The only things between a Tour de France cyclist and the road are a scrim of Lycra and a helmet. Neither prove to be much defense in a crash, and there have been any number of those this year.
With Andy Schleck out — he fractured his pelvis in the Criterium du Dauphiné shortly before the Tour — I have kept my focus on his brother, Frank, and their team RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
I am also fond of sprinter Mark Cavendish, the mouthy talent from the Isle of Mann, dubbed the Manx Missile.
So when I received an email July 6 from a friend saying, “There has been yet another crash and they can’t find Mark Cavendish,” I was alarmed and confused.
Cavendish had already crashed earlier in the week, going down on his back, literally bouncing on the tarmac and tearing his helmet to shreds.
They can’t find Mark Cavendish? How is that possible? I found out during the evening replay.
NBC Sports’ first shot of Stage 6 looked like a battlefield. Boys were scattered along the road and ditches like pick up sticks. There had been a chain reaction pileup at more than 40 mph, and no one was sure what happened.
Among the carnage, looking bewildered and angry, stood Frank Schleck, his hopes of winning the Tour all but gone. Medical teams bent over injured riders. Riders held up mangled bikes waiting for replacements, their team kits in shreds. But no Cav.
Twenty-seven riders were injured and 10 were taken to the hospital. Wout Poels was the most seriously injured with a ruptured spleen and kidney, bruised lungs and three broken ribs.
The American hopeful Tommy Danielson, who had been riding with a separated shoulder from an earlier crash, separated his other shoulder and had to withdraw. Oscar Freire rode the final 15 miles with a punctured lung.
“But where’s Cavendish?,” the commentators kept asking.
Did Cav just say, “to heck with it” (though those would not be the words Cavendish would choose) and go home? Finally, the camera found him making his way to the finish line. He was caught in the crash, but uninjured — and madder than a box of frogs. It was a strange “Lassie Come Home” kind of moment.
I don’t watch cycling to see people hurt. The death of Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’Italia last year was a painful reality check. At the 2011 Tour, Andy Schleck called for less spectacle and more concern for the riders’ safety. Critics called him a whiner.
Now other voices are being raised. Some say the field should be limited; others say radio communication between riders and team cars is too distracting; still others say the young riders take too many risks and have no respect.
The Tour de France began as a publicity stunt, a supposedly impossible course that no one could complete, but somehow men did. Now, technology enables riders to reach previously unattainable speeds, putting them in incredible peril. Nonetheless, one of the callous young riders said of the fuss, “Crashes are part of bike racing. Nobody got killed.”
That kind of attitude is in need of serious adjustment, and Cavendish might be the man to do it.
Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.