Rider safety is back in the spotlight at the Tour de France this evening, with Vaconsleil-DCM rider Johnny Hoogerland claiming “we can still be happy that we’re alive” after he was catapulted into a barbed wire fence when a French TV car veered into the path of Team Sky rider Juan Antonio Flecha and knocked him off his bike.
The incident took place 35km from the end of today’s 208km stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour, won by Rabobank’s Luis Leon Sanchez, who was in a five-strong escape group with Flecha and Hoogerland at the time and narrowly avoided also going down.
Race organisers ASO this evening threw the vehicle concerned off the race. On Wednesday, they had taken similar action after a motorbike had hooked the bike of Denmark’s Nikki Sorensen, the Saxo Bank rider luckily thrown clear as horrified riders yelled at the motorcycle’s rider to stop.
In a statement this evening, ASO said: “Following the accident which occurred at the 167 km mark... involving the riders Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland, vehicle Euro Media numbered 800 has been excluded from the Tour de France."
Race director Christian Prudhomme, quoted by AFP, said: “We announced on Radio Tour, which is the channel everyone should be listening to, that all cars should pull to the side and give priority to the team cars.”
He continued: "The car previously received the order from the race direction not to pass and let the Europcar team manager get through to the breakaway to give Thomas Voeckler the bottle he was asking for.
"They did not take that order into account... and caused the crash of both riders. This behaviour is intolerable."
Prudhomme concluded: "We want to apologise for this incident to the teams and the riders involved. Two accidents involving vehicles on the race is two accidents too many."
It remains to be seen whether the French authorities will take any further action against the driver of the car involved - race vehicles are not exempt from the law in France.
Speaking immediately after the stage, Dave Brailsford, Team Principal of Team Sky, said only: “Everyone's emotional now. We'll look at the situation tomorrow and we'll take the matter forward tomorrow."
But in a statement released afterwards, a spokesman for the British ProTeam said: “There is an inherent risk attached to professional cycling, and all teams recognise that racing crashes will, and do, happen.
"However today’s incident, that saw both Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland knocked from their bike by a media car should not have happened. We are speaking with the race organisers this evening and are confident they will take the appropriate action” – something ASO have clearly done.
“Given the injuries sustained by Juan Antonio to his elbow and knee, it is too early to say if he will continue in this year’s Tour de France. We will make an assessment tomorrow. ”
Hoogerland himself was emotional, tears running down his cheeks as he stood on the podium after being presented with the polka dot jersey, which he had lost to HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Garderen yesterday.
Although it was Flecha who was actually struck by the car, Hoogerland appeared to be hurt worse and suffered three deep gashes on his legs after being thrown into the barbed wire fence. Just how bad his injuries were, and indeed how lucky he was to escape even worse damage can be seen from this picture posted on Twitter by Cervelo boss Gerard Vroomen - it isn't for the faint hearted.
Reflecting on the crash, Hoogerland said: “I did what felt like a few somersaults. I don’t know where the car came from. Before I knew it, Flecha was on the ground and there was nothing I could do. I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, ‘Is this what cycling is about?’ “I have the polka-dot jersey but I’m going to spend the rest day in a lot of pain.”
“It’s horrible,” he continued. “I can blame everyone but I don’t think anyone does this sort of thing on purpose. I think the people in the car will have a very big guilty feeling and they will surely apologize to me and Flecha.
“Juan Antonio came to me and he apologised,” continued Hoogerland, although of course the Team Sky rider was entirely without fault in the incident.
“Nobody can be blamed for this,” continued the 28-year-old Dutchman. “It’s a horrible accident and I was in it. But I said to Flecha, ‘We’re still alive and Wouter Weylandt died in a crash,’ he added, referring to the Leopard Trek rider killed in a crash in the Giro d’Italia two months ago yesterday.
The thoughts of many people following today’s stage on TV must have drifted back to that black afternoon in Liguria today when Alexandre Vinoukourov’s Astana team mates were shown helping their badly injured team leader out of a ravine he had crashed into.
The same incident, which took place on a descent with around 100km of today’s stage still to go, also ended the race of Omega Pharma Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Frederik Willems as well as Garmin-Cervelo’s David Zabriskie, and followed several other riders abandoning as a result of earlier crashes on the stage.
Vinokourov, riding his last Tour de France, was reported to have broken his pelvis and femur and is understood to have been transported to hospital in Paris this evening. Van Den Broeck, fifth overall last year, appeared to have broken his collarbone, while Zabriskie’s team manager Jonathan Vaughters confirmed that the rider had fractured his wrist.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.