It looks like a nauseating scene from a horror filmmaker’s nightmare. But it happens too fast to be terrifying.
Johnny Hoogerland’s riding his bike in the Tour de France. Then he’s not riding. He’s airborne. Then he’s upside down, still attached to the bike. Then he crashes down, on a country fence. A barbed-wire fence.
A bike race on television is an beautiful spectacle – dozens of riders coiling around a gorgeous landscape at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. But danger always lurks. Riders in spandex pushing skinny tires blur past stone walls and metal fencing and sometimes a cyclist’s mind drifts to dark places and wonders, “What if?” What if rider and bike and road don’t go exactly right?
Hoogerland is the “What if.”
How does this happen? Here comes the replay. Hoogerland, a pro from the Netherlands, is one of five riders in a breakaway in Sunday’s ninth Tour stage. He and his companions are trying to ride away to win the race when a French television car attempts to buzz past on their left. It’s the kind of narrow maneuver that occurs thousands of times in a race, in which riders share the road with dozens of vehicles ferrying camera operators, race officials and team personnel.
This time it goes wrong. The driver of the car reacts to a tree on the side of the road, and crashes into the riders. Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha smashes to the pavement, his body and bike barreling straight toward Hoogerland, who has no time to react. Hoogerland goes flying off the ground, inverted at high speed, clipped in to his bike by one pedal.
Here comes the barbed wire. His back is turned. He’s helpless. It’s brutal.
Hoogerland will later claim he was lucky. It could have been worse. Every cyclist rides with a fresh memory of Wouter Weylandt’s death on a descent in May’s Giro d’Italia. Already on this day the Tour has lost contenders to broken legs, broken shoulders, broken wrists.
But this is lucky? Hoogerland’s left leg is streaked by a gruesome series of cuts. The navy spandex shorts of his Vacansoleil team are shredded to ribbons, some of the material still caught on a metal barb. He’s near-naked from the waist down. His face is rigid in shock.
Then Hoogerland does a remarkable thing. He gets back on the bike.
One of the stern traditions of a bike race is that it almost never stops. Crashes and carnage are routine, but nearly always, the event pushes onward, victims down, survivors chasing glory. Within seconds of Hoogerland’s crash, the focus shifts to the remaining breakaway trio and its pursuers. The gore becomes a footnote.
Sunday’s stage is won by Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez, one of Hoogerland’s breakway companions. Another one, France’s Thomas Voeckler, takes the yellow jersey as the overall Tour de France leader.
With remaining riders streaming across the finish line, attention returns to Hoogerland. Where is he? He hasn’t been seen on TV in ages. The Tour has strict rules about time – if Hoogerland falls too far behind the clock, organizers can drop him from the race.
But then there he is. He’s riding in a small pack of riders, next to Flecha, his fallen breakaway partner. He’s gotten a new pair of shorts from his team car, but blood has stained thorough, and his calves are streaked with red.
Later Hoogerland will refuse to place blame, not even on the driver of the car, who is kicked out of the race. He says that in his pain, his mind turned to Wouter Weylandt. “I just said to Flecha – we’re still alive, and Weylandt died,” he said.
Few subjects in sports are as fraught with ignorance and cliches than toughness. Too many regrettable decisions are made in the interest of being “tough,” and it’s taken too long for sports to shed its macho exterior and show sensitivity toward injuries and protecting the health of athletes.
But once in a while, something happens in a sporting event that pushes so hard against the boundaries of pain it leaves you gasping. It happens a lot in pro cycling, a battered sport that deserves all the criticism it gets for performance-enhancing scandals – but an arena in which suffering is so expected it’s mostly ignored.
Hoogerland doesn’t just finish the Tour de France stage. He crosses the line with enough points to hold onto the red polka-dot jersey as the race’s best climber. Before he can go to a hospital, they need him to stand on podium for the post-race ceremony.
Johnny Hoogerland hobbles to the podium. He looks at the rings of bandages around his legs and his face turns firm and red. There’s no need to fight it. He Cries the hardest tears you have ever seen.
– by Jason Gay, Dow Jones Newswires