careless fan standing alongside the road, holding a sign for her grandparents. Every year during the Tour, one or two mainstream publications reach out to VeloNews hoping for an interview to discuss whatever story is grabbing eyeballs. Yesterday, I received a request from NPR to go on the radio and talk about — you guessed it — that terrible, awful, no-good, very bad crash from stage 1 involving the fan.

What do you tell mainstream America about a situation that is so bizarre, yet one that happens from time to time? Yep, back in 2007, when it was an unleashed golden retriever that caused a crash. This year it was some goofball with a sign. Imagine if it was the Super Bowl and some random fan bolted onto the field to tackle Tom Brady, and the referees were just, like, OK — third down! 

So, back to the heartbreak side of things. Today, the heartbreak continued. Geraint Thomas smacked the deck inside the opening 100 kilometers alongside Robert Gesink, who had to leave the race, leaving Jumbo-Visma without one of its start support riders. Then, with less than 10km remaining, it was Roglič who tumbled to the ground and then slid over sharp gravel. TV cameras caught sight of his bloodied backside as Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma teammates mounted a valiant — if doomed — chase to get back on. Their progress was slowed, of course, by another crash at 3km to go that slowed Tadej Pogačar and many others and knocked Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) out of the race entirely.

Steven Kruijswijk was bloodied and bruised at the finish on Monday. Photo: STEPHANE MAHE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEPHANE MAHE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

And, as if you weren’t sick of the carnage already, there was one final crash in the sprint to the line. Caleb Ewan touched wheels with Tim Merlier or Jasper Philipsen and tumbled to the deck, taking out Peter Sagan. As the two sprinters coasted along the asphalt, cameras caught the expression on their faces, and it showcased an emotion that viewers undoubtedly felt, too. Ugh, not another flippin’ crash.

Heartbreak, my friends. As fans, we want to see titans like Roglič and Ewan, and Sagan battle to win, and over the last few days, we’ve just seen them crash. The cadence of crashes presents an emotional hurdle for us as fans — can you imagine what it’s like for the riders?

Now, as fans, we’re accustomed to seeing pileups in the Tour’s opening stages. Scroll through old Tour de France stage reports on from years past and you will see plenty of stories that use the phrase ‘crash-marred stage.’ Anytime you squeeze 184 cyclists through narrow and twisting roads you are bound to see the occasional crash. At the Tour, the enormous pressure to perform frays nerves and also pushes riders to take chances. Everyone is as fit and fast as they will be all season, and the magical blend of horsepower, anxiety, and high speeds is to blame for the crashes.

Still, I cannot remember the last time that the Tour opened with such a terrible first three stages that so altered the GC landscape. I recall the 2015 Tour coming close. That year the peloton was rocked by a massive pileup on the 3rd stage that knocked a few rouleurs and puncheurs out of the race, among then Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara, who was in yellow at the time. If you recall, organizers even neutralized the event for a few minutes to allow stragglers from the huge pileup to get back on.

Now, as fans, it’s natural for us to want to attribute blame to someone. Perhaps we should blame race organizer ASO for choosing these winding, narrow roads for the finale. Maybe we can blame the UCI for allowing 184 riders to start the event, instead of further whittling down the field to a smaller size. We can blame fans for wanting to be on television so bad that they will wander into the road holding their phones and paper signs while ignoring the race.

We can even blame Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain-Victorious, who appears to have been the one to shove Roglič to the ground.

As my colleague Andrew Hood pointed out the other day, blaming any single rider or governing body or dynamic for the Tour de France’s many crashes is a fool’s errand. If you want to limit the crashes, then limit the importance of the race and the pressure put on the riders to perform at it. Hey, maybe make the Tour de France no more prestigious than the Baloise Tour of Belgium.

If you want to make the race easier, then take it out of picturesque locations, or historical cities, and move it to areas with wider and straighter roads (this is not a terrible idea, actually). Further limit the number of riders who can participate so that only the very best and most exclusive riders have a chance to participate. Block the fans from getting within 10 feet of the road, or tell them to stay home.

Of course, if you do this — in my opinion — you remove what is special about the Tour. It’s a balancing act that the organizers and governing bodies and teams must navigate.

Sure, there are ways we can tweak the race’s format to alleviate these problems — today’s Tour de Hoody focuses on one such method. And, it is very true that organizers should probably seek out more mellow regions for the Tour’s opening week. Numerous riders said after the stage that the twists and turns on narrow roads today were on the more extreme side of what they typically see. Perhaps these subtle tweaks could prevent future Tours de France from following the same dreadful ebb-and-flow that we’ve seen over the past three days.

But alas, we must understand and acknowledge that many of the elements we most love and appreciate about our sport also contribute to its worst moments. Speeds are high. Legs are rested. Legacies are on the line. You’re never going to totally eliminate stages like today’s stage from the Tour de France.

The Tour on social media

The Internet was abuzz with chatter on Monday after the many crashes during the Tour de France’s third stage, and there were plenty of pundits and even riders who expressed smart perspective on the day. Here are a few highlights:

Reporter Sophie Smith on the peloton raising concerns about the finish:

La Flamme Rouge quoting Tim Declerq

Andre Greipel on the Tour’s terrifying roads

Simon Geschke takes aim at the super tuck ban

Matej Mohoric on the pressure to perform

Sadhbh O’Shea capturing that feeling that WE ALL FELT!

Commentator Adam Blythe was at the finish to see a very human moment of the Tour: