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Tour de France

Valverde crash raises polemics about safety

What caused so many riders to crash on the opening day of the 2017 Tour de France? And other questions ricocheting around the paddock.

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LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — The 2017 Tour de France peloton rolled out of Germany on Sunday morning without Alejandro Valverde and Ion Izagirre.

Several racers were licking their wounds following Saturday’s crash-filled 14km time trial, but the two Spanish riders were the worse off among at least eight riders who crashed on a wet, treacherous left-hander corner. Valverde underwent surgery overnight on a fractured kneecap and his 2017 season is all but over, while Izagirre abandoned with heavy blows to his back and will also likely require surgery.

What caused so many riders to crash? And why weren’t there safety pads along the corner? Those questions ricocheted around the paddock Sunday morning.

“Anyone who had a good result has taken risks because the rain made an otherwise ‘simple’ and very fast course much more technical,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “When you look at the list of favorites, there are definitely a few who have ridden conservatively.”

Videos went viral showing riders unable to negotiate the left-hand corner, including Cannondale-Drapac’s Patrick Bevin. Team officials said Sunday morning it was a following a strict health protocol, and that the New Zealand rookie was safe to race.

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Fans told Movistar officials they saw a motorcycle crash on the same corner just moments before, with the suggestion that oil or other liquid might have made already dangerous conditions even more treacherous. That might help explain why so many riders went spinning out of control on the corner.

“Fans saw a motorcycle fall there, and then eight riders crashed right after that, so it had to be a factor,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “It was a fast corner, but it was an open curve with three lanes. We passed over it during training in the morning without any problems, so that’s why it’s not normal what we saw, eight riders crashing on the same spot. Alejandro is usually very good managing wet conditions.”

Others crashed on the same corner as well, including Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) and LottoNL-Jumbo’s Dylan Groenewegen.

“I took the corner easy, but my front wheel just slipped out,” he said. “It was very slippery there.”

The corner where Valverde, Bevin and others crashed was coming off a bridge over the Rhine River, so riders were carrying a lot of speed. In training, however, riders saw that the turn was fairly wide open. When asked if safety pads were needed, Cannondale-Drapac sport director Charly Wegelius said safety should always be the priority.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad suggestion, but hindsight is a precise art,” he said. “Organizers are doing a lot of stuff to try to improve security, including full barriers with 1km to go. Anything to improve safety is good, and that needs to be an ongoing process.”

Both GC riders and stage-hunters were pressing the limit in wet and dangerous conditions in a quest for a top finish. More than a few GC riders eased a bit off the gas to make sure they stayed upright rather than risking.

“I heard Alejandro had crashed, so I went very carefully through the corners,” said Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). “It was more important to make it safely through the stage, than to risk gaining a few seconds.”

Orica-Scott’s Luke Durbridge also crashed in pursuit of the stage win, and was forced to abandon early Sunday.

Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin crashed heavily on a different corner than Valverde, injuring his ankle. He was able to take the start with a heavily swollen foot.

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Movistar said they were unsure how Valverde’s recovery from surgery would go, but it’s highly unlikely he will be able to race again this season. In the short-term, the team will push on without one of Nairo Quintana’s top helpers.

“We still hold the ‘yellow jersey dream,’ but not having Alejandro is a blow that cannot be denied,” Arrieta said. “We lost a rider who could have given a lot of spark to the race, someone who could have been there for Nairo, but now he’s gone, so Nairo has to be even more of a leader.”