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The battle between the overall contenders and the stage hunters is well known at the Tour de France. But behind those are riders who are likely digging deepest of all.
The Tour is infamous in its difficulty, brutal in its suffering. Yet sometimes fate ramps up the pain even more, beginning a torture that can drag on for days or weeks.
Michael Morkov and Sam Bennett are a clear example of that from this year’s race. Their campaigns were in their opening day when both found themselves on the deck at the end of stage one to Utah beach. Getting tangled up in a crash in the finishing sprint was the worst possible start, and began a personal purgatory that was not of their making.
The duo’s battle to survive exemplified the brutality of cycling’s toughest race.
It also displayed the courage that riders show in trying to finish the damn thing.
“It happened at the very end of the sprint, 500 metres from the line,” Morkov told CyclingTips on July 8, four days after his rendezvous with disaster.
“I was next to the barrier and suddenly a spectator hit my right handlebar. I went off balance and crashed into the barrier.”
Bennett has a slightly different perspective of the incident, but one that is no less unsettling. “We were moving up and up. Then the barriers then came in real sharp and two guys got tangled up. They ended up on the ground in front of me and I just couldn’t react in time.”
Bennett thwacked to the road and, like Morkov, was a picture of pain afterwards. He lay on the ground for some time before finally getting up and being helped across the line by Bora-Argon 18 teammate Shane Archbold.
Both fallen riders were then examined and the injuries assessed.
Morkov’s biggest problem was his right thigh, which incurred a major bang in the crash and had severe bruising. “It was full of liquid and really almost like a stone,” he told CyclingTips several days afterwards.
As for Bennett, his injuries also required assessment plus treatment. “I could see the bone in my finger,” he said, referring to his right hand. “I had to go under [get a general anaesthetic] to get it stitched up.”
Both made it to the start on the next day, stubbornly remaining in the race. However there was plenty of suffering in store for them.
“You have some real hard moments….”
Former world number one Sean Kelly rode the Tour 14 times and had a clear picture about its standing. “The Tour is the 110 percent race,” he once said. It’s impossible to argue with that.
For many others that is also how they see it. Not finishing races in pro cycling is a generally no-no, but this is particularly the case with the sport’s biggest event.
“The Tour is the Tour,” states Torsten Schmidt, a German rider who competed as a pro for 12 years and rode the event twice. He’s now Morkov’s directeur sportif in the Katusha team.
“If you finish the Tour, you can say you are a real bike racer, a professional, because then you make really a step up. It brings you a lot, you know how to handle pain in the race, on the bike.
“Sometimes it is very, very hard at the end of the second when you have to fight to stay in the peloton. Sometimes you have bad legs, or other things can happen.
“But the Tour is the Tour. You have some really hard moments, you have glory…it is a great mix.”
Morkov and Bennett both turned up for the start of stage two in Saint-Lô and braved it out. The duo were under pressure and suffering, and finally lost contact about an hour from the end of the stage. They rolled in well over ten minutes back, placing second-last and last on the stage.
That same story repeated itself in the days afterwards: their bodies were unable to perform at their usual level and, invariably, they were shelled. Morkov was last over the line on stages three, four and five, and second-last on stage six.
— Michael Mørkøv (@MichaelMorkov) July 6, 2016
He was swinging, but on the morning of stage seven he showed a little optimism that things were turning around.
“It is definitely getting better, and that is a big relief to me now that we are getting closer to the mountains,” he told Cyclingtips, speaking beside the team bus in L’Isle-Jourdain. “I have been struggling a lot in the previous days but today, for the first time, I feel more fresh in the morning. Also, my legs start to work properly.”
He explained why he was battling so hard, saying that he was determined to try to help Alexander Kristoff to land a stage win.
Morkov also said that he drew encouragement from his friends, the support of those in Denmark and also the encouragement from the cycling fans by the side of the road. “If there should be a race to survive such a crash, it should be the Tour,” he explained. “Because here you have full support from everyone.”
However he admitted to CyclingTips just how difficult things had been for him. “I’ve never suffered like this. And it is very different when it is because of an injury, more than because of your capability. There have been some tough days and it is also mentally really hard to accept that you are not on the level that you should be.”
‘After the crash, all I wanted to do was to go home’
For Bennett, a similar battle was also continuing. He too struggled for days after his crash, finishing 196th, 193rd, last and 187th between stages four and seven. Morkov was sitting last overall, while the Irishman was just one place above him in the general classification. Things had been brutal for both of them.
Bennett had two main issues: his hand had been badly injured and his system had taken a knock. “When I got up in the morning [after the crash] my hip and knees weren’t stiff or anything,” he told CyclingTips on the morning of stage eight. “I have had crashes where I tried to get out of bed and it was really painful. But it wasn’t so bad, apart from the hand.”
However the latter was an issue. He had to take medication and this played havoc with his fitness, causing his physical condition to plummet. “With my hand trying to heal and the course of antibiotics, that just wiped me out,” he said.
There was another difficulty: trying to keep his morale up after what had happened to him. Bennett made his Tour debut in 2015 but went into the race far off his usual form due to illness in the weeks beforehand. He then became ill during the race and struggled for much of it before being forced to retire on stage 17.
Gutted that things hadn’t worked out, he worked very hard to be in a much better place heading into this year’s Tour. Speaking before the start, he felt he had succeeded. “I am so far ahead of last year it is ridiculous. My condition is way, way better,” he said then.
However, one day into the race, he found himself back precisely where he had been twelve months earlier. Suffering and unable to race as he wanted to. It was a nightmare scenario.
“That is really playing with my head,” he admitted. “I’m not really happy with my season, results-wise. I really wanted to turn things around here but from day one, I was back in the same boat as last year. It is kind of hard for the head, but I have to deal with it.
“After the crash, all I wanted to do was to go home. But I said I might as well take something from the race and carry on, trying to get some strength and finish this Tour. Maybe after the race I can get more results.”
Like Morkov, he said that there was something about the Tour which made riders dig deeper.
“Maybe it is something do with the fact that you are always under the publics’ eye here,” he pondered. “It is the biggest race in the world and I think about people’s impression of you. It sucks when you are at the back of the bunch every day and that is what they see.
“It is two years running that I am at the back and people form this idea about you [based on that]. I want to be in the race, but I also want to be competing well.”
‘I don’t feel in control of my bike’
Like anyone who ever raced will know, bonds form in the bunch, even between rivals. The same applies to the Tour. Watch those who have spent the day in an unsuccessful break and note that they often shake hands just before being caught. Well done, we tried, good effort.
The same applies to those who have suffered together. Morkov and Bennett came down in the same crash and spent many days off the back, trying to help each other – and themselves – towards the line. Both told CyclingTips that the experience had formed a kinship between them, with each wanting the other to survive.
Sadly, for Morkov, stage eight ended his Tour. He was dropped early on and, realising it was impossible to make the time cut, called it a day.
Bennett pressed on and has continued to battle in the days since. He finished well back on stages nine through to 13, telling Cyclingtips that two factors had made things very hard for him.
The first is physical. On the rest day in Andorra he underwent fresh x-rays and discovered that the small finger on his right hand was fractured. It plus lingering pain in his other fingers continues to affect his sprinting and his climbing.
“On any steep climbs I can’t get off the saddle and use my power,” he explained. “I have to try to do it in the saddle. On the first few days, my hamstrings and calves were wrecked trying to do it all in the saddle.”
Equally seriously, his ability to handle his bike is affected. “I am starting to get used to braking with just two fingers now. But when there are people slamming on the brakes in front of you, your reaction is to pull the brakes with all your hand and you hurt the stitches.”
That has made him increasingly nervous in the bunch. He’s still got the stage one crash fresh in his mind, but because of the braking issue he feels he doesn’t have his usual level of control of his bike. In a Tour de France peloton frantically fighting for position, that’s a serious issue.
“I don’t feel in control of my bike, and it is bit dangerous when I don’t have the reflexes. When there a lot of close calls, which there is, it doesn’t flow as well as it used to.
“In the stage two days ago [on Thursday – ed.] I started riding more in the peloton again. In the space of 20 minutes four crashes happened beside me. Then I was just like, ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ It wasn’t good.”
Bennett managed to push such thoughts aside on Saturday’s stage to Villars-les-Dombes Parc des Oiseaux. He finished tenth in the gallop to the line, but admitted afterwards how hard that was for him.
“I tried to be brave in the sprint but it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in cycling, to go back in a bunch sprint like that after crashing. I think mentally it was really, really difficult. And when I got one or two bumps, I tipped the brakes and lost all my speed. That cost me five or six places.
“It was confidence that stopped me from getting a result today. It will be easy for people to say you need to be more aggressive, but honestly, as nervous as I am, I think I did well today to be back.
“I think it is stepping stone first to be back in the bunch sprint and then to have confidence to push and shove a little bit more.”
He’s continued in the race since then and knows that he has just five stages to Paris. That will give him one last opportunity for a result, and he’ll dig in to try to do that. He also knows that finishing his first Tour will be a big boost to his development.
Like Morkov, he is a far better bike rider than the 2016 Tour has suggested. Both were the victims of a bad crash which completely derailed their hopes for the race. The accident, and their willingness to push on, illustrates the cruelty of the sport and also the courage of the riders.
They headed to the Tour dreaming of success, but then found themselves grovelling just to try to get through. That takes remarkable mental and physical resilience. It also epitomises much of what is admirable about the sport.