Professional cyclists get banged up pretty badly over the course of their careers. They wear helmets, highly technologically designed ones that protect their brains in a crash — as much as you can when you hit the pavement at 45 m.p.h.. The rest of their bodies are protected only by skin tight cycling suits that end above their knees and fall midway between shoulder and elbow. They ride on flats at speeds up to 45 m.p.h., and going down the Alps can hit speeds up to 60 m.p.h. When they go down, injuries follow — often quite bad ones. Occasionally a rider dies, usually coming down the mountains. At the very least, there is a very common injury called “road rash”; the outer layer of skin gets ground off as a rider slides along the pavement after a crash. Riders with road rash talk of sticking to the sheets at night, as they continue leaking blood and lymphatic fluid from their raw skin.
The first three days of the Tour are usually long rides, over 100 miles, but not exceptionally challenging in terms of riding skill. This year’s Tour included a team time trial on day 3 — the entire team rides against the clock over a pre-set course, rather than against the peloton, or the main body of the Tour. But the first two days have been bad in terms of falls and injuries. An American, Lawson Craddock, is still riding after a day one crash that left him with several stitches above one eye and a fractured scapula. Riding with a broken shoulder really hurts — every bump in the road reverberates from the wheel to the handle bars and up the arms to the shoulders of the rider. Luis Leon Sanchez tried unsuccessfully to get back on his bike after a fall. He had four broken ribs and a broken elbow. He’s out of the race.
Oddly enough, professional cyclists often suffer osteoporosis at a fairly early age. Their sport is incredibly demanding, but does nothing for bone density.
People choose to become a particular kind of professional athlete because they are naturally gifted, have the discipline to develop their talent, and because they love the sport. For professional cyclists, the Tour de France is the biggest challenge and riding the Tour is the greatest honor and affirmation. Riders speak of loving the Tour, despite the excruciating challenges and dangers.
The active life of any professional athlete is relatively short — the oldest rider in this year’s Tour is 39. Cyclists don’t get particularly rich. They do it because it’s what they were born to do, what they love. Broken bones, road rash and all.