Laurens ten Dam soldiers on after crashing and landing on his face during Stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. Photo by Koen Van Weel/AFP – Getty Images
The commissaire was twitchy. His pre-race briefing stressed a disapproval of straying across the central road lines; we were to remain squeezed onto the left hand side only. Eighty riders trying to race on just a few metres of tarmac.
Unfortunately this enthusiastic interpretation of the rules didn’t bring about safer racing, it only made us more uneasy. Chances were still being taken, on blind bends, and on the climbs when the bunch naturally fans across the road as the pace slows. Of course, some riders were clearly intent on taking more risks than others.
The circuit we were racing includes one main descent – it’s fast and the road is twisty, but it can be taken at speed without requiring the brakes. Approaching it for the first time in the race I had worked my way into the first five or so in the bunch, supposedly the safest place to be. Unfortunately that doesn’t account for the leading rider misjudging a corner at high speed.
At 55kph I saw his back wheel lock up, his bike fishtail as he fought to make it around the right hand bend. The bushes lining the left of the road appeared to offer a soft landing, but carrying such speed it only rebuffed him back across the road, and sent him sprawling across our paths.
Just a few days earlier I had been listening to a radio show in which a physicist attempted to explain the science of cycling. Balancing on two tiny patches of rubber that make contact with the road, our brain is constantly having to make hundreds of tiny corrections to our balance. We’re always in a state of falling over, and it’s only these adjustments keeping us upright.
Momentum, gravity, friction. You can only brake so hard, slow down so fast. You can only swerve so sharply before balance becomes tipped too far. And yet there in the road, at a rapidly decreasing distance, is a fallen obstacle, a bike detached and skidding along at a separate trajectory to its owner. Time seems to count down inexorably to the collision. Out of the corner of my eye I see the rider beside me crash to the floor.
The speed of the impact unsettles me, and there seems no way that this could have a benign outcome. I envision broken bones and concussion – and I see myself sharing the same fate.
But then, at the final moment, a gap appears between the fallen rider and his bike. Centimetres to escape through. My front wheel finds a clear path and before I can believe it I’m out the other side. Upright, unscathed.
Except I want my race to be over, I don’t feel like racing anymore. It’s not easy to keep calm and carry on when the dangers of bike racing have been so graphically illustrated, and in such close proximity.
Yesterday Bradley Wiggins lost some unnecessary seconds to Juan Jose Cobo in the Vuelta. It was a flat sprinters stage, a day to hide in the bunch and recover. But it seems Wiggins is not comfortable during these fast finishes, and it’s not the first occasion he’s needlessly lost seconds to GC rivals. I wonder whether it’s not down to inattentiveness, or bad bunch positioning, but perhaps it’s a lack of nerve? With a wife and two young children at home, is the fear of crashing playing on his mind?
During Paris-Brest-Paris a couple of weeks ago, Chris Ragsdale (the rider I was helping to support) spoke of multiple crashes occurring in the lead group. Motor vehicles, confusion caused by motorcycle marshals taking wrong turns, and rider errors all leading to numerous incidents. It was clear Chris had been shaken up by a couple of near misses, and was obviously weighing up whether continuing with the ride was wise – he too has a young family waiting for him at home, and also a day job he needs to return to in order to pay the bills.
On more than one occasion this year I’ve removed myself from contesting the finish of a race; I haven’t the stomach for mass sprint finishes, I’m too uncertain to race around tight corners in the wet. Over the course of the year a decision seems to be forming about how far I’m willing to go – at some point my luck will inevitably run out, and my increasing cautiousness is an attempt to avoid that fate.
Is it possible to be competitive in road racing when you’re unwilling to put yourself in potential danger? Is risk-taking an inevitable part of the sport? I’ve witnessed several crashes over the course of the season, and many others when I’ve only heard behind me the scraping and clattering of bikes against the tarmac. I’ve got caught behind them and had to chase back after the bunch had split. I’ve seen friends hobble across the finish line nursing bloodied wounds.
My racing year is soon coming to a close. I’ve survived this long without falling victim myself, but the looming spectre of crashing has held me back. Points and results have slipped away because of it. Along with winter training before the start of next season, I’m going to have to figure out a way of coping with the risks of road racing – otherwise there may be no point in carrying on.