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To say that cycling is a hard man’s sport is an understatement. But on occasion, I am vividly reminded of this reality. I’ll never forget when I brought my 15 year-old daughter along for the start of the 2014 Tour de France, in Yorkshire. She had very little interest in cycling, but two things happened. First, we watched the semi-finals of soccer’s World Cup—the night before the start of the Tour—an event where athletes so often feign injury in search of a penalty or free kick. But then on the first stage of the Tour she watched as numerous riders, bloodied from crashes, courageously finished the stage. Needless to say, by the time the World Cup final came around, she found the event to be more comedy than sport.
And then, just this past weekend I witnessed another, vivid reminder as I photographed the Boucles Drôme Ardèche in the south of France. Saturday’s event, the Faun Ardèche Classic, is a grueling race, littered with climbs. And on this day it was made even more difficult by glacial rains that blanketed the race. Not only did the riders struggle to stay warm, many struggled simply to stay on their bikes, as the numerous technical descents were made treacherous by the slickened roads. Cyclists crashed. Motos crashed. At one point a commissaire moto driver had to wait in the ditch for an ambulance to come because the in-race medical vehicles were simply too busy taking care of downed riders.
One of the hardest hit was 23-year old Valentin Madouas. I’ve known the Madouas since his amateur days racing in the Tour de l’Avenir. And I fondly remember his father Laurent, a member of the Motorola team in the 90’s.
I’ve always known Valentin to be a scrappy rider and a tough finisher. And I was far from surprised to see him finishing in the top ten of great classics like the Amstel Gold Race last year. And while Valentin’s first name is one of love, I saw this weekend how brutally tough he can be.
Finishing second in both races last year, Madouas came with an eye on victory. But when he crashed heavily on a treacherous descent, Madouas landed on his face and had to be evacuated from the event as he was bleeding profusely, the result of several open wounds.
Few expected him to be at the start on Sunday at the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic, but when his Groupama-FDJ showed up for the team presentation, Madouas could not be missed. With his face covered in bandages, he called to mind the 1933 film The Invisible Man. Seemingly unphased, Madouas went through his normal, pre-race routine: waving to the crowd from the sign-in stage, signing autographs with fans, and finally, chatting with journalists.
The journalists first questions to Madouas were tentative. After all, if he was not prepared to talk, no one could blame him. But Madouas, chatted easily. “I’ve got eight stitches…six on the chin and two on my upper lip but I’m not too bad,” he said. “My legs were great yesterday so I was really disappointed to crash on an oil slick twice in a row. I actually crashed twice and the second time I just preferred to stop, since my face was completely cut open.”
Despite the obvious discomfort of the bruises and bandages, Madouas insisted on starting on Sunday. “Paris-Nice is just next week and you’ve got to do the kilometers. I know that the face will heal quickly, but I want to go into it reassured that the legs are ready.” In many ways Madouas downplayed the accident. “You know, a bunch of us fell hard, and we all have some bruises more or less. Sure, I fell but there must have been 50 of us who went down. It’s too bad, because these races are really great. The roads climb and descend all of the time. It’s great preparation. But the roads are technical, and yesterday, since it had not rained for a while, it was really like an ice skating rink out there. Everyone was ripped up. But that’s life. That’s cycling. You just have to put the computer back to zero and start the next day.”
Madouas had no pressure to perform on Sunday, his participation was firstly about putting in the race miles before Paris-Nice, his first main objective of the season. But what Madouas did not know was that below the stitches, his jaw was actually fractured. Nevertheless, for much of the day, Madouas could be spotted riding easily at the back. And even as the pack splintered as the pace quickened in the heavy crosswinds, Madouas plugged on with apparent ease. Finally, with about 50 kilometers remaining, he sat up. Others who had been dropped, chased frantically to get back on, but Madouas clearly made a deliberate decision to call it a day.
Certainly the weekend did not go as planned, and when the x-rays came in on Tuesday revealing the fracture, he understood that Paris-Nice was no longer possible. But needless to say he earned the respect of the peloton.