The crash footage from last night’s stage of the Tour de France is horrific to watch, and yet we share it with our friends. The images are awful to look at, but we keep clicking to the next one. And as we learn more about the aftermath of hitting the ground that hard, we feel a mix of admiration and empathy; for the riders and for their teams.
As we consume these images, we learn about the riders we follow but we also learn about ourselves. I watch how these riders respond to each challenge and I find myself wondering: how I would respond in a similar situation?
The thing that struck me most as I watched riders strewn across the road in the middle of Stage 3 is that this isn’t the first time most of these people have hit the ground in this way, and it probably won’t be the last.
If they can, most will get back on their bikes. They’re hopeful of racing again tomorrow, and they know that if they forfeit the stage in that critical moment that’s it for the rest of the event.
At an event of this scale, medical staff are on hand to assess the immediate impact of each injury but a more complete picture isn’t known until after the stage. But how bad does an injury have to be to force a rider to stop? We cheer them on as heroes and hard men, but is this the person we really want these riders to be?
Pain is a complicated thing. We might have some idea of what causes it, but without checking into a hospital part way through a ride, it’s not possible to know exactly what’s going on. Whether racing or participating in a social ride, there are distinct points in time when we decide to move, to get up, to call an ambulance, or to get back on our bikes.
While some symptoms are clearer than others - vomiting, blood, double vision, the horrible crack of a broken bone - some are left up to our subjective capacities of perception. We move, we notice what hurts and what doesn’t, and we make decisions with the knowledge we have at the time.
On top of this, it is common for athletes to self-report lower levels of pain compared to the general population. I’d argue this is partly because they may not perceive these sensations with the same level of intensity. Having experienced a great deal of pain, through injury and competition, elite athletes also have a broader sense of perspective when rating the hurt factor of a new incident on a scale of one to 10.
Add to this that, in a race like the Tour de France, these riders take pride in suffering through pain as part of their job. They’ve worked hard to get this far and they’re not ready or willing to turn their backs on their team.
But what about the rest of us? How do we respond when the full extent of an injury is unknown?
Sometimes we decide that it’s OK to keep riding just as we were before the crash. Other times we modify our technique knowing we can address the issue at the end of the ride. We might go easy on that sore knee, alter our line choice to avoid extra vibration, or stretch out a limb on the flats.
Then there are times when it’s clear that something far more serious has happened. We identify that it could have long-term consequences if left untreated, and we make a choice. We choose to continue in spite of this or to stop and resort to a plan B.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) made the choice to stop almost immediately with a suspected broken wrist. He’d later learn he had two fractures and might require surgery.
Gerrans’s team-mate Darryl Impey finished the stage only to learn he had a broken collarbone. He was hopeful of continuing all the way to Paris, but was forced to acknowledge the impact of the cobbles in Stage 4 simply wouldn't be worth the risk.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) chose to keep riding, but it was clear he knew something was very wrong. You may have already seen his "pain face" as he crossed the finish line, 11min 43sec behind the stage winner. Or the CT scan that confirmed he did so with two fractured vertebrae.
These three riders have all abandoned the race. William Bonnet, the FDJ rider who broke his neck in the crash, had little choice but to do the same. But several others continue, held together with bandages, strapping tape and cement.
Australia's Adam Hansen has been told he’ll feel worse with his dislocated shoulder for a couple of days and then he’ll start to feel a little better. He’s doing everything he can to finish his 12th consecutive grand tour.
I don’t know about you but whenever I’m injured, not even to the same degree as these men, I may be able to ride but I certainly can’t ride very fast.
So I sit here looking at these images and I weigh up some conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I admire the grit, the determination, the strength of all these riders.
On the other, I’m so glad I don’t ride for a job or feel compelled to do so in the face of an injury like those we’ve seen today. And yet, despite everything we know about pain, injury and recovery and the impacts of these on long-term health, so many of these riders will do everything they can to get back on that saddle and keep rolling forward.