Heartbreak of the Tour de France

Serious injuries, even death, are the ultimate heartbreak of professional cycling. Death while riding is not frequent, but it does happen. In 1995 I was watching the Tour when rider Fabio Casartelli had the bike go out from under him on a fast descent from one of the Cols, or mountain passes, on the Tour. He slid into a concrete abutment designed to keep riders from going over the edge of the mountain, hit his head, and died of those injuries. The scene, caught on camera, was horrifying. Over the life of the Tour, a total of four cyclists, 27 spectators and one official have lost their lives during the competition in one sort of accident or another.

But there is enough heartbreak built in to the day-to-day competition. On one of the recent stages, a rider led the race for 124 miles, only to be caught by the main group — the peloton — within 500 feet of the finish line. I don’t fully understand the physics, but apparently the large group of riders pulling together can go much faster than any single rider. Out of that large group, one of the sprinters will emerge at the end to go over the line and win the stage.

Yesterday, Chris Froome, a British rider who has won the yellow jersey for the last few years and who has been dominant in the race so far this year, lost his lead on a steep mountain stage to a younger rider, Fabio Aru. That doesn’t mean Froome has lost the three-week competition. We’ve finished Stage 12 out of 21; there is a lot of bike riding left to go. Froome is 6 seconds behind Aru in the overall race. Froome can regain the lead, and very well may.

What’s concerning is not the six seconds, but the way Froome cracked on the last bit of a steep climb. He’s five years older than Aru; age 32 compared to age 27. In the endurance sport of professional cycling, that five years counts for a lot.

Age is an unforgiving variable in any sport — along with the nature and frequency of injuries from which the body has to recover. Experience and wisdom about a particular sport can allow the athlete to compensate to a degree. Sue Bird, the legendary point guard out of UConn who now plays for the Seattle Storm, is 36. Bird is still the best, or one of the best, point guards in the women’s game. But she plays fewer minutes than she used to. She is no longer the first one down the court. Basketball allows for those compensations. Professional cycling does not. Froome is on that bike every day, for all of the stages.

I am, as always, glued to the Tour. The new Tour leader, with his six second gap, has injected much more excitement into this year’s race. There will be no “predictable” Chris Froome win, maybe no Froome win at all.

The Tour rolls on.

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