When sprinters crash, they go down hard.
Elia Vivani’s upending in the gallop for the line in Cascina at the end of the second stage of this fiftieth edition of Tirreno-Adriatico was spectacular; painful even to watch, never mind to suffer. When his front wheel momentarily connected with the rear wheel of Mark Cavendish, the effect was instant: Viviani was catapulted from his machine with such ferocity that to see him climb to his feet after what had felt like an eternity on the ground was a relief.
Collisions in a bunch sprint are always catastrophic. The combination of speed and proximity foists terrible consequences on those with the misfortune to be caught up in them. The rider’s protection is minimal, as Viviani’s shredded lycra – and beneath it his lacerated skin – attested, but this is unavoidable: no technical advance is likely to develop a material resistant to the friction generated by the decelerating force of tarmac on speeding rider, at least in which he can still pedal freely.
When the crash involves only other riders, it is terrible, but when foreign objects are introduced, the effect is still worse. Zdenek Stybar’s collision with a crash barrier at last season’s Eneco Tour is the most sickening of recent memory. His high-velocity faceplant removed teeth and required reconstructive surgery.
His return to the fray is admirable, as with any rider who has crashed with such terrible impact. Insulated by instinct and adrenalin, and in the case of a stage race, by the more mundane sense that the show must go on, even the victims of the worst crashes come back. Viviani finished the day by climbing back on to his bike and rolling across the finish line.
It was Stybar who set a torrid pace for his Etixx-Quick-Step leader Cavendish on the final run in to Cascina. His frequent checks back over his shoulder suggested an anxiety that he had lost Cavendish, but the Manxman had remained glued to the wheel of his ‘pilot fish’, Mark Renshaw, a man entirely at home amid the chaos of the bunch kick, able to navigate with sufficient calmness around its implicit hazards to all but guarantee smooth passage for himself and his leader.
It was Cavendish’s loss of momentum – allegedly caused by an unshipped chain – and the touch of wheels with Viviani that proved his undoing. Belgian champion Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) proved the ultimate beneficiary, with Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan a seemingly inevitable second. An exhilarating burst of speed from young Irishman Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) proved again, after his final stage victory at the Tour of Qatar, that he belongs among the most exalted company.
Also of note on an otherwise uneventful day was the performance of MTN-Qhubeka in the closing kilometres. The team has reinvented itself this year as a formidable force for the bunch sprints, and while with so many closed season signings they are bound to be a work in progress in March, there were signs on the run in to Cascina that when things coalesce the established sprint trains may not have things all their own way. Matt Goss and Edvald Boasson Hagen, once members of HTC-Highroad, gave every indication of a desire to revive past glories.
Today’s third stage from Cascina to Arezzo ends on a hilly circuit with a final kilometer tilted at a gradient of five per cent. Katusha captain Joaquim Rodriguez will fancy the job.