Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Stress, adrenaline and stage 1 crashes

Even before three crashes wrecked the first mass sprint in the 97th Tour de France, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the finish would be somewhat chaotic on Sunday.

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Even before three crashes wrecked the first mass sprint in the 97th Tour de France, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the finish would be somewhat chaotic on Sunday. The complicated run-in to Brussels and the long, narrow finishing straight might have been safer midway through the Tour, when riders are less nervous and fewer teams have sprinters in contention for the win; but on the Tour’s very first road stage it seemed inevitable there’d be some accidents.

Bad crashes at finishes rarely happened before the modern era of lighter bikes, bigger gears and higher speeds, along with starting fields closer to 200 than 100. Perhaps the most stomach-churning finish-line crash the Tour has seen came in 1994 at Armentières in northern France.

On a bumpy city street where gendarmes were stationed along the straightaway, Belgian champion Wilfried Nelissen collided headfirst with a police officer who stepped out to take a photo with an Instamatic camera. Frenchman Laurent Jalabert and Italian Fabio Fontanelli smashed into the falling Nelissen and all three ended up on the tarmac, concussed or with wounds spilling blood on the road, with Jalabert needing reconstructive surgery to put his face and teeth back together.

Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc was so stunned by that incident he vowed to make finishes safer, especially on opening stages. Courses were selected more carefully in the following years, other than an aberration in 1997 when small country road entering Forges-les-Eaux caused a couple of mass pileups, even though the finish itself was safe.

But that all changed in 2003, at Meaux, where 50 men came down like dominoes (with Americans Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton both going to the hospital with broken bones) because the organizers mapped a finish that had a dangerous downhill chicane only 300 meters before the line. That stage was won from a small group of survivors by Alessandro Petacchi from Robbie McEwen and Thor Hushovd — who coincidentally were all involved in Sunday’s eventual sprint to the line.

There were crashes on the run-ins to Charleroi in 2004 — the year that a massive pileup in Le Mans, partly caused by the barriers narrowing at the last-kilometer archway, led to the “no time loss” zone being extended from 1k to 3km to go — and at Les Essarts in 2005. At Strasbourg the following year Hushovd collided with a spectator’s camera and tumbled from his bike right after the line, with his right forearm spurting blood. Again, Leblanc said Amaury Sport Organisation, which owns and runs the Tour, would try to make things safer in the future.

But in 2007, on the run-in to Canterbury, England, Mark Cavendish crashed, as did McEwen — who amazingly came back to win the stage. A summit finish at Plumelec in 2008 was safe, but last year, into Brignoles, Boonen and others veered off-course to avoid a crash and couldn’t contend against a runaway Cavendish.

Which brings us to 2010. All day Sunday, massive crowds packed the Dutch and Belgian roadsides. They were spectacular to behold but anxiety-provoking for the riders, who didn’t know when another dog would run out or a fan would step too far into the street. The crowds were especially thick 10km from the finish in the town of Meise, hometown of Eddy Merckx, where a massive all-day (and probably all-night) party was being held to celebrate the Cannibal’s recent 65th birthday.

Speeds heightened throughout the run-in reaching 80 kph on the long downhill into a tight right turn just before the 2km-to-go banner. “I just had a feeling they were gonna go too fast into that downhill turn,” said McEwen, the Aussie veteran sprinter, who knows how to survive dangerous situations. “The (course map) showed there was a sharp corner there, and guys come into it at 70 K an hour. It seems obvious that someone’s gonna crash. I managed to get past that one.”

That’s where HTC-Columbia’s Cavendish got locked up with Lampre’s Mirco Lorenzotto after the Italian’s right foot unclipped and brought down them down with Rabobank’s Oscar Freire and Cervélo’s Jeremy Hunt. With those sprinters and lead-out men all eliminated the Garmin-Transitions train, led by David Millar, took over the front for Tyler Farrar.

“I was feeling good,” Millar said, “when I heard a rider from Columbia shout, ‘Cavendish has fallen! Cavendish has fallen!’ That was good, good for Tyler, so I led him out and it seemed he was good for the win …”

But two more incidents quickly changed the picture. The head wind and uphill straightaway slowed the pace, causing riders to fan out; and because encroaching crowd barriers narrowed the passageway inside the last kilometer the road was blocked when a couple of riders fell, causing a huge 100-strong pileup, from which only 25 riders escaped to contest the final sprint.

“I had perfect position, everything was on track,” Farrar said, “and then this AG2R guy (Lloyd Mondory) decided he wanted to run into my back wheel. His front wheel stuck in my derailleur, and I was driving his bike down the road after that.”

McEwen just avoided falling when Mondory slammed into Farrar’s back wheel, but the Katusha rider lost his momentum and just failed to catch the three survivors of the mayhem — Lampre’s Petacchi, HTC’s Mark Renshaw and the indomitable Hushovd of Cervélo — who struggled across the line in that order. “There was a little bit of regret that I couldn’t get over Petacchi,” Renshaw, Cavendish’s Aussie lead-out man, said, “but in the end that’s not my job.”

The biggest losers in the chaotic finish were Cavendish and Farrar, whose misfortune cost them scoring any points in the green jersey competition, which could be an impossible handicap to overcome. Farrar’s Garmin team director Matt White was relatively nonchalant about the end result. “Unfortunately, that’s sprinting,” he said. “We’ll be lining up in three days time (on stage 4 to Reims) to do it again.”

Before that, we will all witness two of the more important stages in the Tour — over the hills of the Ardennes to Spa on Monday and across the cobblestones of northern France on Tuesday — but by Wednesday the sprinters’ high-adrenaline antics are likely to be played out on much safer finishes.

Let’s hope they all survive the next two days to be in a position to truly entertain the fans for the rest of the week. And not with crashes!

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