Legends of the Fall

The 2014 Tour de France saw a spate of crashes take out many of the race favourites. Cyclist investigates whether there was more than bad luck at play

When Mark Cavendish hit the deck in the sprint for the line in Harrogate, you’d have been forgiven for thinking this was to be the most high-profile retirement from the 2014 Tour. But much more was to follow. By the end of stage five, race favourite Chris Froome was out after the cumulative effects of three crashes. On stage 10 it was Alberto Contador’s turn to abandon, and the following day another hotly tipped rider, Andrew Talanksy, succumbed to his injuries from two crashes and quit.

On the day Froome crashed he was far from alone. Sébastien Minard skidded near a roundabout, losing his bike from beneath him; Marcel Kittel did the same around a corner, breaking his cleats. With 70km to go, as the peloton split when it swept around a giant roundabout, there were crashes on both sides of the road, including Alejandro Valverde and Tejay van Garderen. The sum result of the Tour’s collective carnage was that 17 fewer riders finished this
year’s race than last year (164 compared to 181).

There will always be crashes in bike racing, of course, but how is it that so many of these experienced riders hit tarmac in this year’s blue ribband event? Bad luck? Or are there other factors conspiring to bring riders down in the ever more competitive world of pro cycling? There are plenty of suggested candidates for responsibility: reduced grip from tyres, new technology making bikes more twitchy, increased expectations for riders to perform, pain-killers clouding riders’ judgement? The possibilities are many…

Point of contact

If more riders are crashing then the first place to look is the tyres, which provide the sole point of contact with the ground and have seen recent innovations vastly increasing the variables at play. The advent of bulbous, aerodynamic wheels such as Zipp’s Firecrest has seen wide tyres usurp 23mm as the pro tyre of choice. It’s a move that defies history where thinner meant faster, unless racing pavé one-dayers like Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

We know Contador was on a 23mm when he went down (which had nothing to do with his fall), yet Froome was on 27mm when he went down twice on that fateful stage five. In theory, wider tyres run at lower pressures should increase grip thanks to their bigger contact area, and therefore improve overall stability, but this is perhaps not the case according to rider, journalist and author of Cycling Science, Max Glaskin. ‘It might be minimal but wider tyres increase frontal area, which will expose itself to winds coming straight on or from behind. That’ll affect handling,’ he says.

Pressures are critical too – and WorldTour mechanic Klas Douglas suggests some teams maybe suffer from a lack of attention to detail here. ‘Tyre pressure should be individual to the characteristics of the rider. This applies to rim width, too. For example, 25mm tyres should run with less pressure but I’m not sure how many teams are taking notice of this. It’s a potential reason for crashes.’

Wind in their sails

Wheels are also evolving at a pace as aero gains are increasingly understood and exploited, with the result that more pro teams are riding with deep section wheels and aero frames. Add in sidewinds and gusts though, and the results are unpredictable. Earlier in the year, renowned coach Joe Friel took his bike out on a windswept morning in Arizona – so windy that Friel considered not riding.

But he’s a cyclist, so he did. Just over half an hour in, a ‘terrific gust’ blew him into a kerb. ‘It resulted in seven broken bones, blood clots in both legs and lungs, and concussion,’ Friel says. He was riding 58mm rims that day and, while recognising he doesn’t possess the handling skills of a pro rider, feels the sail effect sent him to hospital. ‘I’ve since purchased smaller-rimmed Zipp 101s.’

But Paul Lew, director of technology at Reynolds Cycling, thinks pro riders aren’t crashing in this way. ‘That large side area can mean improved handling skills are necessary,’ he says, ‘but I don’t know of any top-level cyclists who find this a problem.’

Instead, Lew and many of his contemporaries, whether riders, coaches or manufacturers, cite issues with ‘carbon’ braking, especially in the wet. ‘There has been a huge variety of different kinds of brake pads on carbon rims but, in general, the riders think they’re disappointing,’ says Douglas. ‘There have been tests with a ceramic coating applied in the braking surface of the rims, which
is better but needs further development.’

Crash2

Whether deficient braking has directly caused any pro crashes is unproven, but the possibility is there. ‘Current carbon-epoxy has two performance limitations. First, high temperature; second, the weather,’ says Lew. ‘There are processes that’ll create a high-performance, low-mass layer on the braking surface that will perform well in the wet, but the cost to manufacture this and
long-term durability is not a high-production solution.’

Supporters of disc brakes argue that they’re the answer, with latest reports suggesting that the UCI will approve them for a road-racing test event in 2016. The UCI has delayed the green light, highlighting concerns related to the dangers of increased stopping power in the peloton and the temperature of the disc when braking on a descent (and whether it could burn someone in a crash). But road disc versions are already available to the public, which could sound a death knell to traditional braking systems on top-end bikes.

To round off the contribution of equipment to crashes, some have suggested that super-stiff carbon frames are less effective at absorbing bumps and can be more skittish, increasing the likelihood of crashes when riders are pushing to
the limits. ‘Unidirectional carbon, in particular, is incredibly stiff,’ says Darren Bancroft of Carbon Cycle Repairs, who’s been mending carbon bikes for years. ‘Maybe if you’re a recreational rider it could have an effect [on your chances of crashing] but if you’re racing in the pro ranks, that wouldn’t be an issue.’

Tom Southam, former professional with Barloworld and now Rapha’s press officer, agrees: ‘I don’t think it’s down to carbon. Teams also acclimatise to new bikes very quickly, which isn’t surprising when they’re racing thousands of miles each month.’

When the rider’s wrong

Of course, only a bad workman blames his tools. It’s very rare that rider error – directly or indirectly – isn’t to blame for a crash. And one of the primary culprits is fatigue. Tiredness and professional cycling go hand in hand, as do swift reaction times. Descending, sprinting, climbing, drafting, handling – the pros are constantly making decisions in the blink of an eye. And it’s those reaction times that begin to slow down when tired, even though the speeds do not.

A recent French study examined the effects of sleep deprivation on fatigue and subsequent cycling performance. Twelve subjects performed a 40-minute submaximal cycling test with a number of cognitive tests undertaken. They did the test after normal sleep and in a sleep-deprived state. Not surprisingly, the authors showed that sleep deprivation resulted in decreased athletic performance and slowing of response speed.

When you consider Froome’s road-rash-peppered body after the 2014 Tour’s fourth stage from Le Touquet to Lille, added to his crash a few weeks previously at the Dauphine, then sleep would have been at a premium the night before the now infamous stage five, and it would hardly be surprising if he didn’t sleep well with those injuries. Even carrying that injured wrist the following day, coming off twice before the cobbles was unusual. It could be that the pressure induced from countless media and sponsor engagements, being leader of the team, and perhaps emotional and mental fatigue brought on by lack of sleep may have caused greater handling problems than that left wrist.

Crash3

Paradoxically, more high-profile DNFs could actually be a positive sign for professional cycling, indicating that doping is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. In the EPO generation, the list of medicines many riders admitted to taking made them superhuman. With unnatural levels of oxygen coursing through their veins, plus the A-Z of stimulants, one burst in the big ring and the peloton could be blown apart. Nowadays, exploits like those of Tony Martin, who won stage nine of the Tour after riding solo for 59km to clinch the win between Gerardmer and Mulhouse, before hitting the wall the next day on the ascent of the Col des Chevreres, are reassuringly human. That levelling of the playing field has potentially resulted in riders having to push themselves ever closer to (and beyond)their natural limits, increasing the chances of a crash.

‘Races have changed,’ confirms Southam. ‘Now it’s usually the final 5km where the action happens. It’s not as spread out as it was; there are more bodies at the finish these days. If you look at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year, there were 40 or 50 guys coming together at the finish. Years ago there would only have been a handful. That’s not condoning doping whatsoever but [its absence] could be a reason behind end-of-race crashes.’

There is also a school of thought that suggests the increased global popularity of cycling is putting more pressure on riders to get results and causing a concurrent rise in human error. Would Cavendish, for example, have crashed if he’d raced the 1974 Plymouth leg of the Tour when one man and his dog lined the A38?

‘I think riders are definitely nervous,’ says pro rider Edward Theuns, who recently won the GP Stad Zottegem for the Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise team. ‘I think the difference between the weakest and the strongest riders is not too big any more at World Tour level, and everybody believes in his chances, so they all want to be there at the most important moments. Everyone knows where the important sections of the course are and sometimes it’s almost a sprint to those points. You always have crashes if there is competition.’

Glaskin adds, ‘What’s different now is that the world’s greatest riders don’t face each other with the regularity of riders of the past. How often do Contador, Nibali and Froome face each other in a season with all three demanding victory? Once, maybe twice? Maybe it’s that rareness of facing each other that brought into focus the statistical anomaly when Contador and Froome crashed.’

The Tramadol issue

When it comes to crashing there is another elephant in the room – and that’s a well-known painkiller rumoured to be in common usage in the peloton. In Michael Barry’s book, Shadows On The Road, the Canadian claims that he had ‘frequently’ seen Team Sky riders being administered with Tramadol in races.

It led Sky to release a statement clarifying their stance. ‘None of our riders should ride whilst using Tramadol – that’s the policy of this team. Team Sky do not give it to riders while racing or training, either as a pre-emptive measure or to manage existing pain.’

Tramadol came to prominence late in 2012 when BMC rider Taylor Phinney speculated that its misuse was rife in the peloton. ‘You see so many late-race, stupid crashes that I wouldn’t be surprised if some or most of them are caused by riders taking these hard-hitting painkillers at the end of races,’ he said. ‘There is widespread use of finish bottles, which are just bottles of crushed-up caffeine pills and painkillers. That stuff can make you pretty loopy, and that’s why I’ve never tried it.’ Earlier in 2014, Lotto-Belisol doctor Jan Mathieu also suggested Tramadol could be contributing to crashes.

Crash4

Tramadol is used for chronic and acute pain relief. In a cycling context it allows riders to train and race through injury or, in the case of those ‘finish bottles’, provide a small high and numb the rider to the extra effort required to power to the line. They may appreciate those anaesthetic qualities, but the side effects of dizziness and drowsiness could well see them hit a competitor and then the floor. Tramadol has been on WADA’s (World Anti-Doping Authority) ‘monitoring programme’ since 2012, a list of substances which are not yet banned but are monitored to detect patterns of misuse.

Whether you’re legally buzzing or not, according to Southam there are hotspots in every race that can be especially dangerous. ‘Feedzones are one,’ he says. ‘It could be inexperienced soigneurs walking too far into the road, or feedbags flying around with a kilogram of food stuffed inside. They’re always dangerous. The neutral zone can be, too, as everyone wants to be at the front.’

The changing infrastructure of cities in Europe could also be a contributory factor. As populations grow, cities spread further away from their epicentre. Inevitably that means an increased network of roads, resulting in more roundabouts and road furniture. The riders splitting into two neat columns before returning to one is a televisual feast but, again, adds technicality when riders are deeply fatigued. ‘You don’t want the races to finish out of town in some sterile backwater,’ adds Southam, ‘but they are safer roads. It won’t happen, though, because the Tour thrives on these city-centre finishes.’

The gritty reality

Does it matter? Crashes are part of the fabric of pro cycling. What other sport recognises the prevalence of crashing to such a degree that its participants shave their legs because it’s easier to deal with road rash? Anna Abramson would contest this lax attitude. She heads up Medicine of Cycling (MOC) in the US and is an expert in concussion in cycling. She’s made it her life’s work to make cycling safer, and has created a traumatic brain injury evaluation card that’s now used by teams such as Team Sky.

‘Everyone can download it off the MOC website,’ Abramson says. ‘You should because helmets, while useful, do not stop concussion. Concussion is a motion of the brain, like whiplash, that stimulates a metabolic crisis. You cut off pathways of sugar to the damaged area and that’s dangerous because the brain totally relies on glucose.’

crashed

But the symptoms – such as headache, neck pain and nausea – aren’t always instant and is why Abramson would like to see a rider sit out for 20 minutes if they’ve had a bad crash. ‘I know that’s not realistic,’ she says. ‘Riders are treated like horses. If they fall, get them back up and away they go.

‘One rider I worked with is Scott Nydam,’ Abramson explains. ‘He was an up-and-coming US athlete but, back in 2009, experienced multiple falls over a short period of time. While racing the Tour of Gila as an amateur, he was involved in a breakaway. The next minute he was going over a climb and lost consciousness.’

Nydam didn’t hit a pothole, take a corner too tight or lose concentration – he blacked out. ‘He lost consciousness because of concussion caused by those previous falls. He now no longer rides and has many issues with depression. It’s a gladiatorial sport, but riders and teams need to be aware of the dangers.’

We can be sure that in the age of marginal gains where anything that influences performance is analysed, the teams will be looking very closely at how and why the recent spate of crashes have happened. But ultimately, almost everything that makes bike racing so gripping both for riders and spectators, also contributes to the potential for crashes. And that’s why we, or at least the riders, may have to just grin and bear it.

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