You don’t have to be a cycling fan to have heard that this year’s Tour de France has had many spectacular crashes. The tour isn’t halfway over, and four top riders have abandoned the race with serious injuries. Several crashes occurred two days ago, on the hardest stage of the Tour, which featured a couple of extreme climbs in the French mountains followed by extreme descents. It was on these high speed descents that the race lost two of the top contenders; and Richie Porte’s spill, losing control of his bicycle on a slick twisting road at over 40 MPH, was caught on camera from a trailing motorcycle.
The ghastly footage made the evening news. The Australian rider’s bike bounced away down a ravine as he flew across the course on his side taking down another contender, Dan Martin, before crumpling like a doll against the rocky slope. On camera we watched the doctors slip an inflatable brace around Porte’s neck and head. On camera we watched an interview of a shocked doctor saying Porte was lucid.
Martin got back on his bike and crashed again on his way to the finish. After the race he said, “I guess the organisers got what they wanted.”
Martin’s biting statement has become The quote of this year’s tour. Today commentators on NBC were doing their utmost to deny the Irish rider’s claim during their narration of Stage 10. The legendary English broadcasting duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, along with their analysts, said this morning that the riders have themselves to blame. They knew the Sunday course well; they had ridden it several times in recent months; they decide to take risks going downhill in order to make up valuable seconds in the standings.
This is grotesque bull—t, and NBC and the Tour de France need to be called on it. They are selling these crashes to get a wider audience for the event. They promote the crashes in most of their ads for the cycling classic. The many crashes from this year’s race are shown in the breaks and whenever the broadcasters get a chance to relive the moment. The way the camera hovered over Richie Porte’s slender form as he lay broken in the road was one of the sickest exhibitions of television journalism you will ever see; and though I gather this was the official Tour feed, NBC gave it all to us, doing nothing to cut away, even as the folding gurney was slipped under him. We could have been watching the end of someone’s career, even life; though happily Porte says he will be riding again before the end of the year.
The use of violence to sell sport is of course ancient news and spectators are much to blame. We want it, they provide it. My anger is toward the promoters of these events, including all the equipment and nutrition advertisers, who innocently claim that they are merely setting up/funding a dramatic test of athletes’ abilities when they are thrusting these athletes into the dragon’s mouth. On the first day of the race, a leading cyclist left the competition with a shattered kneecap because the tour organizers had not taken the care to pad metal barricades on tricky turns in a wet road. On the fourth day of the race one of the top sprinters in the world went off in a sling with a broken clavicle during a finish on a crowded road that the commentators had warned us all day was a bit too narrow for a safe finish.
Hockey and football are both dealing today with their legacy of selling violence, and the incentives those sports created for top athletes to risk maiming themselves. The amazing thing about the Tour de France is that because of the sport’s elite origins and surroundings, it gets away with murder. Dan Martin had the guts to call out the organizers on Sunday. He deserves great respect for this — and a lot more support from journalists. Fans, cyclists and writers have a role to play in demanding changes to the culture of this sport. But the ultimate responsibility is with race officials and broadcasters. They could start by stopping the lies.