Opinion: Racing with broken bones shouldn’t be celebrated
Sitting on the side of the road after half the peloton was taken down by a spectator, Marc Soler felt dizzy. He had landed on his hands in the crash and was unable to stand up unassisted by the mechanic who hoisted Soler up by the armpits.
“I went flying, somersaulted and landed hard on my hands. They both hurt, and so did my face where my glasses had broken and my shoulder too. I tried to get up but I couldn’t, I didn’t have any strength in my arms,” Soler said a few days later.
Movistar encouraged Soler to continue racing, but Soler couldn’t shift, couldn’t break.
Once the race was over Soler found he had broken both his arms in the crash and the fact that Soler finished the race was treated with near admiration.
It’s not the first time a rider has sustained a significant injury during a race and continued on and it will not be the last. Tyler Hamilton gained near hero status for not only finishing the Tour de France fourth overall in 2003 but winning a stage with a double fracture in his collarbone. And sure, there was probably a little something extra going on behind the scenes, but at the time it was all awe for Hamilton.
Growing up I ski raced, both Alpine (downhill) and Nordic (cross country). On many occasions when I was injured or cold or not feeling it my dad would say “Tyler Hamilton rode the Tour de France with a broken collarbone, you can do this” so I would suck it up, get over the pain and get on with it. It turned out I actually was sick with Epstein Barr, but all I had known was I needed to be tough like Tyler Hamilton. (To be clear my dad loves me very much and was trying to be encouraging, but with all my teen angst, I interpreted it as if I couldn’t be like Tyler I was weak).
The comparison between football players and cyclists is made often. A player is knocked over and lays there for a while, maybe faking it, only to take a penalty shot. Cyclists finish races missing half their skin and most of their lycra and keep going the next day. While I don’t agree with this comparison, football players are a tough bunch, the cycling world revels in their athletes being able to keep going no matter the odds.
While I was stage 1 of the Tour de France someone tweeted at me (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he had been watching the race with his wife, and they knew I was on the ground while my partner was racing, and his wife said to him “wouldn’t it be cool if you were racing the Tour de France and I could go watch?”
Minutes later the crash happened, she turned to him and said “nevermind.”
At the start of stage 4 of the Tour de France Marc Madiot, general manager for Groupama-FDJ, voiced an opinion we don’t hear all that often. “If you’re watching the television do you think your children want to ride a bike seeing what we’ve seen yesterday?” Madiot said. “My son doesn’t want to ride as a professional rider, because we don’t give a good picture of our sport. I love cycling. Cycling is not only about the GC ruined because of crashes.”
There is a fine line between being tough and being stupid.
Primož Roglič racing with a bunch of missing skin is tough. Uncomfortable, but tough. He doesn’t have broken bones or internal injuries, he didn’t land on his head. He can still use his hands to stop the bike.
Movistar encouraging Soler to keep riding even though he couldn’t feel his arms and couldn’t properly handle a bike is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. It was dangerous for Soler, it was dangerous for any rider who is near him.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a tricky situation to navigate. Sometimes it’s unclear how significant the injuries are until after the race has ended. The most terrifying injury is a concussion. It can go unnoticed for too long, but it impairs the riders ability to see straight and react effectively. Romain Bardet was allowed to finish stage 13 of the 2020 Tour de France after suffering a serious concussion in a mid-race pileup, and don’t get me started on Toms Skujinš Tour of California crash.
A professional athlete themselves is rarely going to say “I am too injured, I can’t continue.” Especially at a race like the Tour de France. The pressure to keep going and the internal drive to have gotten to that level in the first place is too strong. They are a different breed, professional athletes. That’s why teams have team doctors, that’s why races have medical cars. There are teams that are good at pulling riders out of events if they can see the rider is hurt. But not all teams think of the riders well being first.
It’s clear there needs to be a better system in place for taking care of the riders. Not only preventing incidents like the one on Saturday, and Sunday…and Monday, but also when a rider has fallen and needs medical attention. The current system, where a team and race medic need to work at warp speed so the rider can get back on their bike and into the peloton isn’t safe.
Hyping up injured athletes for pushing through pain is an unrealistic practice that will do damage in the long run. Kids shouldn’t be taught to ignore broken bones. And while Soler finishing the first stage of the Tour de France was…something, impressive is not the word I would use.