Tuesday, July 17, 2007
As a fan who has never been to a race, I don't know what it's like to watch a crash in person. But I do know what it's like to watch a crash on TV. To watch one rider or 30 come crashing down and be faced with that fear that your favorite rider (the one you want to win the stage, the race, or just finish the tour in one piece) has fallen. It's happened to me. On stage 16 of last year's Tour, Sylvain Chavanel fell hard. He ran into a stone wall during a descent. As a fan, it was one of the scariest moments of my time watching the sport. Not only wasn't he moving very much, but Chavanel is my favorite and so watching him was nothing short of upsetting.
That being said, this year's Tour has had more crashes that I even know what to do with. Even on the simplest of flat stages – when nothing is going on, there are crashes. Stupid crashes that are caused by inattention or taking a corner too fast. We've seen almost-accidents (Cancellara riding onto the grass on a descent) and disasters (Rogers and Arroyo and later O'Grady, whose accident I never saw). It makes the sport both exciting and extremely scary.
Perhaps it's easier to understand crashes in Formula One or NASCAR, here there are cars going around in circles at excessive speeds. But when I talk to people who are fans of motor racing, but not cycling, they seem surprised by all the crashes in cycling. They just can't believe that cyclists can come close to death and/or end up in comas (for example: Saul Raisin and recently, Kai Reus) just from riding their bikes.
While no one has ended up in a coma during this Tour, there have been some upsetting moments. Watching the video of Stuart O'Grady being loaded into the ambulance (having suffered from numerous bad injuries) just reminds us of three things. The first is that this sport, no matter what people might say about it, is dangerous. The second is that these men are just that, men. They are like us in that they are human and what happens to humans? We get hurt. The third thing is that racing a bike takes skill. Even casual fans of the sport can understand this.
But even with all of that, there is something about crashes. They are shown as highlights (on Sportscenter or CNN and in Versus TdF advertising). They make the news, they are the stories I send my non-cycling fan friends. They are the pictures that I post or email to people. Crashes are as much a part of the race as the winners. It's what happens after those crashes that's important. It's about who can ride through the pain (Andreas Kloden) and who can't (Mick Rogers).
Crashes test even the toughest of fans, just as they test the riders. We must sit, helpless, as riders we love bleed as they cross the finish-line. We all remember the blood dripping down Thor Hushovd's arm during last year's Tour, just as we'll remember Mick Rogers hunched over his bike in tears as he abandoned during this year's Tour. What's different this year, at least to me, is that there are so many crashes and that they are bad.
The question is why. Is it because there's no one controlling the race like the USPS team of old (and this question has been batted around since Armstrong retired)? Is it because the route is tougher? Because the cyclists are riding faster? Or does it have to do with the bikes themselves or the fact that riders are taking more chances than in the past? We might never know, but we suffer through, just as they do. This is a part of cycling and as much as it broke my heart to watch Rogers abandon, the race goes on.