Anyone who rides a bicycle will know that crashing is an occupational hazard. A slick of oil on the road, a wet manhole cover, an unforeseen pothole, a wayward dog, and in my case an inability to get my new road cleats out of the pedals on their first ever outing back in 1992, have all been causes of many a cyclist ending up hitting the tarmac. Not to mention the risks of riding in traffic on our busy roads. Fortunately professional riders rarely need to worry about traffic, though the horrific spill experienced by Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland in the 2011 Tour de France reminds us that even in ‘traffic free’ race conditions the motor vehicle is a hazard.
In the first week of Le Tour avoiding crashes is high on the agenda of those hoping to place well on general classification when the race reaches Paris. Riding in a large group creates its own dangers. A touch of wheels can bring several people down. Tight bends in the final kilometres can see riders misjudge their line and speed, ending up on the tarmac or in the barriers. And the hurly burly of a mass sprint for the line is no place for the faint hearted as Djamolidine Abdoujaporov, The Tashkent Terror, can attest after his spectacular collision with the roadside barriers 100 metres from the finish on the Champs-Élysées in 1991.
To date the wearers of the yellow jersey have been relatively unscathed by crashes. Only a handful of riders have been forced to withdraw from the race due to injury when in yellow. Among them are Wim van Est in 1951 when he punctured, fell 70 metres into a ravine on the Aubisque and was hauled out on a ‘rope’ cobbled together from inner tubes; Luis Ocaña in 1971 when he fell on the Col de Mente during a storm and was then hit by Joop Zoetemelk; Rolf Sørensen in 1991 when he fractured his clavicle in a crash in the final kilometre of stage 5; Chris Boardman, who in 1998 crashed during stage 2 when he clipped the wheel of team mate Frederic Moncassin and careered into a wall; and Fabian Cancellara who came down in a high speed pile up during stage 3 of the 2015 Tour, bravely riding on to the finish with two fractured vertebrae before abandoning the race.
Other riders in yellow have been more fortunate, surviving a spill to either carry on to finish Le Tour or to even win it, as did Bernard Hinault in 1985. By stage 14 Le Blaireau was well placed in the race lead, 5 minutes and 23 seconds ahead of team mate Greg Lemond in second place. With two flat stages to follow and then three days in the Pyrenees, that days detour through the Massif Central was one in which the aim was to control the race, ensure that none of his rivals gained any time, and conserve energy for the effort yet to come. Luis Herrera, wearing the polka dot jersey of the mountain classification, attacked early. Hinault let him go as he was not considered a threat to the overall race lead. Lemond, together with Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar and five other riders set off in pursuit with Lemond hoping to consolidate his position in second place.
Behind them Hinault and the peloton kept the gap low and enjoyed, if that is the word, an uneventful 178 kilometres. Uneventful that is until the last kilometre. Any slight time advantage a GC contender can gain is a bonus. Equally, GC contenders don’t want to lose time, even a few seconds, by allowing a rival to slip away scant hundreds of metres from the arrivée. And of course though Herrera had already won the stage there were still the bragging rights of winning a sprint to be gained. A touch of wheels brought seven riders down, including Hinault and eventual fifth overall, Phil Anderson. Hinault crashed hard, lying on the ground for several minutes while the race doctors checked him out. Remounting his bike he rode to the finish, his face a bloody mess. As he’d crashed within the final kilometres he received the same time as the other riders in the group he’d been riding in who had escaped the crash and finished ahead of him.
Cuts and abrasions were one thing, but Hinault had also broken his nose. With difficulty breathing, complicated by a bout of bronchitis, he found himself struggling on stage 17 from Toulouse to Luz Ardiden, 209 kilometres that included the climbs of the Aspin, Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. On the Tourmalet Hinault started to go backwards, losing touch with the group he was riding with and losing time to Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche. By the start of the climb to Luz Ardiden Lemond was far enough ahead that he had a chance of taking yellow. To his frustration Lemond was told by Maurice Le Guilloux, the La Vie Claire assistant director, that directeur sportif, Paul Koechli, wanted him to wait for Hinault and not to attack Roche. Convinced by his managers that Hinault was only tens of seconds behind, Lemond agreed, only to eventually ride across the finish line 1 minute and 13 seconds ahead of Hinault despite having slowed and waited for him.
Arguably if Lemond had been given his head that day he would have ended the 1985 Tour in yellow, or at the least have worn the jersey for a few days. He certainly felt so, commenting later that he felt Hinault did not deserve the victory. By Paris Lemond was in second place, 1 minute and 42 seconds behind Hinault. Had he not waited for Hinault on Luz Ardiden it’s almost certain that it would have been him on the top of the podium.
One can sympathise with Lemond who came tantalisingly close to his first Tour victory in 1985. But does this mean that Hinault did not deserve to win? Perhaps not, but we should also recognise that despite his injuries he stuck to his task for another 11 stages after the crash on stage 12. It was the last of his Tour victories and the prelude to one of the great Tour’s. With an eye on retirement and his record equalling fifth Tour victory under his belt Hinault publicly promised that in 1986 he would help Lemond win Le Tour. A year later it was Lemond in yellow after a Tour in which Hinault seemed hell bent on winning himself. Hinault claimed that his constant attacks were made to help Lemond and to ensure that by winning he was worthy of the victory. Many years down the line the debate still rages as to whether Hinault lived up to his promise or not.
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