A BANGED-UP AUSSIE cycling star tells what it’s like to hit the bitumen at 72 kph – and live to tell the tale. It’s a brutal sport, says RON REED:
RICHIE Porte remembers every terrifying, agonising second of the horror crash that wrecked his Tour de France dream. And not surprisingly, he is in no hurry to get back on his bike – although he hopes to do so before the year is out. Whether he will come back as confident and strong as ever and go on to fulfil what many see as his destiny by conquering the world’s toughest bike race remains to be seen, but the least that can be said is that road cycling is no sport for wusses. So, his many fans can be optimistic on his behalf.
Porte, 32, was in reasonably good spirits in a video message from his French hospital bed, released today by his team BMC. Having suffered a fractured collarbone and pelvis, deep cuts and many bruises and a nasty bang on the head, it was no surprise to hear him confirm that he was feeling the effects acutely. Or that he was deeply disappointed.
“Obviously I’ve felt much better than I do right now,” he said. “I’m in a fair bit of pain and it’s a big disappointment to be honest. But I think after seeing the crash, I’m lucky also that I’ve come away with the injuries that I’ve had.
The experienced Tasmanian came to grief on a treacherous descent from Mont du Chat towards the end of the ninth stage, losing control on the left-hand verge, coming off the bike and skidding across the bitumen and into a rock face on the other side. He lay motionless and bloodied until an ambulance arrived to put him in a neck brace and take him to hospital. It was one of the worst such accidents in the race’s long history but, mercifully, not quite as bad as it looked at first sight.
So, what happened? “I remember I came into the corner, it wasn’t like we were going too fast or anything like that,” he said. “I just remember I locked the back wheel up and that was it really. Next thing I was heading for the grass verge on the corner. I stayed conscious the whole time. I remember the whole thing.
“I think I was in great form and the team were really strong around me as well, so it’s disappointing.” Porte was contesting the Tour for the seventh time but the first as team captain and protected rider for BMC and was the favourite to end British star Chris Froome’s run of three consecutive wins, if anybody could. He was fifth on the general classification when the accident happened.
He will be off the bike for months, with BMC putting no time frame on his return. But he hopes to be back before the end of the year, although with the season proper ending in August it would seem unlikely he will be racing again any time soon. “I think the team is good with that, they say, ‘Just recover, there’s no rush to come back,’” he said. “Hopefully I’ll pull the BMC jersey on by the end of the year.”
BMC boss Jim Ochowicz said the team would press on regardless. “We all love the sport but it can be brutal at times like this,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are done. We’re not going to give up. We still have goals and we’ll fight on for the remaining two weeks.”
Ochowicz is right – it’s a scary sport. Porte was travelling at about 72kph when he came off but riders can get up to 100kph on really steep downhill stretches. Crashes are common enough in the mountains but are far more frequent in the helter-skelter bunch sprints at the stage finishes, when dozens of riders are jockeying for position at about 65 kph. Quite serious injuries occur often.
In the current tour, British star Mark Cavendish had to retire hurt when he hit a roadside barrier in just such a finishing melee late last week. Porte was far from the only one to suffer in the carnage of stage nine, with five riders in all forced to abandon the race. Britain’s Geraint Thomas, who was second in the general classification, was one of them, with a broken collarbone suffered in a crash on an earlier part of the stage.
Nobody is exempt from the risks. Cadel Evans banged himself up a few times, quite seriously once or twice, but was able to dust himself down every time and eventually went on to create history by becoming the first Australian to win Le Tour. Porte will no doubt be reminding himself of that. Another Australian superstar, Stuart O’Grady, has broken more bones than he cares to count and has seen the inside of several hospitals, while Tour regular Mick Rogers was another Aussie victim of the sport’s unforgiving dynamics.
The latest episode is already exerting pressure on the Tour organisers to be more aware of safety considerations when designing the route, which changes every year. Yes, there is an imperative to make the racing as challenging and spectacular as possible but there are limits. Nobody wants to see a stage end in the cemetery.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.