Words Ian Cleverly Photos Gerard Brown
While the world’s cycling fans have spent the past week poring over galleries of gruesome post-crash photographs and watching endless re-runs of Johnny Hoogerland’s stomach-churning catapult into a barbed-wire fence, some of us have been hard at work in parts of Europe with decidedly dodgy wi-fi connections and were unable to join in the traditional Tour de France opening week carnage and its attendant rubbernecking.
Crashing is a part of bike racing, always has been, always will be. But when a TV commentator closes the week’s highlights programme by saying “Let’s hope for less crashes next week,” followed by a closing montage consisting almost exclusively of tangled bodies, bloodied limbs and smashed bikes, you have to wonder what the public is tuning in for – bike racing or blood and guts.
If the universal appeal of this sport is overcoming the insurmountable, whether that be climbing Mont Ventoux or finishing a stage with the arse hanging out of your shorts and lacerated buttocks, I suppose it make sense. It just makes me uncomfortable. Gore is displacing racing and turning the Tour into a freak show.
Having volunteered to be soigneur for a British team at the Tour de Feminin Krásná Lípa in the Czech Republic (don’t worry – the team also had a swanny who knew what he was doing), the Tour de France had to take a back seat. There is little time for TV watching when faced with an endless queue of legs to massage and bottles to prepare. Plus sitting under the stairs in the dorm seemed to be the only way of finding a half-decent wi-fi signal.
Thankfully, not one of our eight riders hit the deck during the five stages, and crashes were few and far between despite the 160-strong bunch. What tore the team apart was that other bête noire of bike racers on tour – food poisoning. This is not the same kind of food poisoning that afflicted the PDM Tour team of ’91, withdrawn en masse due to an ailment that curiously affected all nine riders, but none of the support staff or managers. Draw your own conclusions…
This was the kind that hit all and sundry, leaving those of us in support roles barely able to function, let alone ride bikes. Roxy Music’s Both Ends Burning played endlessly in my head, between 50 metre sprints to the toilet, praying to the god of Imodium for devine intervention. The riders, meanwhile, had a 20km time trial and 90km road stage to face…
And face them they did, in various levels of distress, which brings me back to Hoogerland and the rest of the patched-up, swaddled peloton, limping its way toward the Pyrenees. The determination to carry on in seemingly impossible circumstances marks out, not only cycling from other sports, but top cyclists from lesser mortals. To finish the Tour is a major achievement; anything else is a bonus. And Paris must be reached no matter what obstacles and pitfalls lay in the way. Monty Python’s Black Knight, reduced to a limbless torso – “It’s just a flesh wound” – was surely a bike racer at heart.
Krásná Lípa is a big race for the women’s peloton, so perhaps I should not be surprised to see my team’s riders – having been driven across Europe in the back of a van and ridden their hearts out, only to be sideswiped by dodgy fish from a health and safety nightmare of a kitchen – continue racing in between mewling and puking, shitting and sleeping.
I was speechless with admiration, as I am for Hoogerland – who apportioned no blame for his dreadful accident, despite a swerving French TV car having nearly ended his life hours earlier. And Brad Wiggins, talking to camera from the hospital within hours of breaking his collarbone – having seen a great chance of a podium position in Paris disappear 40km from Châteauroux, and having every right to be grouchy as hell – just shrug his one good shoulder and issue without a trace of bitterness the stock phrase that perfectly sums up the whole situation.
“That’s bike racing, isn’t it?”
It is, indeed, bike racing. But if we could have a little more racing over the next two weeks and a little less carnage, I for one will be grateful. I’m not sure my stomach is up to it.