Posted by: mdegeorge | July 11, 2011

Rest for the Tour’s weary after a dangerous first week

The unique entities that are the rest days of the Tour de France usually have a ceremonial significance. They’re a time to reflect and recuperate during one of the most grueling events in sports.

This year’s first rest day has the peloton looking like a MASH unit. Already 17 riders have abandoned the Tour in the first nine stages, while the general classification picture has been irrevocably altered by crash after crash in the main group.

Far too much of this has been going on at this year's Tour de France (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

The race organizers this year eschewed the normal rolling ride to the big mountains, allowing the sprinters to take center stage on only four of the nine stages thus far – and even some of those field sprints were disrupted by unassumingly vicious climbs or breaks in the peloton caused by one of the myriad crashes. The appeal of holding the mountains stages to the middle of the races second week – as opposed to as early as the first weekend some years – is a chance to get the sprinters involved for longer periods before their great sort out in the mountains.

The race is in the precarious position of being determined more by its exclusions that its inclusions. Among the 17 riders to abandon the race are four riders bearing their teams’ number 1 jerseys. Almost to a man, the riders unable to continue the race aren’t suffering from the fatigue that usually claims victims at this juncture, but they’ve been involved in accidents (yes, plural).

Jani Brajkovic and Chris Horner, two of Team RadioShack’s quartet of leaders, have been claimed by terrible falls, as has Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, Omega-Pharma’s Jurgen van den Broeck and Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov. Those guys constitute a sizeable portion of a would-be top 10 that can’t exist now. For Horner, 39, and Vino, 37 and having to recover from a broken femur that took three of his teammates to carry him out of a ravine, it would be undeserving swan songs from their sport’s crown jewel.

Beyond the big GC contenders, protagonists like French National Time Trial champion Christophe Kern, Russian National Road Race champ Pavel Brutt, sprinter Tom Boonen, American time trial specialist and domestique extraordinaire David Zabriskie and breakaway experts like Juan Manuel Garate, Amets Txurruka and Remi Pauriol have all had to call it quits this year because of injuries sustained on the roads.

The rest day though is also about those remaining with us for the next two weeks of suffering, a group hardly exempt from the spills endured in the main field where road rash is as ubiquitous a part of the uniform as most riders’ numbers. There are survivors like Juan Antonio Flecha of Team Sky and current King of the Mountains Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil that narrowly survived a scrape with a television vehicle yesterday that sent Flecha to the tarmac and Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence. (As suitable punishment, the moronic driver of that French television car should have his ass stuck on a bike and forced to follow the remainder of the race that way.)

The top riders on GC are already being shaped by injuries and crashes. Levi Leipheimer’s chase for the podium is essentially over thanks to a pair of crashes, while the last man standing on RadioShack, Andreas Kloden, is a bit worse for wear after a crash that tweaked his back in Stage 9. Others like Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hejsedal, Robert Gesink, Tom Danielson, Roman Kreuziger and even defending champion Alberto Contador have been waylaid multiple times.

It’s leaving team’s scrambling very early in the proceedings. RadioShack and Rabobank have to completely rethink their strategies before the mountains hit. The team of van den Broeck, which did so much excellent work to stay near the front of the peloton almost every day, has lost one of its three-pronged attack in a guy who seemed poised for a breakout ride. And the likes of Quick Step and Sky are now reduced to hoping for breakaways whenever they can get into them.

As a fan, there has been a heightened sense of excitement to this year’s Tour because of the arrangement – not the crashes. The middle mountain stages allow the big boys of the Tour – guys like Philippe Gilbert and Cadel Evans – to win stages without having to wait for the Alps or Pyrenees and without creating massive time gaps. They also allow for the litany of breakaway guys like current Yellow Jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler to grab wins and alter the face of the race.

But at times, the risks have proven too much. The crashes and scary moments on course are magnified this year with the death of Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’Italia, the first death in a Grand Tour in nearly two decades. The Dutchman’s untimely passing on the road has broken a veil of oblivion for the peloton and fans that deaths can’t occur in what is an inherently dangerous race. Every time a rider is splayed out on the tarmac like van den Broeck was in Stage 9, there’s a momentary fear and the realization that what happened to Weylandt is no longer unthinkable.

Weylandt’s crash was a horrible accident, but a long shot that is far from the norm. But it has effects on riders; just ask Tyler Farrar, a friend since they were in their teens who almost gave up the sport after Weylandt’s death, after his Stage 3 win.

Incidents on the road carry with them a heightened sense of anxiety and fear, one that may also we weighing heavily on the riders. Let’s hope as this tour of carnage continues, race referees will be sensitive to that and keep riders out of harm’s way whenever possible.

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