For the other FDJ riders on training camp in Calpe, December 10 was a day much like any other. They did some core exercises and rode their bikes again.
Not for William Bonnet. It was the first time in five months that he returned to riding on the road, enjoying that inimitable feeling of wind in your face and the vibrations from the tyres.
“It was special. Those sensations, taking the corners: it all comes back to you quickly,” he says, smiling.
The Frenchman’s world turned upside down on stage 3 of the 2015 Tour de France, 60 kilometres from the day’s finish on the Mur de Huy. The Frenchman touched the wheel of a rider in front and hit the ground, precipitating one of the biggest crashes of the race.
Twenty riders came down, leaving bikes and bodies strewn across the road; five abandoned, including Bonnet. The 80km/h fall left him with a broken scaphoid and multi-fragmented fracture of the second cervical vertebra; in layman’s terms, he broke his neck. A plate was later inserted in his neck to fuse the two broken vertebrae.
Did he consider that this was the end of his career? “Yes, I asked myself the question because it was serious,” he says. “I also didn’t know how I was going to deal with the cervical injury; it was the surgeon who told me on December 1: ‘It’s okay, you can return to the road because we’ve seen that all is well strengthened and repaired.’”
However, he didn’t have to worry about his immediate future at FDJ. Hours after his crash, team boss Marc Madiot visited him in hospital and assured him that his contract, due to expire this winter, would be renewed into 2016. That’s loyalty for you.
After surgery on his injury, Bonnet spent two months in a neck corset, then another one in a brace.
“For two months, I couldn’t leave my house. I couldn’t drive, I went to my medical appointments in an ambulance, lying down. I even had a month where I could be a car passenger and my partner ferried me around,” he said.
Doctors urged caution and he was obliged by French law not to ride his bike on the road.
“So for three months, I did nothing. I just had a home trainer in the garage. I could walk about, but not a lot.”
At least Bonnet’s humour remains intact. He reasons that one upshot of the lay-off was that he had plenty of time to consider and buy the kids’ Christmas presents well in advance.
Ultimately, the experience hasn’t changed the way Bonnet sees life. “I’ve three kids. When you have a child, you already change, you see life differently. You’re not as concentrated on yourself.
“This crash will change me as a rider, that’s for sure. I won’t be the same kind of rider; I won’t be doing the same races at the start of the year. It changes me too because I know I was lucky.”
Despite the tough months of recovery, Bonnet is acceptant of what happened; he says he doesn’t replay the crash in his mind.
“Crashes happen and there are many. I’ve no special desire to relive my one. It happened and it happens in other races, perhaps not quite as violently.”
Can anything be done to help avoid similar crashes in the future? “I’ve already thought about this. That road I crashed on was wide and dry. The UCI cannot remove all the roundabouts or the traffic islands. Sadly, roads are less and less made for cycling races.
“Afterwards, some people said the crash was down to earpieces. I don’t believe that was the cause because we all study the parcours [beforehand], we all have our notes, we all know you need to be in front at a certain kilometre. Everyone wants to be in the same place and there you go: it would be the same thing with or without earpieces.”
Bonnet also ascribes it to a lack of respect from the new generation. “Each one thinks of themselves and not of the safety of others…You’re not alone in the bunch. Know that if you swerve, others could crash behind you,” he says.
The 33-year-old is still on the long road back to fitness. His head is stiff and he gets occasional pain turning his neck. Also, having lost a lot of muscle mass, there is still a great deal of tension in his shoulders, which means he can’t get into a tuck position on a descent.
Bonnet doesn’t know when he will be back at a race. In 2016, at least, he will miss his favourite races, the cobbled Classics, which are seen as too much of a risk at this stage in his recovery.
“I’ll take everything slowly, there’s another training camp in January. I’ll up the length of my training sessions; I’ll be able to do more normal sessions there, and with the others too. I’m not often with them. Today, they did time-trial exercises but I didn’t do it because it’s a low position.”
The crash may have changed the course of his season, but it doesn’t have to define William Bonnet’s cycling career. He would rather be remembered as a classy domestique and top ten Tour of Flanders finisher, not as “the guy who crashed in the 2015 Tour de France”.
So, in an ideal world, if the 33-year-old returns to full fitness, what are his dreams and ambitions in the sport?
“Well, I think it’s a dream because we will have to see how the recovery and return to racing goes,” he says. “But if I can be on the Tour de France – the last stage starts in my hometown, Chantilly – that would be great. And after that, it’d be to return to Paris-Roubaix because it’s a race which excites me.”
Best of luck to him. And besides, we say, it’s the new William Bonnet 2.0 that’ll be out there.
“Yes,” he says, laughing. “And will this one be better and faster?”