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by Iain Treloar
July 20, 2019
Photography by The Grubers
Pau, France (CT) – Four days after his debut Tour stage win, in a technical conclusion to a tricky time trial, it all went wrong for Wout van Aert.
On this right-hander just before the flamme rouge, you hear the riders coming before you see them. There’s the blare of the lead motorbike, and then, like a wave coming into shore, the drumming of hands on barriers and the roar of the fans. That cacophony is amplified by a tunnel the riders race down, lined by spectators. Out of the darkness, into the light; feather the brakes to hold that speed, cut it in to the barrier, keep pushing toward the line.
In the helicopter footage of van Aert’s crash, he’s going hot into the corner, diving right across the apex. His handlebars or hip seem to catch on the white E. Leclerc scrim across the barriers. The crash happens in a millisecond, but feels like an eternity. His right foot comes out of the pedal, hits the ground, and forces his leg to an unnatural angle as he slides across the road. No crash is good, but this is, to put it mildly, not a good crash.
Cycling is a beautiful sport, but a cruel one too. Today, van Aert, the multi-time cyclocross world champion and a revelation of this season, knows this better than most. In Brussels, he helped pull the race’s first maillot jaune onto Mike Teunissen’s shoulders. On stage 2, van Aert helped propel his Jumbo-Visma squad to a win in the team time trial. On stage 10 he claimed a stunning sprint victory in his debut Tour de France. On today’s individual time trial, van Aert was the unbackable pre-race favourite and held the fastest time at the intermediate timecheck.
The team car stops in a hurry; his director rushes to his side. There’s a necessary urgency; the next rider will come through in two minutes, so van Aert is moved across the road. With a deep gash blooming across his upper right thigh, he lies there, wrapped in the scrim to preserve his modesty, as a helicopter circles overhead. As CyclingTips arrived at the corner, around ten minutes later, the race doctors were finally preparing to drive off. Not long after, Wout van Aert’s ambulance departed for Pau Center hospital.
A spectator confirmed that the Belgian time trial champion had clipped the barriers, although there was little need for the confirmation. Left behind was a patch of blood over on the left of the course where he landed, on the right where he was moved, and behind the barriers where he was treated.
Wout van Aert is a popular rider, halfway through a phenomenal debut WorldTour season that was only expected to grow in stature today, so Belgian fans and media want answers. Fingers are pointed at ASO; the fence is scrutinised. The racing line took riders close to the barriers, which use large U-shaped latches to connect each segment. It’s a tight corner, with the barriers overlapping slightly, and van Aert clipped it at 47.7km/h, forcing the barriers a metre or two into the road.
Speculation is normal when events of significance take place, but it seems a stretch to say that it’s the fence’s fault here. One of the most gifted riders in the sport got it a few millimetres wrong today, as he pushed the limits in the hunt for a stage win, and now faces an indeterminate journey back to the top, recovering from surgery on “a deep flesh wound that has also affected his muscles”, according to a Jumbo-Visma spokesman. A nightmare end to a dream first Tour de France.
A well-liked rider with the fastest split of the day, lying on baking asphalt on a corner across from a petrol station in downtown Pau. Cycling: beautiful, and cruel.