WITH bandages on his knees and elbows, only one subject could really be discussed with any intensity at Team Sky’s rest day press conference with their rider Juan Antonio Flecha yesterday - safety, injuries, and why on earth this year’s Tour has seemed more like a non-stop succession of crashes than a series of stages.
Nearly 24 hours after a France TV car had sideswiped the Spaniard and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland into a ditch, and as the blood gently seeped through Flecha’s dressing in his left elbow, team principal Dave Brailsford - sitting beside Flecha - confirmed that all options, including the legal ones, remained on the table when it came to Sky’s reaction.
“Once we know exactly what happened we can decide what we’ll do,” Brailsford said, “[including] whether there’s an opportunity for the police to do something. Once we’ve got the facts, or the lawyers say Team Sky or Juan can do this or that, we’ll have a clear picture.”
Flecha appeared swathed in white bandages, to the point where Brailsford said, with the blackest of humour, “he looks more like a Mummy than a Spaniard”, but he was insistent that he would try to continue racing.
“My knee is very swollen and there’s a big hole in it, which means I can’t have more than one stitch,” the veteran Spaniard pointed out - unlike Hoogerland, who had 37.
“But I want to go on, I was having fun in this year’s race up until the crash happened. I went to hospital this morning and had X-rays, nothing’s broken. I can still go on.”
Surprisingly cool when describing the accident, Flecha looked more upset when asked if he had been contacted by the driver whose reckless - and needless - acceleration had caused such a dangerous crash.
“Nothing, not from him, although the Tour have been in touch to see how I was. I don’t care though, all I care about now is looking after myself.”
Even before Flecha and Hoogerland’s spectacular double whammy, to those watching crashes appear to have taken a heavier toll this July than in other Tours.
But although 19 riders, or 9.09 per cent of the peloton, have already quit early, including seven on Sunday’s stage with four in one particularly bad pile-up alone, that is not actually the case.
According to specialist website cyclocosm.com, by this point in the Tour in 2003, 26 riders had already gone home, while in two other Tours the total was half a per cent higher.
However, as Brailsford pointed out, Flecha’s crash had damaged team morale far more than when Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins went home, because it was not viewed as “part of the job”. “We’ve seen accidents like Bradley’s happen dozens of times,” he added.
“Guys do fall, and that’s it. You recalibrate and move on. But Juan’s was a very different case. It hurt us more and in a different way to Bradley because it was needless and unnecessary.”
The riders themselves are convinced that the public has also sat up and noticed crashes simply because a lot of those taking early flights home are well-known figures - like Wiggins, Belgian Tom Boonen or Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov.
“The Tour is always crazy, but quite a few of the guys who’ve gone home are high profile. If it had been Swifty [team-mate Ben Swift] or me, there’d be less of a fuss,” points out Sky’s Geraint Thomas. “OK, there have been a lot of uphill finishes and narrow roads, but the Classics are 10 times worse.”
Thomas has a fair point. Even Alberto Contador, the defending champion, spent part of his rest day press conference discussing injuries and crashes, in particular his injured knee. “I won’t know how good it’ll be until we get to the mountains,” Contador said. “But it’s a worry, that’s for sure.”
Contador also pointed out that his accident on the first day when he lost nearly two minutes, far from making everybody less crash-prone, had had the opposite effect.
“Everybody’s more nervous because they are so attentive,” he said during yesterday’s press conference. “They want to be up at the front, they want to avoid the crashes. And they’re so skittish that crashes happen more often.”
Contador’s crash, too, was high profile because it was unexpected. As a general rule (and Wiggins is one of the exceptions) the very highest level of Tour contenders with the best form do not suffer so many accidents - as was true with the top figures of the sport in the last two decades, Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong, and until this year, Contador.
For Contador suddenly to fall so often in the first week is, therefore, both surprising and an indication that perhaps the Spaniard’s form is not quite as good as he would like. Or as he put it himself, “This is not being my Tour.”
Thomas also points out that although other events may be more dangerous in themselves, the Tour’s high profile also makes it more dangerous. “There is a lot of pressure at this race, riders are taking too many risks and a few are a bit stupid. They’re going through gaps that aren’t there when there’s 100 kilometres to go, bouncing around.”
“There’s much more at stake and it’s the biggest race in the world,” added Swift. “You’ve got people trying to ride through people, making it dangerous.”
Asked what they could do, both riders said they took evasive action. “You know who they are, you just try not to go near them,” Thomas said. “But the Tour’s stressful, really hard on the head, more so than other races.”
It is true that Flecha’s accident has gone so far outside the norm - the last accident involving a rider and a race vehicle in the Tour, according to L’Equipe, was in 1977, when King of the Mountains Lucien van Impe was hit by a TV car - it has horrified the normally phlegmatic peloton.
But even if there is acknowledgement that the Tour is more dangerous than other races, it would appear to be tempered with a certain degree of fatalism - and iron determination to return.
“It’s a super-hard sport,” Brailsford said. “Whenever there’s a crash, everybody’s reaction is always to try and get on their bikes again. That’s a testament to their courage.”
As Flecha put it, instinct kicks in after a crash: “I was covered in blood, but I was looking for my bike, that’s the first thing you do.”
The same went for Wiggins last Friday, clutching his broken collarbone as he wandered through a tangle of broken bicycles and spent long minutes arguing with the race doctor about continuing before finally clambering into the ambulance.
At the back of everybody’s mind too, perhaps, is a sense of perspective about accidents, however serious, caused by the death of Wouter Weylandt in the Tour of Italy in May.
Hoogerland himself said immediately after crashing that “at least nobody has died” and when Wiggins had to abandon, Sky director Sean Yates also said the same thing. Hoogerland said too that he thought of Weylandt.
To understand why Weylandt’s death could cast such a long shadow, it needs to be remembered that the Belgian was the first fatality in a Grand Tour (although amateur and lower-level bike racing is regrettably a very different story) in 16 years. With any luck, they will be even more infrequent in the future.
However, after Flecha and Hoogerland’s crashes, there will be renewed determination to stamp out accidents like Sunday’s, too - and if that does happen, there could yet be a silver lining to Flecha’s bloodstained bandages after all.
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