Filtering towards the team buses ten minutes after the sprightly contenders, they stood out like red ribbons in a haystack: the crash victims, those dozen-odd riders involved in the serious, high-speed crash 50 kilometres from the finish on stage 3 of the 2015 Tour de France.
Cofidis rider Nicolas Edet rode past with his right forearm scraped raw by the road. Daniel Oss of BMC was glaring and wide-eyed, riding fast through the crowds with a cut just below his eye.
Johan Vansummeren, who I had seen embracing his wife and young child at the start in Antwerp, passed with his predominantly-white jersey torn and scuffed up grey. The tall Flandrian has previous Tour crash experience, being similarly torn up in the significant pile-up near Metz in 2012.
Ramon Sinkeldam (Giant-Alpecin) still had blades of grass on his nape and around his shorts grippers. His right arm, caked in dried blood, was fodder for surrounding smartphone-wielding amateur photographers. Conceivably, it could have been far worse for the Dutchman.
“I think two places in front of me, just in front of Dumoulin, somebody hit John Degenkolb’s wheel, crashed and went down. And I couldn’t avoid crashing.
“I think I need a few stitches, but I feel quite okay,” he added. Okay is clearly a subjective term for professionals of the WorldTour.
“It’s my first Tour, but for now, I cannot really enjoy it. I like the crowds, but the way of racing is not really like I’m used to,” Sinkeldam said.
Just down the road, MTN-Qhubeka’s sprinter Tyler Farrar stood and gave his version of events, his buttock partially exposed and scraped in the crash.
“One minute we’re going 75km an hour down the descent, the next there’s 40 guys on the ground in front of me. I locked up the brakes: luckily I managed to scrub a lot of speed off before I hit the floor. At least I didn’t hit the ground as hard as the guys who crashed first.”
Anticipating a big, solo chase onto a fast-disappearing peloton, Farrar was pleased to be told the race had been neutralised: “It was chaos. There were so many guys on the ground, injured, and broken bikes. It was a big crash.”
Alongside his then team-mate Vansummeren, Farrar had the misfortune to be one of the eight Garmin riders involved in the massive Metz crash in 2012. Was this fall a reminder?
“Ah, that’s the Tour. It seems like lately there’s a crash like that almost every year. You just hope you get lucky and dodge it. Not this year for me but it’s pretty superficial, I managed to slow down a lot before I hit the guys on the ground.”
It’s hard to accept that incidents of this gravity are part and parcel of the modern Tour. What’s causing the crashes? Would eight-rider teams help, for example? “It’s just the nature of the beast nowadays. There’s just so much stuff in the roads, you saw that on stage 2: how many hundreds of roundabouts did we go over? That’s the thing. Everyone says ‘oh, there are so many more crashes in cycling.’ In the ten years I’ve been racing over here, there’s probably three times as much road furniture as when I started. That’s a bigger factor than team size, personally.”
Although bloodied and banged up, the truth is that Sinkeldam and Farrar were among the more fortunate crash victims. A pro rider will always take road rash and a bad night’s sleep over the agony of a broken bone and Tour withdrawal.
“I’m happy it’s nothing real serious, more torn jerseys and shorts than anything else. I’ll live to fight another day,” said Farrar, beaming in the sunshine before heading into the MTN team bus.