I hit the ground at 53kph. With no more protection than a millimeter or two of neon green spandex plus some aerodynamic styrofoam atop my head, I didn’t stand a chance. My jersey has a some tears and my helmet received a few minor dings, but instead of a glancing skim across the asphalt, the crash was a shockingly brunt impact directly into my left shoulder. People talk about “learning how to crash” — that’s ridiculous. In the frenetic final few minutes of a bike race, when you’re moving at speeds over 30mph and then in the snap of your fingers three riders touch the barrier and come crashing down directly in front of you on, in reality all you do is wish for luck.
A cheetah’s body is like an elastic — over eons of natural evolution, its body bends, contorts, and stretches to comply with the demands of striking its prey and abruptly crashing to the ground at 60mph. Evolution in the human body, though, has not caught up with the speeds of our modern age. The airbags and crumple zones that provide emergency measures of a car are equivalent to broken bones and torn skin on the human body at these unnatural speeds. As beautifully pure and elegant as bicycle racing is, it can also be violently inhuman.
Rules are a critical part of the sport of cycling. We can agree that an absence of rules in a bike race quite simply results in one-hundred and fifty guys (or gals) effectively out for a group ride. By in large rules are inherent and obvious. They present the course and provide a definitive barrier so that all riders are on the same page, racing the same race. This being a professional sport with very high stakes, inevitably the boundaries are brushed up against which will result in one of two options — they excitingly push the sport forward or catastrophically tear it down.
My crash in the closing kilometers of stage one of the Tour de France resulted in a separated shoulder. The pain at the time was incredible, but paled in comparison to the thought of leaving my first ever Tour. With the race doctors’ reluctant but understanding approval, I gutted through two tough stages before we bid farewell to Corsica and were onto the team time trial in Nice. As I comfortably stretched my long American legs from my exit row window seat, I distinctly remember looking outside as Corsica disappeared into the distance thinking that things would be perfectly alright.
In practice, this diagnosis of torn and sprained ligaments in the acromioclavicular joint of my shoulder means I can’t yank aggressively on the bars, so standing to sprint is nauseatingly painful. But sit on the back of a team time trial train? Psshhh, I have Tour de France fitness ten years in the making! Separated shoulder or not, Ha, I can do that all day long.
Thirty-two minutes, twenty-four seconds of competition later (or roughly eight seconds longer according to some), I was cut from the Tour de France. This is the result of a rule — a line in the sand dictating that any rider finishing outside of 25% of the winning team’s time is withdrawn from the race. It’s a rule that I recognized, was fully aware of, and respected. I suppose it’s the ambiguity of my finishing time on a bike without a transponder and the discrepancy between my powermeter’s time and the time given to me by officials that provided me the most grief.
The following morning while mentally in tatters, I was hoping for a glimmer of humanity from the race jury. It’s the Tour de France! It’s the historic one-hundredth anniversary and my debut Tour! I absolutely wanted to be reinstated on the grounds of empathy found in a few slender seconds. It’s exactly the inhumanity and unnatural take on my situation that pushed me in the deepest rut.
But I’ve been propped back up. The sport of cycling is an adventure story spun by two wheels, and I quickly discovered the Tour de France is like a mythical epic, a league of its own, complete with incredible personality and emphatic emotion unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. In an ironic contrast, the lack of understanding offered to me by the race jury was compensated for by its exact opposite — that is, the tremendously compassion provided by family, friends, fans, and a myriad of supporters throughout the world is precisely the empathetic crutch I needed for support at this tough time.
In a sport that can be so cruelly inhuman, I was provided more humanity than I thought possible.