When professional cyclist Andy Tennant crashed heavily on stage 3 of the Tour of Britain it was quite a moment. Not only for Andy and the tree that broke his fall, but also for anyone who was following the race. Thanks to the magnifying effect of several different mediums of technology, instead of becoming simply another anecdote from a rider who didn’t win, Andy’s crash became a perfect example of just how an incident like this can affect a professional bike rider.
The crash was captured by photographer Camille Mcmillan (see photo above), and was also given insight by the considered and insightful data analysis from sports physician Dave Bailey.
While a crash may not always be evidently physically damaging to the eyes of a viewing audience, or even the riders themselves, often the real effect is simply not visible in open wounds. There is no way to measure the stress and concern that is marked on Andy’s face in the image. Andy himself had no idea what happened to cause the crash, nor what happened during it, all he could recall was that he “found myself climbing out of a tree”.
However by analysing Andy’s daily data file from the race Dave Bailey can show how the effects of the chase back after the crash and the knock itself hindered Andy’s performance. In the analysis from the following stages, (also available at i-performance.net) Dave Bailey was then able to track the impact of Andy’s crash on stage 3 throughout the entire race, something that someone looking in from the outside would perhaps have had no concept of previously.
This adds up to a rare and detailed insight into the world of professional cycling, where although cameras often rush to the scene of an accident, and photos of riders with continuing with terrible wounds are published in newspapers across the world during the Tour de France, in reality a crash for a bike rider is a very hard thing to relate to an audience. And what is normally shown only really offers a glimpse at the surface of what is happening inside a very technical and physical sport.
Bike riders themselves tend to scoff at people who play sports on a grassy pitch and constantly roll around on the floor feigning injury. They claim that football players are soft and don’t really have anything to complain about, because the grass is relatively quite soft, compared to tarmac.
But cyclists perhaps also feel aggrieved because while the goings on inside a football stadium are evident for everyone to see, a majority of what happens in a bike race is usually ignored. Football is a game that is perfect for television, the arena that defines its boundaries means that almost every inch of the pitch can be covered by high definition cameras that can zoom in and replay any incident, allowing the player the potential sympathy of millions while the action is halted.
In bike racing however, until recently the technology hasn’t existed to communicate what is really happening in a race. In any bike race there are two hundred different stories of successes and failures, and accidents or injuries. Being able to get the technology amongst the riders, and even on their bikes is finally opening up an entirely new world of communication, where not only can the viewer be taken closer to the action, but also the athletes themselves can view the physical effects of what has happened to them.
Crashing in a bike race isn’t like crashing in a car, or even like crashing in a Moto G.P. where either a roll cage or a suit of impact activated Kevlar offers you some form of barrier between your fragile bag of bones and the cold, cold ground. When you crash on a bicycle you are dressed only in lycra that is so thin, and stretched so tight, that you may as well be hitting the floor completely naked. The only real protection for riders is the leather palms of their gloves and the polystyrene shell of their helmets. When you think that bike riders often touch speeds of seventy kilometres an hour and average nearly fifty, on roads that aren’t designed to be raced on, those items can start to look distinctly token.
Sadly though crashing is a professional hazard and for a rider knowing a crash is coming, it is a pretty awful feeling. In cycling it is quite common that you know that you will be hitting the floor before you do. Due to the proximity that professional bike riders race at in the peloton, one faller in the middle of the group can bring swathes of riders crashing down, their momentum simply too strong for the decelerating effect of cork break pads grabbing onto carbon rims.
Not seeing it coming is always a much worse way to go. This is certainly reflected in the look on Andy’s face in the image. Sometimes you can crash and you are back on your feet before you even know what has happened. The shock is akin to being woken sharply from a deep, deep sleep. Racing requires an intense amount of mental concentration, no matter how good you get at riding within centimetres of other people at fifty or sixty kilometres an hour, you can never, ever 100% trust that the person in front of you is going to do exactly what you expect.
The shock gives you a feeling of being physically sick, angry, confused and slightly upset all at once. Unexpected physical impact is not something the body takes lightly, and sometimes the way it deals with everything that has just happened is to delay the reaction until you are part way through going through the motions of being back in the race.
You get used to the scabs on your kneecaps, the scars on your elbows and the huge slices you take out of your hips. But as you get older and the sum of the parts begins to multiply, you start to remember that the coagulating platelet cells and fibrinogen becomes incredibly sticky as you mend, and it is not simply the pain of washing the potentially filthy wound out in the shower that stings, it is also the weeks worth of sticking to your clothing and bed sheets while you try to dry the wound out that becomes the real pain.
In the moments as you hurtle towards a crash these are the things that manage to flash into your mind in one sudden panicked jumble. In that instant that people in car crashes say that time suddenly slows down there is simply a question: how is this fall going to turn out, what happens when you land?
Sadly no amount of data analysis or technological and physical insight will ever be able to truly capture this feeling, but crashing in a bike race is not a feeling that you want to capture in its entirety, it hurts after all. However the insight that technology is now providing is something that, as a fan of bike racing (and someone who has done plenty of crashing ) consider to be quite remarkable.
Read more from Tom Southam – Two-wheel code breaking: Number crunching to go faster, and Man vs Machine: How technology is transforming cycling