Last week I ended up at one of those after-hours pediatric offices. My 7-year-old Elliot took a nasty spill off his bike and ended up with cuts from his knee to his face, all of which were immediately bandaged. But around bedtime that evening, when we were changing the gauze, the scrape on Elliot’s knee looked a little too deep. I know that because I nearly passed out when I took a close look. So being the good father that I am, and looking for an excuse to take someone out for ice cream, off we went to pediatricians after dark.
Now, it should surprise no one that it turns out Elliot’s knee was just fine. No stitches, no experimental procedures. Simply a new Band-Aid. As a slightly overprotective parent, I perhaps overreacted to an abrasion that could best be termed “skin deep.” And, by the way, Elliot was wearing a helmet, which did reduce the greatest risk of serious injury. Regardless, this incident was a reminder that cycling is in fact a dangerous sport. One where participants – even casual ones like Elliot – can get hurt at any time.
You do not need to tell this Mark Cavendish. The British professional cyclists best known for his sprint finishes at the end of long races had a nasty wreck of his own at the end of yesterday’s Stage Four of the Tour de France. Sprinting towards the line after some 125 miles of racing, Cavendish was elbowed by fellow rider Peter Sagan, who like Cavendish was full speed towards the finish line some 200 meters away. And by full speed, I mean the kind of speed that would get you a ticket on anything outside a freeway. With Cavendish coming up Sagan’s right side in a small gap next to the temporary barricades, Sagan threw his elbow into Cavendish, pushing Cavendish into the barrier and, inevitably, a nasty tumble that looks like something out of Vin Diesel movie. Cavendish, who has the second most stage wins in Tour de France history, ended up with a dislocated shoulder and a trip back to Britain – and not on a bike. Such is the often disappointing work life of professional cyclists, where months of training can unravel in a simple chaotic moment.
Cavendish wouldn’t be the only cyclist to leave this year’s tour, however. For his part in causing the crash, Tour officials officially removed Peter Sagan from the race as well, specifically for endangering other cyclists in a sprint finish. It would be hard to disagree with that assessment, even if not the punishment itself. Despite its brute athleticism, cycling is a very nuanced sport, where both rules and norms keep packs of riders, known as the peloton, from devolving into chaos of flesh and carbon – even though that does still happen. It’s one part endurance sport, one part NASCAR, if cars raced down the side of the French Alps. And when athletes break the rules or the code, bad things can happen – like they did to Mark Cavendish yesterday.
But the question is, what is the relative value, or sanity of a sport that’s simply one elbow from potential carnage? For as bad as Cavendish’s wreck was, it could have been a whole lot worse. Football players, for all the talk of injury, are wearing body armor. Cyclists wear spandex. And, what should be the punishment for an athlete with a momentary lapse in judgement, if such reflex can cause severe bodily harm? And I’m being conservative.
These are quandaries for a handful of sporting pastimes, sports like cycling and race car driving, where someone’s safety is predicated on the full cooperation of the collective. That’s different than sports like, say, bull riding or cliff diving, where the activity itself is pretty much insane. The greatest risk in cycling isn’t the bike or the road – although my son Elliot may disagree – it’s each other. Humans, in all their competitive instinct and ambition. That’s a scary thought, if you dare to actually think about it.
Perhaps that’s why after the crash and before Cavendish went to the hospital, Sagan rode over to apologize to his fallen competitor. Cavendish noted that he still gets on well with Sagan, but he did want to know more about that elbow.
Officials from the Tour apparently needed no clarification. They booted Sagan quickly and with little discourse, a move that’s received both praise and criticism. I can see both sides. But what might feel like an overreach might simply be a recognition of the fine line between order and anarchy. For cycling and cyclists, that line can be destroyed by a simple elbow, a virtual no-call in most contact sports – those where participants aren’t going 50 miles an hour.
On a positive note, despite the dislocation, it does seem Mark Cavendish will be fine. But like my son Elliot, his crash was, both for him and the sport, a true cause for concern.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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