Crashes are an inevitable consequence of road racing, a relation of the fragile human body and highly-engineered machines travelling together at breakneck speed.
They come all of a sudden – the French exclamation Chute!, from chuter, meaning to fall or tumble, captures something of their abrupt drama. Crashes punctuate; they often mark a turning point in a race and, sometimes, an illustrious career. Experienced as profoundly singular events, they are nonetheless destined to be repeated.
Nowadays, avoiding crashes is a key part of the strategy of Grand Tour riding, a strategy that all too often brings about the very thing it seeks to avert. Accidents are more prevalent in modern road racing, a symptom of larger pelotons, crowds with camera phones and an altogether more competitive sport.
Like society as a whole, cycling is also becoming much more risk-averse, reflected in a readiness on the part of riders and commissaires alike to neutralise races at the drop of a casquette. For fans, the crashing cyclist both repulses and fascinates, as seen in the numerous still and moving images – a kind of bike crash porn – relayed via the internet.
Capturing a cycling crash in photographs owes as much to good luck as it does to technical skill. The spontaneity of the crash event and the mobility of the race photographer mean that the history of cycling photography is littered with images of the bruised and blooded aftermath, rather than the accident itself.
At the same time there is something fascinating about the crash photograph, a kind of surplus generated by the fortuitous combination of the camera’s precision and the cyclist’s loss of control. Today, this is the still image’s big advantage: an arrested poetry in the separation of rider and machine that the YouTube clip can never rival.
‘Great’ crash photographs (if there are such things) are few and far between. One of the earliest, and most famous, dates from the finish of the Tour de France in the Parc des Princes velodrome in 1958. It shows André Darrigade, one of the greatest sprinters, colliding with a velodrome official, Constant Wouters. The heavily-built Darrigade was heading for his sixth stage win as Wouters attempted to cross the track to hold back encroaching photographers. It was a brutal collision – Darrigade was turned right around – and Wouters died from complications relating to his injuries 11 days later.
Before the age of television coverage and the slow-motion repeat, photographs allowed the trauma of a crash to be worked through. Tragic events could become legendary overnight. During the 1960 Tour de France the young triple world pursuit champion, Roger Rivière, tumbled 30 meters into a ravine in an accident that would see him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his short life.
The belated efforts to rescue him and the reactions of his team-mates were photographed with an intimacy that is unimaginable in today’s media-managed sport. One shot showed Rivière in his hospital bed with his wife at his side, their youthfulness and vulnerability still shocking.
Other aftermath images include the bloodied face of Raymond Poulidor after a Tour de France crash in 1968, a scenario that was repeated in 1973. Ever popular with French advertisers, there is more than a hint in these photographs of Poulidor posing for the cameras.
But perhaps the most resonant crash image of all is that of Eddy Merckx after a fall that ended his Tour of Flanders in 1966. Propped up by gendarmes, the rider’s crumpled body echoes an iconic representation of the dead Christ known as the pietà (or lamentation), a traumatic subject in Catholic cultures. It rapidly became the quintessential image of the young Merckx, a symbol of his heroic self-sacrifice for the sport.
Crash photographs are captivating, but they often disguise the complexity of an event. The Spanish rider Luis Ocaña endured several famous crashes, including, notoriously, a spill in the 1971 Tour de France which robbed him of a victory against Merckx, his arch rival.
Descending the Col de Menté in a heavy rainstorm, both riders crashed on a sweeping left-hand bend. The Belgian remounted and continued the descent, but Ocańa was hit not once, but twice, by following riders. He was forced to retire from the race wearing the yellow jersey, one of cycling’s great ‘what ifs’. Ocańa’s frequent crashes were a result of his “reckless” personality (probably encouraged by amphetamine use), and perhaps, too, the scale of his desire to defeat Merckx.
As the 2014 Tour de France revealed, crash photographs are increasingly taken by fans armed with camera phones and in the right place. Alberto Contador’s bloodied knee (and as it turned out, fractured tibia) circulated rapidly via social media, as did Mark Cavendish’s slide across the Harrogate tarmac. On-board bike cameras now provide a new perspective, although, intriguingly, being a virtual participant in a crash is less satisfying than observing it from a distance.
One question worth asking is whether new forms of visualisation foster a different perception of the sport. Today, road cycling appears more dangerous and technologically dependent – human and machine seem more closely integrated. Similarly, the fan’s enjoyment is ever more mediated by the screen, including those “watching” at the roadside.
Shock is part and parcel of the spectatorship of modern cycling, preserved visually in the arrest of a hurtling rider. Crashing exposes the frailty of the athlete’s body and ushers in the spectre of sporting defeat. But perhaps there is also something more profound at work?
Crashes occur everywhere and are part of the complexity of modern life – from economics, to computing, to human health and transport infrastructures. They resist all our efforts – including those of the recently invented ‘risk manager’ – to prevent them taking place. Crash imagery helps us to deal with the fact that accidents are endemic to the way we live.
I was drafting this column on a train which was suddenly halted when a woman fell under its wheels at Fribourg station (the entanglement of human limbs and heavy machinery is not something I will easily forget). And as I write this final paragraph, news is filtering through of yet another calamitous aeroplane crash.
It may well be that our fascination with crashing, our desire to relive it from the safety of our sofas, protects us from the fear of more generalised catastrophe. Consciously or otherwise, the shock (or thrill) of a road race spill helps us to cope. In short, ‘Chute!’ summons something both reassuring and unsettling: our everyday triumph over death.
This article featured in issue 49 of Rouleur, published in August 2014