It's fun to work at a bike shop while the Tour is happening. We watch the end of the stage live, then re-run it for the rest of the day. People stop by to watch(or try not to, so they can catch it on their DVR at home in the evening). It gives us something to talk about other than the heat. It's always fun to be around cyclists during the race, but it seems like this year's edition has been something special-there have been so many stages with unexpected results that no one seems to know what's going to happen next.
Even in that context, The stage to Ventoux stands out. I've been watching the Tour for a long time, and I've never seen anything on the scale of what happened there-any rider, let alone the race leader, pitching his bike and running up a mountain, is something none of us will soon forget.
Oddly, I have seen something similar. It was in a race in Louisville in 2007 or 2008(slightly smaller than the Tour; you probably didn't watch it on TV). For a few years, Louisville was putting on a great little downtown crit. The course was technical and fun, the fields were good, and there were solid payouts, even in the lower categories. Our team always seemed to do well there, so we usually made the trip.
I was a Cat 3 that year, and I went to the race with my two teammates, Nathan and Ben. The race started out fast with plenty of attacking, but eventually Nathan got up the road with four or five other guys. There was some chasing for five or six laps afterward, but once the break got established the race calmed down considerably. As we started to get towards the end of the race, the break has enough of a gap that Ben and I started thinking about a result in the field sprint. It would be tricky; there were two corners in the last 150 meters, so, barring anything extraordinary, the one who put his wheel into the first of those two corners in first position would likely win.
Barring anything extraordinary.
The last three laps were extremely aggressive-especially since the break was gone. I remember wondering if all of these guys knew that we were racing for sixth. Regardless, it was fast, until, inexplicably, with a half lap to go, there was a lull. I have no idea why-maybe everyone was just tired, or maybe just worried about how to play those last two turns. But, as the group sat up, Ben just kept pedaling. It was a perfect move at the perfect time. He looked back, saw that he had a gap, and drilled it. I moved to the back, thinking we had the field sprint sewn up and not wanting to potentially screw anything up for Ben.
As I got close to the finish, I heard the unfortunately familiar sound of a crash-like a shopping cart being dragged across the pavement on its side. There had been a stack-up in the last corner. I was far enough back that I was able to ease up and roll through slowly and take a peek at the aftermath. Several guys on the floor, most already getting up and checking out their bikes and their skin. I was glad that no one seemed to be seriously hurt.
And then I saw Ben's bike. But no Ben. And as I made the turn towards the finish, I saw Paramedics rushing to what looked like another crash at the finish line.
I heard the story later from Nathan, who had been able to finish and loop back to the line to see the field sprint. He told me that Ben had come to the last couple of corners with about a three second gap. Plenty of time, especially since the last turn was inside 100 meters from the line. But Ben had taken that last one too hot and had washed out. Nathan said that Ben stood up, looked at his bike, and then left it in the middle ofthe road and started running towards the line.
Ben grew up playing soccer; even with bike shoes on, he's pretty fast. He made it to within about 20 meters from the line. Behind him, everybody in the field was probably a bit surprised to find a bike-shaped land mine in the middle of the last corner. Some guys crashed into it, but some made it through. One of them was Chris Stoll, another Nashville guy who is a good sprinter. Chris, having made it through the mess, opened his sprint.
Chris sprints with his head down. If he had looked up, he would probably have been surprised to see Ben in front of him, running towards the line without his bike. But he didn't. He plowed into Ben at full speed. Neither of them saw it coming. I talked to three different people who happened to see it, and all three used the same word: sickening.
The impact was enough to crack Chris' skull. He was off the bike for a long time. He started showing up for races again only a few years ago. Ben got off relatively easy with a bunch of broken ribs and a broken shoulder. Nathan said that when he saw the crash, he was sure that one of them was dead. He said he'd never seen anything like it and hoped he never see anything like it again. I talked to Jeff Hopkins, an Australian pro who had shown up to register and just happened to be standing at the finish line. Jeff's been racing bikes since he was nine or ten and has seen pretty much every kind of crash that can happen on a bicycle. He said that was the all-time worst.
I don't know if the two of them have ever had the chance to connect and talk about that race. But I know that I think about it all the time, and I know that the people who saw it will always remember it.
So, of course, last week when I saw the Tour stage to Ventoux last week, that's what I was thinking of.
There are lots of rules in bike racing. For my money, two of the most important are keep your head up and don't set off running without your bike.
Even if your name is Chris Froome.