Tour de France is one of the world’s biggest and most renowned sporting events, but as 2021’s opening stages have shown, it’s also a tremendously perilous one. After days of alarming crashes, cyclists on Tuesday protested the hazardous conditions.
The spills started Saturday, on the tour’s very first day, when two crashes caused over 21 injuries. The first of the two incidents has itself become an international news story: A camera-keen spectator obliviously holding a sign on the narrow cycling path caused one rider to lose balance and fall. A chaotic pileup ensued, and one of the damaged cyclists was force to leave the tour altogether.
“My wife does not want to see my son on a bike,” Marc Madiot, a former champion cyclist and manager of the Groupama-FDJ team, said after Saturday’s two crashes. “It’s been years that we are talking about [safety], we need to find solutions. It’s not bike racing anymore. One day there will be dead people.”
Tour de France’s deputy director, Pierre-Yves Thouault, told AFP that the organization would sue the woman who inadvertently caused the crash. The only issue? She fled the scene and is still at large.
Here’s everything you need to know about the fallout from Saturday’s chaotic crash, including the minute protest on Tuesday.
How did the crash happen?
The pileup happened on Saturday, the opening day of the Tour de France. This year’s tour runs from Brest, in northern France, to Paris, a 2,121-mile (3,414 kilometer) race over 21 days. Day 1 had the athletes cycling from Brest to Landerneau, a 123-mile (198 kilometer) course.
Midway through the race, however, disaster struck. An enthusiastic spectator, keen to show off her sign to a nearby camera, rushed near the track and extended the sign out. Her back was to the cyclists, and as such didn’t notice their rapid approach. Her cardboard sign knocked Germany cyclist Tony Martin off balance slightly. Because of how tightly all the bikers were packed into the narrow track, that was enough to send him falling. An insane pileup ensued.
The spectator’s sign read: “Go, grandpa and grandma!”
How many people were injured?
Quite a few. There were two crashes on Tour de France’s opening day, with 21 injuries between them. The pile-up caused by the sign-holding spectator caused nine of those injuries.
“We had everything under control until the crash,” Martin said via a press release. “It all happened very quickly; suddenly almost the entire team was on the ground… Many spectators behave respectfully, but unfortunately not this one.”
Martin was able to finish the race, but the same can’t be said for German athlete Jasha Sütterlin. After suffering a large hematoma, Sütterlin was forced out of the tour after being unable to continue in the race.
“It looks like a war zone,” Gilbert Versier, a surgeon working for Tour de France, told the French publication L’Equip. “The same chaos, the same moans, bodies everywhere and tangled machines.”
What’s the reaction been?
Social media reactions have ranged from remarking on the horrible crash to mocking (or sympathizing with) the spectator to wondering how this is even possible.
The signholding woman will now be investigated for endangering public safety, reports German publication DW. Local police called for witnesses to come forward to help identify the woman.
“The viewer causing this accident left the scene before the investigators arrived,” police said in a Saturday night Facebook post. “She was wearing glasses and dressed in blue jeans, red and white stripe sweater, yellow jacket (waxed). She holds a sign supporting the inscription ′’ALLEZ OPI-IMO”
“We are suing this woman who behaved so badly,” Pierre-Yves Thouault, vice president of Tour de France, told AFP. “We are doing this so that the tiny minority of people who do this don’t spoil the show for everyone.”
A report from Ouest France publication noted that the woman, who tour officials speculate is from Germany, remains untraceable.
What was Tuesday’s protest about?
The Saturday spill caused by the signholder was the first of many. Later, towards the end of the same stage, 12 bikers suffered injuries in another crash. That includes several who had head trauma, and one Cyril Lemoine, with four broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
But Stage 3, on Monday, was apparently the breaking point for Tour de France’s competitors. Three separate crashes left dozens of bikers injured, some very seriously. Jack Haig, a favorite, suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion. Caleb Ewen also broke his collarbone. Geraint thomas, winner of Tour de France 2018, dislocated his shoulder. These were just some of the known damages. Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch called it “one of the most chaotic days we have ever seen at the Tour de Frace.”
As a result, around half a mile into Tuesday’s 93-mile (150 kilometer) Stage 4 track, a pelaton of cyclists protested the dangerous course layouts by stopping and getting off their bikes for a minute. They then resumed the race at a more leisurely pace.
“Their frustration about foreseeable and preventable action is enormous,” cycling union CPA wrote in a statement. “They wish to stress their respect for their sponsors, their sports groups, the organizer, their international institutions. Supporters are very important to them — and this is why they will be riding today.”
“In return, the riders of the Tour de France ask for the same respect — respect for their safety.”
Belgian cyclist Philippe Gilbert said in a video posted to Twitter that riders had analyzed the route and saw that the final stretch — where one of the three crashes took place — was dangerous. To discourage a dangerous sprint along the hazardous final stretch, they requested that rider times be stopped three kilometers from the finish line. The request was rejected the day of the race by Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, Gilbert said.
“There are no longer any medium-sized towns without a small island, roundabout or narrowing,” route planner Thierry Gouvenou told L’Equip. “Ten years ago, there were 1,100 dangerous points on the Tour de France. This year, there are 2,300. If the level of demand becomes too great, there will be no more finishes. That’s where we are.”
UCI President David Lappartient rejected criticisms on unsafe planning. “The majority of crashes are due to a lack of attention but I can understand [the riders], they are so stressed out during the entire day,” he said after stage 3. “And inevitably it’s edgy, everybody wants to be [at the front], and there’s not enough space for everybody. But I don’t think one should blame that on the route.”