The art of crashing

Of the many abiding memories of this year’s Giro d’Italia, none will likely linger longer than that of Steven Kruijswijk careering into a bank of packed snow just a few turns down the Colle dell’Agnello. Heartbreaking arse over proverbial tit.

Fortunately the pink jersey came away from it with nothing worse - nor better - than a fractured rib, was able to start the next day and ended up finishing a creditable fourth overall. Nonetheless it was, in all probability, the moment he lost the race. Whether he would have lost it later that day or at some point on the next anyway I’m not inclined to speculate. If you want an analysis of the racing there are a better places for you to turn: the neighbours’ cat, for example.

Still, while I might not call myself an expert on the sport of cycling, one thing about which I am increasingly becoming an authority is crashing.

Partly because I’ve watched a lot of them. While many decry the replays and would prefer the broadcasters didn’t show them at all, I must confess - to borrow a phrase from the Cycling Podcast’s Ciro Scognamiglio - to putting them on repeat.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy them. While sadism-slash-voyeurism perhaps, subconsciously, comes into it, consciously the fascination has more to do with the desire to analyse - to detect - precisely what happened and why. A crash, like a sprint finish, is a moment of drama in a bike race where so much happens in such a short a time that a true understanding can only be reached through slow-motion study.

In Kruijswijk’s case it took me as many at least fifteen replays to spot the split-second when it all goes wrong: a wobble of the rear wheel your only clue to his inability to decide how to deliver himself through the bend. Once you see that you can imagine that he neither had enough confidence in his brakes or braking ability to permit him to take it tightly, nor in his tyres or bike handling to carry the extra speed, turn more aggressively and go wider. Either option, had he taken it, might have led him to crash anyway, but the failure to take any at all meant a powdery wipeout was all but inevitable.

Of course it’s much simpler to get to the bottom of an accident with no other party involved than even the middle of one which takes place within a fast, furious fleet of racing cyclists. A bunch crash is, if you’ll forgive the over-the-top analogy (but cycling not-so-secretly likes those, doesn’t it?), like a nuclear explosion: if you’re on top of it there’s no hope at all but, depending on the magnitude, even someone on its periphery can end up being impacted by the shockwave. Take the one which occurred on stage three of last year’s Tour de France which ended up taking out about thirty-five riders including the yellow jersey-wearing Fabian Cancellara. The carnage continues for about seven seconds with means that, given they’re travelling at approximately 55kph, the last rider to fall could have been as far as 107 metres back when the chain reaction of calamity began. Try untangling that on a single viewing at normal speed.

Harder still is when you’re actually involved in the incident and don’t have the benefit of front, rear and overhead television angles. The closest thing to actual evidence is any damage to your bike and the location and nature of any injuries. How many riders are caught up in it versus how many escape will give you an idea of where (on the road and in the bunch) it happened. Beyond that you’re reliant on an unreliable memory severely tainted by the certainty that it could not possibly have been your fault.

Although I’ve never been at the centre of such a crash, or responsible for a detonation, on more than one occasion I’ve found myself peripherally impacted. One memorable close call came in a category four criterium at the Lee Valley road circuit last summer. Hot days seem to bring out the mad dogs and I spotted this guy as early as the neutralised first lap. Riding right in the middle, he was twitching all over the place, taking about twelve different lines through every corner, completely oblivious of all around. I was very conscious of him, though, and committed to keeping as much lateral distance as possible between us while trying to push up the pack ahead of him.

I didn’t make it far enough up, though. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a flash of wheel being clipped, which is when, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose. Visually and audibly it’s chaos, as riders go down left and right, ahead and behind. Metal scrapes carbon hits tarmac. I feel myself shunted from the right rear, a domino effect three or four long, but manage to stay upright. The next thing I’m aware of is the taste of adrenalin, as some semblance of survival instinct kicks in and almost immediately all I’m concerned with is not losing touch with the bunch. On the road concern for your fellow rider is paramount but in a race, even one as insignificant as this, with the riders ahead speeding away I don’t even look around. Feeling no resistance in the pedal it quickly becomes apparent that the light t-boning I received was enough to take my chain off and while I get it back on again fairly swiftly, it’s not enough. By the time I’m up to speed the pack of thirty-ish is half a lap - six hundred metres or so - ahead, and while I’m able to keep them there, on my own I’m unable to claw my way back. On the way back round I pass the four or five riders worst affected by the crash limping away from the scene, shooting daggers at the one I think - I know - caused it.

At least, I think that’s what happened.