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The history and unwritten rules of crashing at the Tour de France

Cycling’s biggest race has a long history of crashes. Here is a guide to the unwritten rules of the Tour de France’s most harrowing moments.

Le Tour de France 2014 - Stage Seven
Crashes. Ugh.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Crashes are the worst thing about cycling, especially at the Tour de France. They’re violent and disruptive, and they hurt riders who trained all year to be at the Tour only to go home in bandages. They rob us of fun and rob teams of million-dollar investments.

Crashes have already affected the 2018 Tour de France.Four-time winner Chris Froome lost 51 seconds because he went over a canvas barrier into a ditch. So did Adam Yates and Richie Porte. American Lawson Craddock has been toughing out the first week despite a broken scapula. Richie Porte was forced to abandon on the cobblestones of Stage 9, seemingly cracking his collarbone on a fall and being reduced to tears.

And yet we can’t get rid of crashes. They are as much a part of the sport as the pneumatic tire. They even have their own set of rules, written and unwritten, which often cause cycling’s deeply analytical fanbase to lose its minds for days on end.

Here, then, is your Tour de France crash primer: what they are about, and how they happen, so when that instant comes (and it always comes) you will know what you’re looking at.

To start with, let’s stipulate that nearly all crashes happen for two basic reasons: 1) Two bikes can’t be in the same place at the same time, and 2) Cyclists are fundamentally insane.

Ah crap
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There are many types of cycling crashes

Crashes start with a rider losing his balance. Sometimes guys bump shoulders and someone goes down. Sometimes riders go down without the help of their competitors, hitting something in the road, overcooking a corner, or slipping on a wet spot (painted surfaces are not your friend on a rainy day).

But the big bunch crashes usually start with a touch of wheels. If you’re packed tightly going 40 miles per hour, trouble could come from any direction. Maybe the guy in front of you taps his brakes at the wrong time, or maybe you aren’t paying attention when the peloton slows down, and your furiously spinning rubber tire rubs up with someone else’s tire spinning the other way.

Usually you’re the one going down in this scenario — front wheels jerk sideways much more easily than rear wheels — and the people around you fall like bowling pins. Fortunes are lost (and, by process of elimination, won) in these moments; in the Tour de France one of those bowling pins could be the favorite to win, and if his helmet or collarbone isn’t up to the impact, a year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears will have meant nothing.

Bunch crashes on the flats are bad enough, but usually the victims are able to get up and go on. The horror crashes typically happen on descents, where riders have even died from hitting the deck at high speed. Sometimes those bad impacts are due to bad luck. Heads have limits to what they can sustain, even inside a helmet.

Those are the crashes that leave a mark on the soul of the sport. Obviously the fate of the rider and his loved ones are the real story, but we fans have scars on our souls, too, that ache every time we hear names like Weylandt and Casartelli and Goolaerts.

But nobody wants to talk about those. The crashes we talk about the most happen in sprints. We accept them as part of the sport, even joke about them sometimes because, amazingly, riders tend to emerge intact, or close to it.

Google “Haselbacher” and “crash” and you will be treated to articles about an Austrian sprinter known for the occasional cartwheel in the final meters of sprints. (Rene Haselbacher is his name, and he’d like you to forget that he was known for crashing too much, thank you.) We got some mileage out of a crash in Turkey a few years back where it looked like Dutch sprinter Theo Bos had pulled a nifty little sumo maneuver in taking out Daryl Impey as the pair dueled down the stretch.

Rene Haselbacher made a bit too much of a name for himself in the 1990s
AFP/Getty Images

Cycling crashes are governed by a ton of unwritten rules

When we debate who did what to whom is when things get … complicated. Sprint crashes are 99 percent the fault of someone moving sideways, in direct violation of the written rule that you have to hold your line in the sprint.

Nobody cares about written rules. I reiterate what I wrote above: cyclists, and especially sprinters, are fundamentally off their rockers, and will try to fit themselves into spaces where they don’t belong any way they can. At 45 miles per hour.

Everybody takes cycling’s unwritten rules very seriously, however, even though no one can agree on what they are. At last year’s Tour, two of the Usual Suspects of cycling controversy took center stage when reigning World Champion Peter Sagan came along the right-side barriers ahead of former rainbow jersey holder Mark Cavendish, who seemed to want to slip past Sagan in the six or seven inches of space between the Slovakian and the rows of tempered steel outlining the course.

Sagan had problems of his own to manage, sitting third wheel behind Arnaud Demare (who would take the win) and only the gap to Demare’s right available. Sagan seemed to move into the space, toward the barrier, slamming the door on Cavendish, who went down in a heap and out of the Tour.

Cavendish losing his balance as Sagan’s elbow flares out
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No one could agree on what happened. Cavendish sure looked like the victim, with Sagan clearly flaring out his elbow. That is, until you slow down the tape and realize that Cavendish seemed to be going down before the elbow went out, and that Sagan appeared to be correcting his balance, shifting his weight to the right to stop himself from keeling over to the left.

Was the crash Sagan’s fault for pinning Cavendish against the barrier, or Cavendish’s fault for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong? Was it Demare’s fault for moving in to create the circumstances of the crash? Was it somehow Nacer Bouhanni’s fault? (One unwritten rule that most can agree on is that Bouhanni is doing something wrong at all times).

Sagan ultimately got the blame for making an almost imperceptible move to hinder Cavendish. Tempers flared, ending a while later when the race jury threw Sagan off the Tour, a decision that no one particularly liked.

The episode was a good lesson in how crashes aren’t always what they appear to be at first glance — or second, third, and fourth glance, for that matter.

Bystanders and rescue workers help retrieve Roger Rivière from a hillside in the 1960 Tour
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

From time to time, cyclists will just fall off a mountain

One last, particularly memorable category of crashes merits discussion: riders falling off mountains. In my memory they all have somewhat miraculous endings … knock on wood, cross myself, and say a little prayer to the Cycling Gods.

The dramatic history starts with Roger Rivière falling into a ravine on a descent of the 1960 Tour. The maillot jaune, following his rival and ace descender Gustavo Nencini, hit the retaining wall and disappeared, falling 20 meters and breaking two vertebrae, but surviving. Even crazier was the disappearance of Tour boss Bernard Hinault on the eve of his first campaign. In the 1977 Dauphiné, Hinault, in the race lead, lost control on a descent, flipped sideways, and fell off the road. Hinault initially thought he was plunging to his death, but somehow landed intact, got help climbing out of the ravine, and went on to win the stage.

More recently, Frank Schleck, a poor bike handler, flipped over a guardrail on a descent during the 2008 Tour de Suisse and completely disappeared. Those of us watching thought he was dead, but he hit some branches on his way down and got away with scratches and bruises, finishing the race. A month later at the Tour, John-Lee Augustyn ascended the Cime de la Bonette, Europe’s highest road, only to overcook a turn and slide 30 feet down a steep, rocky slope. He eventually crawled out gingerly on all fours, but his chances of winning were gone, as was his bike, which was last seen still sliding. Augustyn eventually got a new one and finished the stage five minutes back.

This is all to say that cyclists are shockingly resilient despite the lack of protection around their bird-like frames. With any luck, crashes won’t be the talk of the Tour anytime soon, but they’ve come to be as inevitable as death, taxes, and Germany advancing at the World Cup.

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