George Bennett’s crashes highlight cycling’s brutality

Cycling as a sport demands unnatural risks of its participants. On the descent of the Col de Vars, midway through the Tour de France’s punishing 18th stage, George Bennett showed just how.

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This was a story about George Bennett’s harrowing crash on the descent of the Col de Vars, published prior to Thursday’s stage finish. In the hours after that crash, Bennett went down again, this time on the descent off the Galibier, close to the finish.

Having crossed the finish line in 27th place, Bennett sought medical attention, including X-rays. It is now believed that he opted to leave the stage finish for the hotel, rather than go to hospital.

In a tweet some time later, Jumbo-Visma said that “Our medical staff have taken care of George Bennett’s wounds. A first check didn’t point out major injuries. Later today our medical staff will conduct additional research.”

Soon after, George Bennett also tweeted:

SAINT-MICHEL-DE-MAURIENNE, France (CT) — Cycling as a sport demands unnatural risks and immense suffering of its participants. On the descent of the Col de Vars, midway through the Tour de France’s punishing 18th stage, George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) showed just how.

Bennett is a lanky, likeable New Zealander and was set to play a key role in teammate Steven Kruijswijk’s run at a Paris podium. He’s Kruijswijk’s last man, the one to lead him into key climbs like Prat d’Albi, able to ascend with the best in the world.

On Thursday, on the drop down the Col du Vars, on a sweeping left hander at about 50km/h, Bennett went down in a crash behind Sunweb’s Nicholas Roche. Race cameras cut to the incident with Bennett lying in front of the race doctor’s white cabriolet, crumpled across the inside lane.

For 20 seconds, he lay there, as if a gravity heavier than Earth’s own was pressing him onto the road. Slowly, he pushed his torso up with his arms.

With the team cars rushing past in a blur, Bennett was helped to his feet by the doctor and a mechanic, and staggered shakily toward his bike, inelegantly parked by a motorcycle pilot at the roadside. His levers were bent in from the crash, and after a handful of futile attempts to straighten them, Bennett accepted a spare bike.

Dazed, he tried to throw a leg over the saddle. Couldn’t. Tried again. No dice. Third time lucky. Finally, he was standing over the top tube, fumbling to clip in. As Astana’s car rushed past, the mechanic grabbed Bennett’s foot, forced it into the pedal and pushed him off down the road.

We’re in the thick of a bike race here, one with enormous prestige attached and significant sporting stakes. Jumbo-Visma would have been relying on Bennett to support the team leader on the Col du Galibier, and Bennett would have been acutely aware of this. In a nailbiting chase back through the convoy, Bennett flicked sideways to avoid a fallen bottle, nearly clipped the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team car, and finally regained contact.

At time of writing, his injuries – if any – are unknown. But this incident raises some important questions about what the duties of care are to the riders of the peloton. Bennett’s slow rise and wobbly movements are somewhat reminiscent of Toms Skujins’ 2017 Tour of California crash – an event that sparked significant concern at the time, and has become something of a landmark case study for how concussion is handled in the pro peloton.

From that incident, we know that the UCI requires race doctors to adhere to SCAT 3 (Standardized Assessment of Concussion) standards. SCAT 3 is a standardised tool for evaluating injured athletes for concussion, calculating a score from a range of 22 symptoms.

Based on the simultaneously interminable and very short time that George Bennett spent on the roadside, halfway down the Col de Vars with 105km of hot mountainous riding still to come, it’s unclear if the team and the race doctor are any the wiser as to whether he’s suffering a concussion. Twenty-two symptoms is a lot of symptoms to calculate in a handful of seconds, through the blur of passing cars and urgent team helpers and a rider who’s instinct is to push through any pain, and then push a little bit more.

Cycling mythologises suffering. It’s been this way for as long as the sport has existed. At the Tour de France specifically, tales of grit are woven into the cloth of the race. Jonny Hoogerland’s 2011 crash into barbed wire. Philippe Gilbert finishing a 2018 mountain stage with a broken kneecap. Tyler Hamilton’s stage win with a broken collarbone in 2003. Lawson Craddock, riding the entire 2018 Tour with a broken shoulderblade. Tom Simpson’s final words – “Put me back on my bike” – before collapsing on the bleached slopes of Ventoux.

The inconvenient truth is that these instincts run counter to comfort and safety. George Bennett today joined this roll-call.

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