Monday evening, by the team buses in Bastia, Geraint Thomas spoke into an ITV microphone: “It’s the Tour. It’s not your average race and I’m going to keep fighting.”
It’s a variation of the same quote we hear every Tour around this time. The inevitable mega falls of the Tour de France’s opening week turns one day’s warrior into the next day’s gauze-swaddled, zombie-eyed backmarker, flogging himself to make the time limit, so he can live to flog himself again.
This time, it was Geraint’s turn, riding on with a fractured pelvis. And Tony Martin, with a bruised lung, concussion and more holes than an average Hollyoaks plotline. And Ian Stannard… the list goes on.
Bizarrely, when a lot of riders have chunks taken out of them, the media only seeks the slowest or most affected. You’ve got to race on in tears, with a separated something-or-other, or a broken bone. Bad bruising and road rash no longer make the headlines.
In this peloton of limping invalids, past and present, of my mind’s eye, I see Jimmy Casper (see below) being carted off in the Meaux pile-up in 2003, riding for the next week with a bulbous neck brace. Ad Wijnands, who performed similar heroics in the final week of the 1985 race, bleeding and battered, to make it to Paris.
Remember, the Tour de France is measured in superlatives. We pin praise and a yellow jersey on the fastest rider, yet remember the lanterne rouge too. We note the oldest (Jens Voigt, still telling his legs to shut up at 41) and youngest (Danny Van Poppel, third on the opening day at the age of 19) every year. So it’s appropriate to look for the most beaten up one too, the most enduring, make heroes of the wounded.
It’s a dangerous game, mind. Where does it stop? The rider doesn’t want to abandon. If conscious post-crash, the natural cyclist reflex, overshadowing pain and logic, takes over. Can I get up? Yes. Get on the bike. Cross the line. Go to the X-ray machine. If I can stand, I can race again tomorrow.
At night, the martyrs toss and turn – maybe woken by a nightmare of thudding onto tarmac as a 60km/h projectile rag doll – road rash sticking to the sheets, or broken bones, aching and heavy.
The only hope is that it gets a little better every day: slowly, slowly, until they recover enough to attain a veneer of pre-injury form, to offer some help to the captain. To continue is both profoundly selfish – causing friends, family (“My mum doesn’t want me to continue,” Thomas said) and fans endless worry and wincing whenever there’s another fall – and selfless to the team.
The problem is, the stakes get higher and good-sense safeguards get flimsier. Frankly, only modern team doctors know whether they stretch the limits of their sense and their Hippocratic Oath at the Tour compared to, say, that of Picardie or Poland.
Was it sensible to allow Tony Martin to take the start for day two after a hefty concussion, for instance? He was fine, seems fine now, rode the TTT fine, very nearly helping Omega Pharma to a stage win.
But it could have been different. We’re tiptoeing towards another racing tragedy – perhaps a concussed rider who goes to bed and never wakes up again or causes a catastrophic crash in the bunch the next day because of his head trauma. That’s what it’ll take to about-turn this line-pushing. ‘Because it’s the Tour’ becomes a hollow excuse, even professional negligence, for such above hypothetical happenings.
That’s all conjecture. Every rider at the Tour is defined by a certain self-importance too. Because when they are forced to retire – take Ted King – just like a sudden departure from a bad soap opera, they’re forgotten by the next episode, as if they never inhabited Planet Tour in the first place.
It’s stressful, strenuous, hot, exhausting, nonsensical. But being at the Tour is a better drug than any WADA-legal painkiller.